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Jewish Patriotism Parshas Chayei Sarah

I’d like to begin by acknowledging and thanking all the Veterans in this room. Words cannot convey the debt of gratitude that we have to those who have bravely protected us, allowing us to enjoy the freedoms that this great country stands for. Thank you.

I believe that Veterans are not only important for what they have done for this country but for what they represent. Because even as Americans disagree about more and more, even if we disagree about the necessity of this war or that one, when it comes to the people that fought, we unanimously acknowledge them and see them as an embodiment of the values that this country stands for.

That being the case, it’s a pity to see both sides of the NFL stand or kneel controversy using veterans as pawns in their debate, bringing a whole new meaning to a political football…  But I promised last week not to talk about politics, so instead, today, I’d like to speak about something else that veterans stand for and that is patriotism.

Throughout history our allegiance has been questioned by those we lived among. And the truth is, our allegiance to our host country is complicated. And so I’d like to explore some of the history and philosophy behind our relationship to the country we belong.

Jewish patriotism begins where Jewish nationalism ends. Approximately two thousand five hundred years ago, the Jewish People were forcibly kicked out of the land of Israel. The Babylonians razed the Temple Mount and left only the destitute Jews behind. When the Jews arrived in Babylon, many of them in chains, naked and hungry, they were given the strangest of instructions by their prophet, something I am sure they were shocked to hear – “Dirshu et shlom ha’ir asher higleiti etchem shama, seek out the peace of the city to which you were exiled, v’hitpal’lu ba’adah, and pray for its wellbeing.”

Unbelievable! They were being asked to pray for the Babylonians who just destroyed their temple and forcibly exiled a significant portion of the population?!

But the prophet explains why – “Ki bishloma yihyeh lachem shalom, in their peace you will find peace.” In other words, this is your new reality. You now live among other nations and that means that your lives are intertwined; in exile, we share not only a land, but a destiny.

And the Jewish People took this directive rather seriously. It gets repeated five hundred years later, by Chanina S’gan HaKohanim, a man who lived during the reign of Roman terror, ultimately, he was executed by the Romans. “Pray,” he encouraged his students, “for the wellbeing of the king.”

For almost two thousand years our loyalty was expressed through prayer alone. We didn’t really have the right to do much else. However, with the Enlightenment, as attitudes towards the Jewish People changed, we were invited or at least allowed to fight with the armies of our host nations. And so for example, when World War One broke out, it was the Jews who were often the fiercest nationalists of all. In a recently published book called A Deadly Legacy, Tim Grady lists numerous examples of German Jews, not assimilated Jews, but observant, practicing Jews, who saw the war against Russia as a holy religious war against tyranny. As countless Jews volunteered to fight, even the German Zionists – these were the ones encouraging emigration to Israel! claimed, and I quote “there is no difference between a Jew and a German.” Martin Buber, one of the most prominent Jewish philosophers, wrote during the war that, “Never has the concept of the Volk (which means ethnicity) been such a reality to me than during these last weeks.”

All of this, it would seem was an expression of the all-important directive by the prophet – “Ki bishloma yihyeh lachem shalom, in their peace you will find peace.” These are now your people; their destiny is your destiny.

But of course, this patriotism came with its own set of challenges. There is a well-known story of a battle that took place during the Crimean war. An Austrian soldier was engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat with a Russian soldier. Somehow, the Austrian managed to overpower the enemy and had the Russian pinned against the ground. He lifted his bayonet, was ready to strike, when the Russian soldier cried out, “Shma Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu…” The Austrian soldier stopped, put out his hand, and said, “Hashem Echad.” (Jewish Chronicle, February 13, 1885)

Yes, there is no shortage of chilling accounts of Jews fighting against Jews, during the Crimean War, during World War One. The Halachic authorities argued fiercely as to whether or not one is even allowed to do so. What does our allegiance to our country entail? How far does the directive of seeking out the peace of one’s country take us? How powerful is the rule of the land? (see Teshuvos Beis Dovid, 71, and Tel Talpiyos, 24:174)

Because of course this allegiance can go too far. Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen, chief rabbi of Dvinsk at the turn of the 20th century, and one of the leading rabbis of the early 20th century, decried the many German Jews who saw themselves as Germans through and through. He reminded them that this has been the course of Jewish history – over and over again. We come to a land, we settle in, and just as we get comfortable, the host nations spit us out. “Don’t allow Berlin to become your Jerusalem!” he wrote.

This was written in the 1920’s, just as the Jews of Germany were busy defending their allegiance to the Fatherland. They were printing pamphlets reminding the German people of the many Jews killed in battle. Berlin was their Jerusalem but of course the Germans did not see it that way.

This past week, we commemorated Kristallnacht, a day that reminds us that no matter how loyal and nationalistic we are, there are limitations to patriotism. Yes, we pray for the wellbeing of the state, but our hearts and our true home is Jerusalem. Not Berlin and not Baltimore.

 

So what does this mean practically to you and I, living in a country like the United States of America? To be honest, I’m not sure. Because thank G-d, this is a country that prides itself in its religious freedoms. Thank G-d, this is a country that we share more values with than probably any other. Thank G-d, this is a country in which there are currently no overt conflicts forcing us to choose between being a loyal Jew and a loyal American.

But I think it is, at the very least, an attitude, one that we are a little shy at times to verbalize, and that is, ger v’toshav anochi b’sochechem. Avraham, in this week’s parsha described himself as both a stranger and a resident; a guest and a local. That’s the most succinct way to summarize our strange and unique sense of belonging. We recognize on the one hand, that where we live is who we are, and that is both a fact as well as an obligation. But we also recognize, and sometimes we’re reminded by the locals themselves, that there is a part of us that does not belong.

Perhaps to put it differently: During an impasse in Middle East negotiations, Henry Kissinger said to Prime Minister Golda Meir, “Golda, you must remember, I am first an American, second, I am Secretary of State, and third I am a Jew.”

To which Golda Meir responded, “Henry, you forgot – that in Israel we read from left to right.”

Ger v’toshav anochi.

Wherever we find ourselves, and certainly, certainly, in this truly glorious country, we pledge allegiance to this flag, we defend it, we honor it, and we celebrate it; we take unbelievable pride in what this country has accomplished both at home and abroad and we are deeply and most especially grateful to those who served with bravery to defend this country and all that it stands for.

But at the very same time, Berlin is not Jerusalem. Jerusalem is Jerusalem. We are Americans, that is for sure. But we are first Jews, then Americans.

May G-d grant us this wisdom to strike the balance between being a ger and a toshav; a true patriot, but also a stranger.

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