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Sermon: Parshat Vayeitzei, 12/6/19

12/08/2019 03:03:31 PM


Rabbi Charlie

In Genesis 28:14 God promises Jacob:

וְהָיָ֤ה זַרְעֲךָ֙ כַּעֲפַ֣ר הָאָ֔רֶץ

Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth

And we can ask: is that supposed to be a compliment? In the 13th century, Rabbeinu Bahya offers a fascinating and insightful commentary. He acknowledges the negative connotation - that dust is what people step on – reflecting our struggles throughout history, our diaspora experiences. He also explains that dust also rises from the ground to cover people – teaching that we’ll rise above our struggles.

Taking that idea a little further, the modern state of Israel is a reflection of the Jewish People rising from nothing but a hope. Our People gathered in our ancient homeland after being stepped on and trampled throughout history. We came to Ha-aretz, The Land after having collected dust from the four corners of the earth – Europe, the Middle East, North America, South America, Africa, Asia – the diversity of Judaism, all in one place. And it’s supposed to be for all of us, but Israel’s still a work in progress.

It’s not a surprise… so many Jews, there’s bound to be disagreements. And that’s why organizations like the Reform Movement’s IRAC, the Israeli Religious Action Center, are so important. I had a chance to hear Anat Hoffman speak to a group of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox clergy this past week in Dallas. Anat leads the IRAC and thanks to her and the small, but dedicated staff, they are helping to create an Israel that embodies democratic, Reform Jewish values.

What does that look like? It looks like three weddings and a statement. You see, right now in Israel, if you want to get married, it has to be an Orthodox wedding. That leaves a lot of people out. Some people want a Reform wedding. Some want a completely secular wedding. Interfaith couples are excluded. Same sex couples are excluded. One person grew up Jewish, but when he wanted to get married, he was told no. Why? Because his mom, who completed an Orthodox conversion in Romania was told that it didn’t count because she was deaf.

You see the issue… thousands of couples are excluded. That’s not reflective of our values. And ironically, if these couples get married in another country, their wedding is ok. It just can’t be done in Israel. So the IRAC worked with Reform, Conservative, and even Orthodox clergy in New York and Washington, DC. IRAC brought three excluded couples and the community put on the most beautiful weddings with over a thousand people in attendance. (There’s a great write up in the NY Times here:

The weddings were about the couples. They were also about dignity and equality. Those in attendance signed a statement urging the Israeli Prime Minister to grant freedom of choice in marriage and divorce in Israel.

In addition to this kind of advocacy, Anat Hoffman shared that most of their work is in the Israeli courts. She said that they were at the Supreme Court sixty times last year – more than once a week. They were successful at making sure racist parties were not able to run for Knesset, Israel’s parliament. It’s illegal in Israel to do so, but IRAC was the one to take it to court and prove that these groups were racist.

They were successful at making sure that El Al can no longer force women to move out of their seat just because they’re women. It’s not a woman’s fault that the airline seated her next to an Orthodox man. It has to do with the practice of niddah, where Orthodox Jews don’t touch people of the opposite sex. While we can respect the idea of this practice, the IRAC protested the idea that women should be penalized for something that’s not their fault. They won in court. Now, just as El Al is responsible for asking people to sign up for a kosher meal, it’s also their responsibility to help accommodate their Orthodox passengers without taking away the civil rights of anyone else.

From access to public pools to reforming public schools to supporting Jewish pluralism and more, the Israeli Religious Action Center is working to ensure Israel is a place that embodies what we understand to be Jewish, democratic values. They’re working to ensure that Israel is a place for all of us.

These are stories about Israel that we don’t necessarily hear about. If you’re looking for a way to support Israel, IRAC is a great way to do it. I strongly encourage you to check out their website and sign up for their newsletter at

Shabbat Shalom!

Thu, July 9 2020 17 Tammuz 5780