Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon




SEPTEMBER 21, 2017

Rabbi Jon Adland

            As we do on every Rosh Hashanah morning, we read the Akedah—story of Abraham and Isaac going to the top of Mt. Moriah to the place God said to Abraham that God would show him as the spot to offer his son, his only son, as a sacrificial offering.  In this story, we listen to Isaac’s insightful questions as he tries to figure out what is going on with this journey and why his father needs a firestone and wood.  We read in the story about the servants waiting at the bottom of the mountain for Abraham and Isaac to return and then read that only Abraham comes back down the mountain. “19Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba; and Abraham stayed in Beer-sheba.” We wonder what actually happened to Isaac.  We feel, at least I do, Abraham’s angst about his mission and why God would ever ask of Abraham, or any of us for that matter, to ever do such a thing to our child.  We also note Sarah’s absence in the entire narrative. 

            Sarah’s absence has always troubled me.  I wrote about this several years ago in a High Holy Day sermon pondering her lack of voice or any woman’s voice in the Akedah.  Sarah doesn’t know what is happening.  Abraham didn’t say anything about God telling him to take their son to be a sacrificial offering.  Abraham didn’t say goodbye.  The text reads, “3So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him.”  In the next chapter, Gen. 23, Sarah dies.  Some speculation among commentators is that she died after learning what happened on Mt. Moriah with no evidence of what happened to her son Isaac.

            Mt. Moriah which is part of the centrality to this story became the site of the First Temple that King Solomon built after God denied this opportunity to King David.  The Second Temple was built on this site by the returning Jewish refugees from Babylonia, replacing the first one destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.  It was not a masterful piece of architecture, but served this community for hundreds of years until Herod replaced it with a magnificent work known to all the world.  This one didn’t last too long, less than 100 years, as in 70 CE the Romans destroyed it to squash the Jewish rebellion against Rome.  The Temple burned and some of its walls were toppled to the ground.  Mt Moriah is the site where Mohammed ascended to heaven in a dream thus linking Jerusalem to the emerging Islamic community.  Jews call it Har HaBayit—Mount of the House.  Muslims call it Haram esh-Sharif—The Noble Sanctuary.  The golden domed structure on the Temple Mount or Haram esh-Sharif is known as the Dome of the Rock.  The rock underneath this dome is the spot of the almost sacrifice of Isaac and the place of Mohammed’s dream.  It is holy to two of the three main monotheistic religions.

            All that is left from Herod’s magnificent structure is some of the retaining wall built to hold the fill dirt on which the Second Temple was constructed.  Though the Temple doesn’t exist, Jews have turned toward Jerusalem in prayer.  Very observant Jews pray that someday the Temple will be rebuilt.  Progressive Jews see the site as holy, but rebuilding the Temple as totally unnecessary as why do we need the Temple if we don’t need the sacrificial system.  Without the Temple existing, the holy spot, the stones, these massive stones of the retaining wall became holy to every Jew.

            There are drawings and photos of Jews coming to this wall in prayer.  Men and women standing together—no dividers, no fences, no rules, no prohibitions—just Jews beseeching God, leaving notes, praying for a better tomorrow.

            Things are different now at the Kotel, the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall.  Just like the moment when Abraham took his son to the top of Mt. Moriah without Sarah knowing, without a woman’s voice in the story, the Orthodox rabbinical group—The Western Wall Heritage Foundation—run by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz continues to try and shut out the voices of women at the site that is holy to all Jews, not just Orthodox Jewish men.  Yes, there is a male side and a female side—much smaller than the male side—but the activities that take place at the Kotel are determined by Rabbi Rabinowitz and his followers.  They have done everything possible to shut out women’s voices, progressive egalitarian prayer, and anything that doesn’t resemble the way they believe that prayer and worship should occur at the Kotel.  As I’ve said many times, I yearn for the day that Sandy and I can stand together at the Kotel.

            As many of you know, I am a supporter of the organization known as Nashot haKotel—Women of the Wall.  Their mission for nearly 30 years is to be given equal access to the Kotel so that they can pray as Jews in the manner of their tradition.  Every month on Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of a new Jewish month, they come to the Kotel to hold a service.  On Rosh Chodesh the Torah is read, the shofar is blown, and prayers are offered.  The problem is that Rabbi Rabinowitz doesn’t want them there.  They debase Judaism.  They are women and women don’t read from the Torah or sound a shofar or dance in circles singing joyous songs or celebrate a bat mitzvah who reads Torah.  Just like Sarah’s voice was not heard at the Akedah, these women too should have no voice.  They are marginalized, pushed away from the wall, forced to pray at the back of the plaza area, and, to top it all, abused physically and emotionally by Orthodox Jews who blow whistles to drown out their heretical prayers, spat upon by Orthodox Jews, and have watched their siddur torn into shreds by these same Jews. 


Nashot haKotel fought their battle for equal rights in the courts to be able to pray in the Jewish manner that they saw as suitable and fit.  They didn’t want to go to the men’s side, but to hold a service at the Wall, not in the back of the Kotel Plaza.  They were denied.  An egalitarian space was created for them and groups like ours when we come to Israel to the south of the Kotel, at Robinson’s Arch, but Nashot haKotel wants space at the spot where Jewish hearts and souls have turned for centuries, not marginalized away from the Kotel.

            A couple of years ago, Sarah’s voice, these women’s voices were finally heard and the Knesset said to Prime Minister Netanyahu—make it so.  Hopes were raised until they were dashed in January when Prime Minister Netanyahu said there was no agreement. Tom Friedman wrote this on July 12, a year and a half after Bibi caved, “In order not to risk his hold on power, Netanyahu bowed to the demands of the Orthodox parties and canceled a 2016 agreement to create a distinct egalitarian prayer space adjacent to the Western Wall of the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem — the holiest site of the Jewish faith — where men and women of the non-Orthodox movements could pray together. The Orthodox rabbis who control the Western Wall insist that men pray in one area and women in a separate, smaller area.”  Lesley Sachs, executive director of Women of the Wall, who visited us a couple of years ago, wrote the following email a few weeks ago:

Dear Sisters and Friends,

This morning, August 31st, the Israeli Supreme Court heard petitions of WOW and other progressive organizations regarding the Kotel Agreement and related issues.

Justices Naor, Meltzer and Danziger presided, demanding straight and to-the-point answers from petitioners’ advocates. The hearing lasted for almost two hours, and in the end, Chief Justice Naor ordered the State to either reinstate the Kotel Agreement or to explain why the Court legally cannot force the State to do so. It appears that the Court views the Kotel Agreement as the feasible solution and seeks solid legal backing to compel the State to implement the agreement.

WOW board members and supporters were among the 200 people present in the courtroom. Sitting in unity with WOW were 10 paratroopers who liberated the Kotel during the 1967 Six Day War.  

            A week before this Supreme Court decision, this happened and I quote, “Four women from Hebrew Union College say they were “strip searched” by security before they were allowed into the Western Wall Plaza, an incident one group called “an intimidation tactic” — but some officials maintain the women were trying to smuggle items into the plaza.”        

This is unacceptable behavior by this government or any government.  The fallout from the January decision and this action forced the Jewish diaspora to call into question the motives and actions of the Israeli government.  Let me state this unequivocally—I love Israel.  I admire what our people created in this tiny part of the world surrounded by enemies.  But my love has limits which force me to be critical of Israel and Israel’s government when necessary.  Let me also say that I have serious reservations about Jewish Voices for Peace which criticizes Israel’s treatment and relationships with the Palestinians in an unfair, unbalanced and blind way.  They, like the BDS—Boycott, Divest, Sanction—aren’t willing to hold the Palestinians or the Arab world responsible at all for the matzav—the situation—in Israel.  These groups only want to hurt Israel while I believe that people like me want Israel to take a serious look at her own policies and to try and make Israel a better place for all.  Maybe I am splitting hairs, but my criticism of Israel comes from a loving relative while JVP and BDS seek to punish Israel without holding others responsible.

Nashot haKotel is a solvable problem in Israel, but it is a solution hard to achieve in this coalition parliamentary system where the few can dismantle what is best for the greater good.  Yes, Israel needs to solve this 50-year standoff with the Arab world and create two states side by side.  Yes, Hamas needs to focus on its own Gaza Strip needs instead of rearming to attack Israel’s southern territory.  Yes, the leadership on the West Bank needs to care more about its own citizens instead of celebrating those who attack and kill Israelis. 

Yes, it is okay to love Israel and be critical.  It is why I continue to lead trips to Israel with the next one in October 2018 especially designed for those who have been before.  I want people to get off the plane and feel like they are home in the land of our ancestors.  It is a Biblical land.  It is the land where we tried to stand against the Romans.  It is a land of many religions who have tried to make it theirs, but the Jews felt closer and more connected than any of them.  Now we share the land with Israeli Muslims and Israeli Christians.  It is a land of incredible technology in the area of computers and medical research.  Your phone wouldn’t work without Israeli technology.  Israel medical research is on the cutting edge in cancer research, marijuana medical research, and so much more.  It is a land of the most Orthodox of Jews and gay pride marches in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  This is a land where many peoples of many faiths from many countries with many ideas come together and call home.

            I am critical of how our Israeli government treats the Palestinians in seizing homes, demolishing homes, the terrible backup at check points for Palestinians to get to work.  At the same time, security has been and is Israel’s #1 priority.  Balancing the two is difficult, but Judaism demands compassion and tolerance and we can never let this go or what Israel means to many of us will be lost.  I want Israel to survive, live, prosper, lead, be “or l’goyim—a light to the nations.”  I want Israel to protect civil rights for all its citizens and those living under its control.  I want the Orthodox community to participate in the life of the State, but I want women, lgbtq, progressive Jews, secular Jews, and others to be guaranteed their rights as well.  This is a tough balancing act for a nation of 7,000,000 people and 7,000,001 opinions.  Compromise, tolerance, compassion, caring, love and more can be the heart and soul of Israel, but it won’t happen when everyone believes that their way is the right way and the one way.

            There is a 13th Century Crusader map that places Jerusalem in the center of three large ovals representing the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa.  Centuries earlier Midrash Tanhuma wrote, “The sages of Israel proclaimed: The Land of Israel is the center of the world.  Jerusalem is the center of the Land of Israel.” Everything goes back to the rock at the top of the mountain we call Moriah.  This rock is at the center of the mountain and the mountain is at the center of the world.  Our hearts turn toward Jerusalem in our prayers and the world places its soul on the land of Israel.  This is why Nashot haKotel—Sarah’s voice handed down to all of the Jewish mothers and daughters to today—is so important.  All of us should have a seat at the table and a place at the Wall.  All of us are B’nei Yisrael—the children of Israel.  We are a part of what happens in Israel today.  We all have a voice, but not a vote.  We can applaud and criticize, urge and nudge Israel to find and hold its moral voice.  I want this for me, for Sandy, Rachel and Karen, for Josh and Evan, for all of us, for every Jew who stood at Sinai and those who came after.  I love Israel and, like all of us, she can always do better.  May Israel continue to shine in our hearts and open its arms to all of us.

Kein yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will.