I am currently sitting on a plane on my way to Israel to join a group of UK based rabbis for a solidarity mission and I find myself filled with emotion. I have travelled to Israel many times before. I have been on rabbis’ trips before but this feels like an experience I have never had in my life.
Some have wondered (explicitly or otherwise) what the point of this trip is – what will a group of rabbis add to a country that is fighting a war? Will it make any difference to the communities in the UK if their rabbis spend a few days in Israel? To me the answer is clear – I feel that this mission is crucial, not just for me as an individual but as an emissary of our community. Let me begin by explaining why I think “mission” is the best way to describe my visit.
The parshiyot we are reading at the moment centre around the formation of the Jewish people – the journey from a family to a nation of slaves to a nation of free people and ultimately, in Parshat Yitro, to a nation committed to a unique destiny and mission in the service of Hashem. When we stood at Mt Sinai and said נעשה ונשמע it was a seminal moment where we pledged our commitment, through thick and thin, to each other and to our Creator.
The Jewish mission has never been easy – it requires sacrifice, it requires dedication, it requires us to believe in things that may not be popular – but it is and always has been an immense privilege.
Since our forefather Avraham, Israel has been an integral part of the Jewish mission. Yet in the past 75 years it has become even more central to who we are. Whilst it was possible to live as a Jew in 18th Century Poland or 15th Century Spain and have Israel be mostly irrelevant to your life, for a Jew in the 21st Century, wherever you live in the world, like it or not, Israel is a part of who you are.
What happened on Simchat Torah 5784 in the south of Israel did not happen only to those living there – it happened to all of us. That was clear to most of us from the very beginning but the world has made it even clearer in the 108 days since. It was a moment that has left us reeling in pain, a moment that made it clear how alone we are in this world and, as a result, a moment that reminded us how much we as Jews are one, indivisible unit.
Over the past few months I have felt the immortal words of Yehuda HaLevi more poignantly than ever before – לבי במזרח ואני בסוף מערב – my heart is in the East but I am all the way to the West. I know that I have family in Israel, I follow events in Israel closely, three times a day I pray towards Israel, but I also have never felt more distant and disconnected.
That is my primary mission this week – to reconnect, and to hopefully help others to connect, to our beating heart in the East. It will not be easy – there will be things I would hope never to see or to hear. It will be challenging – as much as we have come together, Israeli society has a long way to go to heal its wounds, both those caused by Hamas and Hezbollah as well as the ones we have inflicted on ourselves for decades. But it is also a privilege and there are many reasons to be thankful.
I remember hearing the story of a teacher of mine who moved to Israel in 1967 in the months leading up to what would become the Six Day War. He went to say goodbye to his teacher, Rabbi Soloveitchik whose son was in Israel at the time. Rabbi Soloveitchik asked his student to tell his son that he loved him – he was not sure he would ever see him again. Israel’s existence was in grave danger.
Today, I am travelling to what is portrayed to the world as a war-torn country, yet fear is the one emotion I do not feel. It would be foolish to pretend that the risk is not higher but we must also appreciate how blessed we are that Israel’s military is strong and that much of the country is as open to me as it ever was. Though it comes at great cost in so many soldiers we have lost, we are strong, and I am grateful.
So I feel determined, I feel emotional, I feel sadness and I feel blessed. But most of all I am coming to feel hopeful. To see not only what has happened but how our amazing nation is going to come through the other side of this. To remind myself and all of us that we can and will be victorious. At Neilah this year, just a week and a half before the terrible events of Simchat Torah, I spoke about hope – קוה אל ה’ חזק ויאמץ לבך וקוה אל ה’ – hope in God, strengthen and make brave your heart and hope in God. Alongside the efforts we all put into life, the final crucial element is our turning to Hashem and asking for just a little more and that has always been a hallmark of Israel. As Rabbi Sacks would say, Israel is the Home of Hope.
I would like to help you join me on this journey of hope to bring us all a little closer to the heart of our nation.