As we begin the month of Av and the book/Torah portion of Devarim (literally, “words”) this week, we see the entire nation gathering to hear Moshe’s powerful parting speech to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. As we read through these portions in coming weeks, we will feel Moshe’s anxiety, that the people and their new leaders carry out the laws and values enshrined in the Torah. Moshe hopes that a divided and stubborn people will, through his powerful oratory, unite through faith and a sense of mitzvah – obligation.
Yesterday, as I sat in the House of Representatives for a joint session of the United States Congress to welcome the President of Israel, Isaac Herzog, I also experienced the power of “devarim – words.” It was a speech that brought people together by reminding us of the bedrock Jewish and human values of freedom, democracy, and human dignity that should unite us. On the floor of the House were Republican and Democratic lawmakers who are so deeply divided. In the gallery were representatives of myriad approaches to Jewish life in America and to Israel and Zionism. Yet President Herzog’s powerful words brought us all to a standing ovation dozens of times.
Personally, I cannot express the power of the experience. Only a week before, I traveled to southern Germany to visit my father’s ancestral town, Buttenhausen (about an hour outside Stuttgart). In this tiny town Jews and Christians, usually about equal in population, co-existed for over 150 years. Jewish and Christian homes were interspersed among one another. Nestled in a valley, the church and Christian cemetery stood on one hill, and the synagogue and Jewish cemetery directly opposite. Yet as the Nazis came to power, and while some residents tried to help, the Christians turned against the Jewish population (or at best stood by). The synagogue was burned on the day after Kristallnacht (after a few tried to save it), and the dozens of Jews still remaining by 1941 were eventually deported and murdered.
From that space of persecution and powerlessness, I ascended Capitol Hill to the halls of Congress to celebrate 75 years of Israeli sovereignty and its enduring friendship with the people and government of the United States.
President Herzog’s most important message was to express gratitude for the unique bond that unites Israel and the United States as allies and friends. He stressed that the relationship is a two-way street – that we provide security for one another. That we share common challenges, and help each other be our best selves. He celebrated democracy and freedom, citing President Harry S. Truman as the first world leader to recognize the Jewish State (as he pointed to his grandson, sitting right in front of me), and quoting from our movement’s beloved teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, z”l, as his daughter Susannah sat just a few seats to my left.
He was direct in his plea that democracy is not just about the “will of the people,” but also how the government preserves individual rights and protects minorities from discrimination. And no less than three times, he emphasized that a strong democracy requires an independent judiciary. He reiterated the challenge that Iran poses not just to Israel, but to the entire world, through its support of terrorism and its nuclear ambitions.
To be sure, as head of state rather than the head of government, he avoided topics that divide both Israelis and so much of the Jewish world – settlements in the territories, the pursuit of a just solution for the Palestinian people, and growing religious intolerance, just to name a few.
However, it was a historic moment for coming together. President Herzog concluded by talking about hope, quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, who makes the claim that while optimism is the passive expectation that things will improve, hope is about the confidence in our own ability to improve the world. Standing and sitting – more than at any Kol Nidre service I’ve ever attended – in unison, for the sake of a strong, democratic, pluralistic, and inspiring State of Israel, moved me towards more hope than I’ve felt in a long time.
Malbim comments on the term used in Devarim 1:5, where the Torah says that Moshe is set to “expound – באר” on the Torah. He says that in his anxiety that he will not be there to lead the people as they enter the land, Moshe’s goal is to “make the Torah’s message absolutely clear,” and details he had held back previously because the people weren’t ready to hear them. Sometimes, in the face of challenge and strife, we lose sight of the clarity of purpose that inspires hope. President Herzog’s talk, and the response of the lawmakers and onlookers, was a reminder of Israel’s blessing and potential – a beacon of democracy, an expression of the best of Jewish values, and a source of strength, pride, and inspiration for Jews and the world at large.
With profound gratitude, I was proud to represent our organizations and our movement for this historic occasion.