Once again, Shana Tova. I read an interesting book this past summer, it was titled “the Clockwork Universe” and it captured the lives of such noted visionaries as Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys and Johannes Kepler, thinkers and tinkers who were part of a revolutionary group known as  the Royal Society of London which combined the best of religious belief and rigorous scientific experimentation to envision a universe that ran like clockwork –it is a credit to their discipline and methodology that most of their theories and conclusions are still in practice to this day. Sandwiched between the Reformation and the Dawn of the Enlightenment these great minds revolutionized the way the world would approach astronomy, mathematics and even philosophy and theology, helping to usher in the modern age.  We have these great minds to thank for calculus, modern astronomy, and the law of gravity amongst other discoveries. I contrast their accomplishments, and conviction, with some of what I see unfolding in the Middle East today, and I cannot help but be dismayed at the utter contrast.  While these thinkers of the Western world sought to create, and innovate, to answer some of life’s most perplexing and probing questions, reconciling God with scientific logic, the Arab world seems hell bent on tearing the world apart, burning down institutions and killing and destroying anyone and anything which stands in their way or even somewhat challenges their belief system!  In truth, few in the Western world (or the rest of the world) had even heard of this obscure film which reportedly mocks their Prophet Mohammed, but now the world knows.  To us it would seem far more of an insult to Mohammed’s legacy when you view the craven violence and wanton destruction that currently inflames the Middle East in reaction to the video itself, but in the Muslim world today simple logic rarely seems to apply and unfortunately takes a back seat to the use of force and intolerance. The practical pioneers back in the 17th century who created a system and discipline that we in the modern world still benefit from were intent on instilling order from chaos.  However in the Arab world it seems the exact opposite today, leaving one with the sobering fear that this so called Arab spring could end in a nuclear winter if we are not careful. 

Now amongst this sea of uncertainty stands our Jewish homeland, the modern state of Israel, a country that despite all odds is thriving economically and militarily, a beacon for democracy amidst the political and intellectual desert that frames much of the Middle East landscape today.  If only the Arab countries that surround us, and the Palestinian territories included would seek to copy our infrastructure, our sense of equality and democracy, and our vibrant economy and cutting edge technology. “Israel is an example of a country that succeeds because they emphasize science and engineering.  For a small country, Israel will have an oversized impact on the evolution of the next stage of the technology we all use.” (Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google) unfortunately it seems as if most of our regional neighbors would rather point the finger, blame the United States and Israel for their current predicament, and turn inward only to reflect on the Qu’ran while striving to import weapons of mass destruction and export terrorism. In truth we have always known threats and challenges to our safety and long term security in our all too short history, but I would also be disingenuous if I did not concede that right now the threats and dangers seem more concentrated, immediate, and all too real.

 Today, on this second day of the year 5773, I would like to review with you the external and regional challenges that Israel now faces, on the political, military and religious fronts.  First things first: the Palestinian bid for statehood, a bit of posturing on behalf of the PA Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas that is already a year old but confounding nonetheless.  It displays the lengths that the Palestinians will go to in order to manipulate both the U.N. and world opinion while making an end run around both the United States and Israel which have, with a great degree of difficulty and unfortunately limited success, tried to negotiate peace with the Palestinians for a generation now.  There are those out there, some of whom are very well informed on the subject, that state it could easily take another generation, if not more, of protracted negotiations and concessions before we ever see a formal peace normalized with the Palestinians.  And I believe there are many here in this room who would say “why should we even strive for that? Why should it matter? The Palestinians have proven themselves time and time again to be inconsistent and unreliable partners when it comes to initiating peace, and at worst, a people that when given the chance, will push for our eradication and have shown their true colors when electing Hamas to govern in the Gaza Strip.  I would in part be inclined to agree with you;  I heard Dennis Ross speak recently at an AIPAC gathering for Rabbis and it was his assessment that most Israelis are so disillusioned by the failed peace process that they believe the Palestinians never truly believed in or honestly advocated for a two state solution to begin with. What they really strove for all along was one Palestinian state and then a bi-national state right next to it. If this happened it would mean an end to the Jewish state as we know it! On the other hand, in trying to sound positive, and others would say naïve, we also have to remember that we were once very close to negotiating a two state solution –and the eventual reality as I see  it is that we will at some point have to attempt and strive to do it again –in part because unlike the other regional threats we face the Palestinian issue is one that is internal and it is daily –it is not going to go away try as we might to wish it away and we cannot simply react to it by force –sweeping the problem away.  That is simply not a solution --that is what our enemies have done, and would do, to us, and we are Jews –we are better than that –we have to be better than that!   As I mentioned just yesterday, part of what we are meant to experience, meant to engage in, is the process of t’shuva –which involves change, it is never easy –it is never meant to be easy.  It often entails giving up or losing certain things.  In the years ahead Israel will be faced with some tough choices and some tough decisions as we all will! Israel is our homeland!  Of course it will not impact us as directly since we live here, and not there.  We don’t send our kids off to serve in the military once they graduate high school (something I think too many of us take for granted each and every spring)  Regardless, looking in from the outside I would have to say that for me, the biggest deal breaker and the one issue that has to be taken off the table at all costs is not the issue of more settlements or even what happens with parts of East Jerusalem, but the Palestinian claim on the right of return.  We can never concede on that! It would prove to be our biggest and most costly sacrifice and would eventually lead to the overall loss of a Jewish state.  You must remember that the Palestinians insist so much on the Right of Return because time is on their side demographically.  If they were guaranteed the right of return for any significant number of Palestinian refugees who currently live outside of Israel proper to settle within the borders of our Jewish state –which would mean Palestinians currently living in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, some of whom have never even set foot in Israel or at best not lived there since the 1940’s, swarming en masse into not Gaza or the West Bank but Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv, the Negev, the Galilee, the Golan, and then potentially having children, and more children, within a generation or two Jews would cease to be the majority –in a country that was founded with a U.N. charter under the very principle, that there needs to be a homeland for the Jews! This would not only change the very character of Israel, it would change its ultimate reality. And that is why we can never concede on this one point in the end. And if the Palestinians are truly sincere about peace they should be willing to concede on this point as well.  Let any Palestinian refugee who wants be allowed to come in and settle in Gaza, or parts of the West Bank, but what would be the point of letting them come into Israel –a land we have cultivated and developed to an inspirational extent in the past half century.  I certainly cannot go to Eastern Europe and claim parts of the village that my grandparents once lived in before they were forced off by the Cossacks or carried off by the Nazis, and I wouldn’t expect to.  So if you hear issues of the “Right of Return” being bandied around by presidents, presidential candidates, and even Prime Ministers over this next year, remember that it is not a concession we can ever afford to make.

We also of course face external threats that surround Israel’s borders.  Egypt and Turkey used to be countries that we could rely on.  They possessed some degree of stability and reliability and now of course they represent wild cards as their respective rulers, Mohammed Morsi and Tayeb Erdogan seem guided by religious impulses and represent parties that flirt with Islamic fundamentalism, it is a major sea change from what we had in the past –Egypt and Turkey were staunchly secular, and while they were not exactly democracies –certainly not in the way that Israel or America is, they were overseen by the military which had always been closely aligned with the West and Israel.  And that is not the case anymore.  All the top military brass in those two countries, the ones that used to cooperate with Israel and share intelligence with the U.S. have either been fired or in some cases jailed.  That is in no way a good thing –it means we don’t know what is going to be coming out of those countries anymore.  We don’t know who or what we are dealing with and who we can rely on anymore.  And as far as Syria is concerned –well, Syria never really liked us;  not when it was ruled with an iron fist by Hafez Al Assad, or in the past dozen years by his feckless son Bashir, but at least we knew what to expect and who and what we were dealing with.  Now the whole country is a wild card.  And who will win out in the end? A fundamentalist Muslim group, similar to the Brotherhood who currently rules in Egypt, or even worse, an Al Qeda type of spin off group who is recently purported to be supplying guns and logistics in the region? Or perhaps the country will descend into a decades long civil war the likes of which plagued Lebanon and helped spawn the birth of violent terrorist organizations such as Hizballah in the region and usher in the age of suicide bombers? A year ago I never thought there would still be fighting in Syria without some clear resolution or permanent cease-fire enacted, but this is the Middle East, where normal rules don’t apply, authoritarian despots refuse to transfer power honorably and diplomacy takes a backseat to force.  As Leon Wieseltier, editor of the New Republic remarked recently when I heard him speak: “democracy is not an event, it is an era, and it involves exchanging one political culture for another, which means it is often gut wrenching and violent. It takes form in fits and starts, setbacks, turbulence and challenges, and it is seldom smooth.”  Any birthing process involves a certain amount of pain, and what works for us in the West may not work everywhere else, and certainly not in the same way.  All we could do is wait it out and see.  Our previous relationship with Syrian rulers was certainly no picnic, so there is always hope things can improve, but at the very least we have to expect a bumpy ride from the outset.

This brings me to the very last threat to Israel and that is Iran, perhaps the most dangerous and irrational player of them all!  It is no secret that Iran has been trying for several years now to acquire nuclear weapons.  What is more scary, besides the fact that their leadership has expressed the goal of wiping Israel off the map, is the notion that they could be perilously close to realizing their dream! The International Atomic Energy Agency released a report that states “Iran (has) almost doubled its stockpile of 20-percent medium-enriched uranium to 145 kilograms from 73.7 kilograms..” Now what does that all mean? Simply put: enrichment at that very level represents 80% of the work needed to produce fissile material for the core of an actual nuclear weapon –and that report was issued almost a year ago!!! Now we all know that tremendous sanctions have been levied against Iran in the past several months, and while the sanctions have had the effect of slowing down the process of producing weapons grade uranium, it has not stopped them from their pursuits at all!  If anything the sanctions, while making life exceedingly hard for the ordinary Iranians, has only emboldened the hard liners to keep up their quest because reliance on sanctions by the western powers has bought them much needed time.  Now what is the alternative?  Can we successfully carry out an aerial assault and bomb their nuclear facilities at Qoms and more to the point would that even be possible, or simply advisable?  Some worry that not only does Israel not possess the heavy duty bunker busting bombs necessary for the full scale attack, but that even if they were to borrow them from the U.S. Israel does not possess the necessary large scale run ways for the planes to properly be able to take off (remember this is a country roughly the size of New Jersey) others, even in the Israeli intelligence community, worry that any full scale attack on nuclear sites would not cause any long lasting or significant damage to the facilities the way it did with Iraq back in ’81, and that at best we would merely set back their nuclear program a few more months –leaving them time to rally their people and vilify Israel to the world as an aggressor, rationalizing all the more so that they now need nuclear capabilities as a “proper deterrent” in order to  offset the threat Israel poses! And of course, I don’t need to remind you that oil prices would go through the roof!  And what could be the threat of not attacking? Some say that if we allow Iran to forge ahead, it will compel the other middle eastern nations: Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, to race to procure nuclear weapons as well and Nuclear non-proliferation as we know it will go out the window –and at this point can we ever trust any Arab nation with a nuclear weapon?  There are those that are of opinion that any retaliation by Iran if we were to attack could be devastating, they would unleash Hizballah in Lebanon and go after “soft targets” throughout the Jewish world (even here)still others posit that an attack by us to destabilize the Iranian regime is exactly what the citizens of Iran need right now, that the rest of the Arab world would secretly applaud and that we could weather any attempted Iranian response.  I can’t tell you for certain what would happen or what we should do – I can preach about the future but not predict it, although I did hear David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy state his opinion that there is at least a 50% chance that Israel would attack prior to the U.S.elections.  And just last week (or last year, if you look at it from the Jewish perspective of time!) you heard Prime Minister Netanyahu speak of a “redline” which is code for a strategic and military deadline. You have to remember for a moment that if you are in Netanyahu’s shoes, you are probably thinking along the lines of “when is the very last chance I have to effect an outcome” because Israel may not want to have to wait for America –why would or should they? It may not be a matter of not trusting America, it is a matter of not wanting to be dependent on America.  Either way, whatever we do or decide, I think you will all agree that Iran has to believe and feel that the threat of an attack is real, they cannot receive mixed messages from the White House or any of the major superpowers for that matter, otherwise, they can continue to play us and prey on us indefinitely, or worse, until they have their nuclear arsenal completed –and who wants to face that reality in the year ahead? No one should!

            This morning, as is the custom for the second day of the New Year, we read in the Torah the section known as the “Akedah” or the binding, and near sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s son and the heir apparent to the potential Jewish nation!  I have often speculated why we read that particular piece from the Torah on the second day of the year, and like most things in our tradition I believe that there is a multitude of reasons, but today one stands out for me: because as a people we are always at risk, it is almost as if our life perpetually hangs in the balance, not just with Isaac on Mt Moriah, or on the New Year, but all the time, throughout history, in Rome, in Russia, in Jerusalem and Germany, Munich and Mumbai. And yet we survive! We survive because we are meant to, and perhaps because it is part of God’s plan, because the world needs us.  Abraham’s knife could have slashed into Isaac’s neck at the very instant he intended it to, but it didn’t –God stayed his hand!  Just as Abraham learned the emotional lesson of how Judaism would be a religion in which we explicitly don’t sacrifice our children –other religions, peoples and cultures would do that –even today the Muslims extremists amongst the Sunnis and Shiites glorify in this sort of outrage, but we don’t because we take the lesson to heart, -we don’t promote death –we celebrate life! As Golda Meir once stated: “peace will come when the Arabs learn to love their children more than they hate us.”  Many of us heard Cong. Steve Israel preach here this past Shabbat about the need for a reformation in the Arab world, but in truth, I don’t know when or how a religious reformation, or a philosophical enlightenment will ever successfully sweep the Arab world as it did in Europe and changed the way Christianity and Judaism is preached and practiced, but that simple observation from our only female Prime Minister would be the first major step in the right direction! And above all else, we must believe in the resilience of the Jewish people, we survived our first near death experience on Mt. Moriah, we survived the Holocaust, and we can survive, and probably even thrive, today.  In our own country both presidential candidates have addressed the importance of Israel’s security and the importance of the U.S./Israeli bond in their convention speeches and that is because the major political parties compete for our favor!  We have come a long way and God willing we should go even further in the years ahead! In the end, we need to love life and revel in its positive effects and all the potential it brings, more than our enemies love death and pursue violence and martyrdom.  If we can accomplish that over time, although it isn’t, and it can’t be easy, but if we remember not to give into despair, than we truly can persevere. Shana tova and may it be a year of love, health, learning and life for us and all Jews the world over! Am Yisrael Chai! May Israel live on!!