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On living in tribes

Theodor Herzl passed away in Europe at the young age of 44 in 1904. Known as the Father of the State of Israel, it would take another forty years for his dream to become realized. Born in Budapest to a secular family of German-speaking assimilated Jews, he became a journalist and as a Paris correspondent for an Austrian newspaper, was deeply affected by the Dreyfus Affair in which a Jewish French army captain was falsely convicted of espionage. Herzl became convinced that only through the creation of a Jewish State could Jews avoid antisemitism and live freely: “We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes. The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity.”


Herzl’s ideas caught the zeitgeist although this being a Jewish question, there were many people who disagreed, many different answers to how to proceed and many, many more questions. He set up the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 where he was elected President, which gave him the platform for diplomatic initiatives including with the Ottoman Sultan, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II and even Pope Pius X. When Herzl died in 1904, he was a well-known and celebrated figure in Jewish communities.


In those days there had already been a first Zionism wave of Jews making Aliyah, most of whom moved to Palestine from Eastern Europe or Yemen. They created several settlements including Rishon lezion, Rosh Pina, Zikhron Yaakov, as well as the first neighbourhoods of Tel Aviv, next to the ancient port of Jafo.


And it was to Jafo in 1904, that the young rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook – known as Rav Kook – would immigrate, where he would assume the rabbinical post. Not only was he responsible for Jafo, and its older community of religious Jews, but also for the new mostly secular Zionist agricultural settlements nearby. And when Theodor Herzl passed away and was buried in Austro-Hungary, he was mourned by those he had inspired in Palestine too, and Rav Kook was asked to lead a memorial service there for him.


Now this presented Rav Kook with a problem. Herzl was not religious, but avowedly secular. How could an Orthodox Rabbi eulogize someone who had lived quite so far from his traditions. In the Shulhan Arukh – the major Jewish law code – it is written: “whoever secedes from the way of the community, namely persons who throw off the yoke of commandments from upon their neck, and do not participate with the Jewish people in their observances, in honoring the festivals and in sitting in the synagogue and studyhouse, but rather are free to themselves as the other nations, and so too the apostates and informers - for none of these persons does one mourn. Rather, their brothers and other relatives wear white (festive garments) and eat and drink and make merry.”


Rav Kook – new in town, he had arrived in Jafo only two months earlier - and with religious laws to be upheld – was faced with a dilemma. Herzl was an assimilated Jew, completely unobservant of Jewish traditions. And yet – and here it helps to know what Herzl looks like, with his long beard and penetrating eyes – he was seen as nothing less than a modern-day prophet, the visionary of the time, im tirtzu eyn zo agada – famous for the phrase, if you want it, it’s not a dream. And those attending his memorial were precisely those who were living that dream and devoting their lives to the back-breaking, agricultural work of farming the land and making it flourish.


Despite his brief time in Jafo, Rav Kook knew his flock, and knew that it contained more religious people who would likely fire him for eulogizing a secular Jew, and less religious people who would doubtless lynch him for disrespecting their inspirational prophet and hero. And so he, with all the deftness and daring of a rabbi who would later become the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and be appointed the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, proceeded to give the most famous non-eulogy in history. By not mentioning Herzl and speaking only in generalities, but by talking clearly about Herzl and those whom he had inspired, he succeeded to unite his flock and save his own kopf. And how did the rabbi perform this miraculous feat – by mentioning tribes.


As Lexie has reminded us this morning, our people descends from twelve biblical tribes all descending from the same father, Jacob, whose name became Israel. They – and hence we – are literally the children of Israel. If you can come to me afterwards and name all twelve tribes, I’ll be impressed. Because somehow we know all the names and yet some tribes are more famous than others. In his speech for Herzl, Rav Kook concentrated on two: the tree of Judah and the tree of Joseph.


In beautiful, poetic language, Rav Kook wrote that Zionism could be symbolized as the footstep of the Messiah son of Joseph, which in Jewish eschatology finds its traditions alongside the better known Moshiach ben David, that the Messiah will be descend from King David. And these two bloodlines he compared to being of the “tree of Joseph” and the “tree of Judah”, two trees of secular and religious to be unified as the Jewish people. That is to say, he reminded those present of the role that Joseph – the brother, he of the multicoloured dreamcoat – the role that Joseph played in rescuing his brothers and his father from famine and ensuring the survival of their whole family. Joseph, who was so Egyptian by the time his brothers came to visit that they could not recognize him until he revealed himself to them, so secular and assimilated had “the tree of Joseph” become. And Judah-ists, from “the tree of Judah”, should not repeat their mistakes and abandon their brother, however wanton and far from Torah they find him. They – and hence we – should not expel each other for differences in beliefs, but rather recognize that in Jewish traditional itself, the Messiah will only be achieved by uniting both traditions.


As you know, I spent the last month in Israel, pretty much without leaving the confines of Rambam hospital in Haifa, where my baby son is continuing to be treated. A lot can happen in a month – the Eurovision Song Contest, the inability to form a coalition government, and most tragically rocket attacks from Gaza across the south of Israel, which claimed several lives. One of these was of a Bedouin man, Ziad Alhamada, who was killed in his home outside Ashkelon. The President of Israel, Reuben Rivlin, went to visit his family to express his condolences. And when he did so he expressed something important, that “all the tribes of Israel are together for better for worse, in hopes and in hardships. Regardless of the tribe to which we belong – haredi, secular, religious, traditional, Jews or Arabs – terrorism strikes without discrimination, without mercy, and we will never give in to it.”


It is this vision – that for all we live in our tribes – for all we do not talk to each other, and for all we focus on our differences between one another and not our common humanity – it is this vision that recognizes ultimately that our struggles and our challenges are one of the same – to survive and to thrive, to live and to love, and to be the people we want to be, the best versions of ourselves, not the fallbacks and imitations to which we sometimes become limited.


Lexie – your family is practically a tribe by itself, of course – but you are emerging as a Jewish adult today and will continue to do so. Be confident in who you are, and continue to reach for the heights and achieve them. Theodor Herzl and Rav Kook are two very different luminaries from a century ago, and both of them heroes in their own way. In our day we will find our own heroes, men and women who can find the ways not to divide us, but to unite us. The ideas of Herzl caught on because they united the people. And Rav Kook demonstrated how to reach out and build bridges between people, and to honour those who had different ways of living to his own. Lexie you have worked hard and you have achieved magnificently, may you continue to do so throughout your life, and take with you warm memories of your bat mitzvah this morning, surrounded by your family, community and friends, from the different tribes here in Singapore, who all wish you so much success and mazel tov. Mazel tov to the whole Cohen family and Shabbat shalom!




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