Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Evening 5775




In the year 73 CE, 960 Jewish zealots died by their own hand at the remote desert fortress near the Dead Sea called Masada.

At some time during or before the assault by the Romans, one of these zealots entered an underground storeroom. He or she went in to retreive some dates. One of these may have fallen to a corner unnoticed.

Alternatively, this man, woman, or child may have been chewing on the succulent Judean date, and spit out the seed.

In any case, the seed remained in the storeroom, for two thousand years!

In the mid ’70’s, the 1970’s CE, the seed was discovered by an archeological expedition led by Professor Ehud Netzer. Netzer duly recorded the find from level 34. He later gave the seed to Professor Mordecai Kislef, Director of Botanical Archeology at Bar-Ilan University. Kislef cataloged the seed, and locked it a drawer, where it sat for the next thirty years.

In mid-2004, Kislef received a call from Dr. Sarah Sallon, Director of the Natural Medicine Research Center at Hadassah Hospital in Jersualem. Dr. Sallon had read about the seed, and wanted to see if it would grow. Kislef laughed. Nobody had ever cultivated a 2000-year-old seed.

During World War II the Nazis bombed London’s Natural History Museum. Water used to put out the fire germinated a 500 year old seed. Decades later that record was doubled in China, where a one thousand-year-old lotus seed was successfully cultivated. The Masada seed, dubbed Methuselah (after the oldest man in the Bible) was twice as old.

Sallon gave Methuselah to Dr. Elaine Solowey, a California raised horiculture expert based at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura in the southern Negev. Solowey first soaked the seed in hard water to soften the coat, then in a mild acid rich in hormones, then in a special nutrient rich fertilizer broth, and finally, on Tu Bishvat, the new year of trees, January of 2005, in potting soil.

Six weeks later, much to everyone’s astonishment, Methuselah germinated. By June it was apparent that Methusleh would live. The Israeli government issued a press release. The wire services picked up the tale. The New York Times ran a story.

The next year Methuselah grew a few feet tall, with a dozen leaves. Dr. Soloway reported that she didn’t know if Methuselah was male or female, and wouldn’t know until the sapling is fruit bearing. If it is a male, it’s basically useless. If it’s female, and bears fruit, we may learn the secret of the acclaimed Judean date, praised in the Psalms, and known throughout the ancient near east for its flavor and texture.

A snip from Methuselah was sent to a lab in Zurich, Switzerland. Radio carbon dating confirmed that the seed was 2000 years old, plus or minus 50 years. DNA testing of a leaf confirmed that it was indeed a Judean palm, which has been extinct since the Crusades. All 7000 of the palm trees that you see in Israel today are from imported stock.

As Dr. Sallon wrote to me in an email: “you never know if our little Methuselah may possess some really exciting unmodified genes that could even have agricultural potential… anyway, that’s the idea—a return to the genetically unmodified Garden of Eden.”

I’m sharing the story of Methuselah, first, because I simply find it fascinating. As many of you know, I love archeological stories. This is my first botanical archeology story.

I was so intrigued with the whole thing that when I led a congregational hiking trip to Israel and Jordan seven years ago we stopped at Kibbutz Keturah, and said hello to Dr. Soloway and Methuselah. I have a picture to prove it.

I wrote to Dr. Soloway this summer for an update. She told me that Methuselah is now a big boy—yes, he is a male. A bit disappointing. But he has some good pollen, which will be used to pollinate current stock that will produce seeds with half the ancient genome.

For me, my visit with Methuselah had an added layer of personal significance. I was a volunteer at Kibbutz Yahel, the newly established Reform Kibbutz, just down the road from Keturah, almost 35 years ago. I was assigned to work in the date groves. You could not help admire the towering date palms laden with fruit. I also learned a healthy respect for these trees. My lowly job was to crawl underneath the razor sharp leaves of the trees’ base to change clogged drip irrigation lines. I also helped plant the first dates trees for the second Reform kibbutz nearby. By the way, Kibbutz Yahel is also where I had my first date of another kind, named Debby.

But this story captivated me for yet another reason. Methuselah as metaphor. All the headlines in the newspapers ran: “Two Thousand-Year-Old Seed Comes to Life.”

This little seed, sprouting again after two millenia, is Israel herself.

Against all odds, a modern miracle arose in our ancient homeland. I am sorry I was not alive in May of 1948 to witness this miracle. The ingathering of the exiles, the revival of a Jewish state, the rebirth of Hebrew: is there a more astounding event in all of Jewish history?

This year we celebrated modern Israel’s 66th birthday—a blink of the eye for a nation-state. But look at israel today: the little seed that could, the miracle by the Mediterranean.

What a marvel and privilege, after twenty centuries, to be able to board an airplane and eleven hours later touch down in the holy land of a sovereign Jewish state.

As Daniel Gordis, an American Rabbi who made aliyah writes after witnessing a concert celebrating Jerusalem, during the height of the intifadah:

An amazing thing—thousands of people out to celebrate a city. And it struck me. This country is an unmitigated success. It’s an achievement of cosmic proportions.

Gordis goes on to list Israel’s problems, from the economy to discrimination to war. Then he says:

But tonight, the music and the dancing remind us that those… can be fixed. Not long ago, though, there were things we couldn’t change. Without our own country, there was nothing we could do to help ourselves, to save ourselves. This is not a population or a generation that will be scared into leaving or into despair. The hope of this place runs too deep… there’s a pulse to life here that cannot [be] killed. Who would’t want to live in a place where even concerts are miracles?

After the tragic summer Israel has experienced I want all the more to echo these sentiments. I won’t be talking about politics today, though the case could be made that I should. I just want to celbrate the miracle of Israel because we are inclined to forget it.

I am pained when I see fellow Jews who look at our “miracle by the Mediterranean,” and shrug.

I’m perplexed that the majority of American Jews have never visited Israel… but London and Paris, for sure.

Is columinist M.J. Rosenberg right when he says:

[for most American Jews there is not] antipathy to Israel, but apathy. For large numbers of Jews, perhaps most, Israel is no longer a source of joy. They don’t go there. They don’t much talk about it. Israel is simply not central to their lives.

So I supose since I don’t live in Israel any more, and don’t lead trips to Israel any more, the least I can do is talk about Israel!

I can urge you to send you children, and grandchildren, on birthright—what a blessing that is.

I can urge you to make a family visit—you will never forget it. [In fact, as I was finishing this sermon, Rabbi Milstein of Temple Sinai called me, inviting anyone from our congregation to join in a family trip at the end of December. They have 20 people but need more. It's during winter break and will be a great trip.]

I can urge you to help keep that precious seed alive by implanting love for Israel in heart and soul.

So back to seeds—the imagery and the metaphor:

In a lonely corner of Cairo’s famed Egyptian Museum, amidst a crowd of stunning antiquities, is an imposing six foot high black stone obelisk. A small, smudged marker identifies it as “The Merneptah Stele.” The date is exact: 1207 BCE.

One week after seeing Methuselah in Israel, I was fortunate to see the Merneptah Stele in person.

The Merneptah Stele is actually one of the most significant biblical archeological discoveries ever made. On that slab is a royal insciption boasting of the Pharaoh Merneptah’s military accomplishments. Among them is a line that read: "Israel is stripped bare, wholly lacking seed.”

This inscription is the first archeological evidence of the existence of Israel as a nation or people, outside the bible itself.

As many have noted over the years, in one of history’s most inspired ironies, the first declaration on the Jewish people is a death knell.

Well, we are still here. The Pharoah is not. And Methuselah is still growing. Halleluyah.

But now, as then, we have no shortage of detractors. We can ill afford apathy. Israel has too many enemies and not enough friends. The soil that nutures the seed is woefully thin. The seed is strong and tough, but fragile and tender, all at the same time. The seed has its own capable defenders, who are called sabras. Yet where would Israel be without its great ally, sometimes i think its only ally, the American people? And if we are not here to rally America, who will be?

From ancient seeds, new life has sprouted.

The Psalmist celebrates:

tzadik katamar yifrach:
the righteous shall fourish like a date-palm;
planted in the house of the lord;
May Methuselah; may Israel, continue to grow tall and beautiful, and full of fruit.

And to this we say, Amen.

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