Thoughts on Yom Kippur – Our Accountability as Individuals for the Wrongdoings of Our People

Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, has been always the most important Jewish holiday, the essence of what we are expected to do and then compare year after year with our actual behavior, and reflect about the gap between wish and implementation, between percepts and reality. I mean that the accountability starts with us as individuals, but we are also mandated to take responsibility of the doings or wrongdoings of our people, collective social responsibility and then check ourselves to what extent did we try to repair the damage done by us as a collective, be it in the Diaspora and/or Israel, and for many of us by the entire world, what has been phrased in our texts as TIKKUN OLAM (Repairing the World). May be subjectively, this year seems for me to be a dramatic deterioration from our norms, hence the urge to share with you my own considerations leading to such conclusions.

Knowing that my words will reach a large audience, no doubt, was an incentive for putting my thoughts together. During these last days of trepidation, the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe), the assumption is in Rosh Hashana the Gates of Heaven open to receive our petitions. And, on Yom Kippur – a day we should fill with fasting and the solemnity of prayer — in the final moments of Neilah (the closing service of Yom Kippur), those gates will close as we pray that all will be sealed in the Book of Life.

As we say in Hebrew “mekol melamdai hiskkalti”- I have been enlightened by all my teachers. Among them Rabbi Gerry Serotta [founding chair of Rabbis for Human Rights- USA) and Rabbi Arik Asherman ( Director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel] have inspired me in the text that I have been keen to share with others.

Over the years, such vidui [acknowledgment or confession] or drasha [speech to the congregation, sermon] was delivered mostly to student audiences and their families in Hillel’s (Jewish student campus groups) at the University of Maryland. Being just a new arrival to the University of Oregon, I missed the opportunity to do so in Eugene. So, since this endeavor is for me a last minute mitzvah, a good deed to get a better balance before being judged in Yom Kippur, I have selected you to be my audience. Hope you don’t mind and if you read it and reflect this will double my mitzvoth and hopefully yours. So, let me summarize what I have picked up to be top lessons that are relevant to my introspection. The text is also in an attachment:

1) Since our Bar/Bat Mitzvah we are considered capable to understand and fulfill 613 mitzvoth [good deeds]. A long list to remember, how can we prioritize? In Yom Kippur we are more severely judged from the transgressions made by each of us towards the “Other”. Fulfilling the rituals honoring God is less important than behavior towards other human beings. Ritual often thanks God and request his/her pardon. But prophets tell us that since no clear evidence can be provided of such act, the most important set of mitzvoth is from “adam lehavero”, from oneself to your neighbor. According to the Talmud, Hillel the Elder reply to a provocative question how can one learn the Bible standing on one leg was: “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — [and now] go study.”

2) We are expected not only to ask for forgiveness but also to request to be pardoned by the Other. As long as such pardon is not granted, we need to continue seeking it, through deeds and gestures.

In Isaiah Chapter 58:14 [translation was taken from the JPS Tanakh]

    5 Is such the fast I desire,
    A day for men to starve their bodies?
    Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
    And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
    Do you call that a fast,
    A day when the Lord is favorable?
    6 No, this is the fast I desire:
    To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
    And untie the cords of the yoke
    To let the oppressed go free;
    To break off every yoke.
    7 It is to share your bread with the hungry,
    And to take the wretched poor into your home;
    When you see the naked, to clothe him,
    And not to ignore your own kin.

3)Human beings are meant to embrace the entire universe. BNEI ADAM, the children of Adam, who was made ‘at the image of God’ [Genesis] and Eve are universally inclusive, and equally important as our brethren the children of Abraham. No wonder than the popular expression of “Ben Adam” or in Yiddish also “mentsch” or a person, implies to be a “good” human being, fulfilling mitzvoth. In the daily life, it means that our attitude towards non-Jews around us not only is included in the judgment of our behavior but a priority, since we interact more with our close neighbors. Hence, the “Other” not just within your family, your fellow Jew. Particular emphasis is given to the term “GER” [stranger] among us and we are reminded that Jews have been GER in ERETZ MITZRAYIM, Egypt.

4)This means surely the “Ger”, the foreigner, but in the case of the Arabs in the Holy Land, they have a multiple entry: as B’nai Adam, as Children of Abraham [Isaac and Ishmael], and neighbors; but they are not just “ger” but the natives of the Land that me and many other Jews emigrated to full of devotion to the new State of Israel. Arabs as a group were there for centuries, and still are there. We are not there together, just to compete how many centuries have Arabs/Muslims have lived compared with us, Jews, nor who came first. They and we should fully and equally enjoy their human rights.

Rabbi Serotta adds "With respect to the meaning and role of the other, (the ger) I like to use the three Biblical commandments as one and the same basic commandment: you shall love Adonai your God, you shall love your neighbor as yourself and you (pl.) v'ahavtem et hager, a collective responsibility to love the other as contrasted with v'ahavta."

5)Arabs, even as a minority among Jews in the State of Israel, or as occupied in the Liberated/Administered/Occupied Arab Territories, their status as “Ger” should have a special resonance to our Jewish people; we, through history discriminated more often than not as a different nation, we need to be sensitive to the issues of discrimination towards the “Other”.

6)Those of us whose center of life is Israel, are daily responsible for not letting discrimination prevail. Daily ordeals, restricting the freedom of movement, unequal access to water and more. Lately, the issue of stone throwing children/minors in prison is going to be answered by our Israeli government with more punishment, but why not by addressing the root cause for these popular grass root violence, the absence of equal rights? In Yom Kippur, the reflection calls us to go deeper in the understanding of what we do or not do, what we motivate. Why is that the defense line of official policy when facing burning Palestinian homes, uprooting olive trees, desecrating and burning churches or mosques, all that by allegedly pious settlers, young idealist or zealots? And then the reply is look what has been happening in the Middle East, Arabs kill Arabs, Muslim kill Muslim, decapitations by terrorists, use of chemical weapons by governments!!! While worlds’ double standards are not acceptable and international condemnation and action should be loud and clear, does such an environment diminish our obligations as set for Yom Kippur? Do we bear any responsibility when a large part of the world community speaks about the “Jewish/Christian civilization” and we want to adhere to the values of the Western world?

Rabbi Shefa Gold , a leader in ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal suggests we examine such issues going through our lives, and rephrases the XXI Century prophetical words of Isaiah:

    Well, I'll tell you what kind of fast I would desire from you...
    Unlock the chains of your greed and habit,
    Free you from slavery of being blind consumers,
    Let the oppressed worker go free
    by raising the minimum wage.
    The fast I want is one that will inspire you
    to share your food with the hungry,
    To redistribute the wealth of this land fairly,
    To build affordable housing for the homeless,
    And to welcome back the people you have thrown out of your hearts, Even the ones in your own family.

7)Jews in the Diaspora should feel responsible as well: “Kol Israel Haverim” All children of Israel [or biblical Jacob] are united by omission and not acting by supporting efforts to redress human rights violations. And even more crucial, to oppose the xenophobic and chauvinist among us in the Diaspora who are inciting Israelis to be more racist. Encouraging us to consider ourselves “the Chosen People “to dominate, subjugate and perhaps evict the native Palestinian population. It is the individual and collective responsibility of the Jewish Diaspora to tell their Israeli brothers and sisters to look at their faces in the world mirror and when asking the question, are we beautiful? We, in the Diaspora should not lie and tell them, at least “among us” how contrary to the Jewish values has been much of their governmental and societal behavior. And in the Americas and Europe, try to show how descendants of Arabs and Jews can work together. Instead of letting the conflict between Israel and Palestine to be “imported” to the Diaspora and disrupt their lives, to “export” the realities of coexistence, multiculturalism and diversity back to the shared Holy Land.

8) A major social responsibility should be on the shoulders of academics. We, who have benefited by access to the highest levels of education, now have the mission to share our learning with the younger generation. We have an obligation to repay for our privileges and add our professional ethics to our Jewish values by actively promoting the values of human rights, democracy and peace. Insularity in the ivory tower is inadmissible when so much depravation is all around us. Israeli and Palestinian colleagues, we have disaggregated the term “acknowledgment” into “act-upon-knowledge”. Only a minority of highly educated Jews in Israel and the world is committed to play the role that our faith and wisdom demands at these testing times. And even those who consider ourselves to be part of this minority, we need to do more, in the spirit of Rabbi Hillel’s, enlightened self-interest is combined in the phrase: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Hence, when we go to synagogue and hitting with our fist softly our chest, repeatedly pronounce the long list of “al chet” [for our sin….], we should translate it to the present realities and make a solemn commitment to redress our wrong deeds, as well as societal mischief. Prioritize in these days of decay and fear, the need to dedicate ourselves to TIKKUN OLAM [repairing the world] as a top priority. In the minimalist sense, most of us are Jews neither by default nor by merit, only by heredity, thanks to our parents. But in Yom Kippur, we should know that what makes for a meaningful Jew is our consciousness and awareness that we are being judged by our deeds. I, for one, now think hard what my concrete wows for this new year are going to be in my daily life, hopefully you too.