On Yom Kippur, The Chance To Start Anew
09/21/07
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We are entering 5768 with any number of reasons to worry about the future of Israel and Jewish life in the U.S. and around the world. But we would do well to encounter these challenges with an attitude similar to the one with which we are taught to approach Yom Kippur: a mixture of reflection, humility, repentance, resolve and, with it all, confidence. The holiest day of the year is not only one of fasting to “afflict your souls” (Numbers: 29, 7) but an opportunity to purify ourselves spiritually and atone for our sins. That is why the holiday blends the awe and trembling of pleading for our very lives on Judgment Day with the joy of believing that if our prayers are sincere, they will be answered affirmatively. We beat our breasts during Kol Nidre and throughout the next day, enumerating our collective sins over and over and in great detail and specificity. But in the final Ne’ilah service, recited as the Gates of Heaven are closing, we ask God to “seal us in the Book of Life,” underscoring the ultimate hopefulness of our awesome encounter with the Almighty and our inner souls. One could make the case that as we begin this new Jewish year, the very survival of the State of Israel and Jewish continuity are threatened in increasingly frightening ways. Hamas from Gaza and Hezbollah from Lebanon are pledged to destroy Israel and appear to be gearing up for war. Syria may present a nuclear threat. Iran has made no secret of its intention to eradicate Israel and is proceeding to build a nuclear bomb while the civilized world shakes its head but takes little action. Israel’s leadership is at a low point, and its citizens are growing increasingly frustrated and cynical, even as a weak prime minister talks peace with an even weaker Palestinian Authority president, envisioning an ever narrower (West Bank-only) horizon of hope. But what about a Hamas-controlled Gaza, where rockets are launched each day against Israeli citizens in Sderot? Anti-Semitism, often in the form of anti-Zionism, has been emboldened in England, France and elsewhere in Europe. The notion of Israel as an illegitimate state has made its way from European academic circles to the general society, where the idea is widely accepted. Could that happen here, where a former U.S. president and two respected scholars published books this year essentially blaming Israel for America’s foreign policy woes?  On the home front, survey after survey shows us that younger Jews feel less connected to Israel and Jewish communal life (from synagogues to organizations), assimilation and a low birthrate indicate a shrinking Jewish community, the Conservative movement is struggling to survive, the gap between Orthodox and liberal Jews is growing, and on and on. So where’s the good news? Perhaps, in uniquely Jewish fashion, the good news is that things have always been bad. That is to say, throughout our history we have been threatened, persecuted and reviled, and yet we have endured and flourished. Homeless since the destruction of the Second Temple centuries ago, the Jews managed to maintain a sense of peoplehood based on a shared history, tradition and set of religious tenets. The strength of those common bonds and the belief in a return to Zion and ultimate redemption enabled Jews to maintain not only their identity but a sense of faith in the future. Compared to those who came before us — and not just hundreds of years ago but as recently as 1947 Palestine — we have so much to be confident about in terms of Jewish life and survival, starting with a strong and vibrant Jewish state, and a free, thriving and affluent American Jewish community. If our attitude is positive and our goals focused, our potential for accomplishment is unlimited. Israel’s greatest resource is its brainpower and native resiliency. If those who have made the economy flourish and achieved such scientific, technological and medical breakthroughs turned their attention to the political and military challenges facing the country, perhaps they could pierce the clouds of despair and provide a new paradigm for future stability. And rather than bemoan our decreasing numbers in the U.S., we should capitalize on the remarkable explosion of philanthropy within the Jewish community to address creative ways of promoting Jewish education, values and traditions. At this time of reflection, our community should be thinking about what Jewish peoplehood means in the 21st century. What, if anything, continues to bind us together? Is it ancestry, customs, religious beliefs, common enemies, worldview? What would it take to bring us closer together, and how can we achieve a greater sense of collective responsibility? On Yom Kippur we pray for guidance, understanding, atonement and peace. Despite the many problems we face, individually and collectively, we should take comfort in the belief that by humbling ourselves and pledging to do better, we can emerge from Yom Kippur cleansed and renewed.  May this Yom Kippur bring us closer to the best in each of us, and to each other. E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

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10/09/2009 - 10:22

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