We are at the beginning of the season of reflection and repentance. Each of us has the task of examining our behavior and considering how we can be better people next year.
Our prayers, for the most part, are couched in the plural (“we have sinned”), but the focus almost exclusively is on us as individuals.
Little or no attention is paid to our behavior as a community, as a people, as a nation, all of which are part of the definition of “Jew.”
Yet attention should be paid. In Israel, in Judaism, the individual is the community and the community is the individual. When one of us breaks the covenant, we all break the covenant. When we all break the covenant, each of us individually breaks the covenant. The community is the sum of its parts, yet each part is equal to the whole.
This duality too often gets lost during the High Holy Days. This is unfortunate, because there is much we need to know about our plural self, meaning our communal behavior.
Arguably the most important self-examination text is the Great Confessional that is recited eight times on Yom Kippur, and twice in the afternoon service immediately before it begins. Known commonly as “Al Chet,” it offers an entry point to examine communal sins. Here are a select few of that litany.
“For the sin we have sinned against You [God] by rejecting responsibility.”
Example 1: It is the community’s responsibility, not just that of the parents, to educate our children in what being Jewish is all about, in addition to preparing them for going out into the world. Tuition in our day schools and yeshivot are beyond affordability for many people. Some families have taken out second and even third mortgages they can ill afford to cover the costs. As a community, we have done much too little to make Jewish education available to anyone who wants it.
For many families, the only viable option is afterschool programs at local synagogues. Yet too many synagogues regard such programs as come-ons for attracting members, rather than as a sacred task of educating children. Some synagogues spend more money promoting their schools than on providing those schools with the best tools and resources available. Some have lowered their standards to attract new members, especially including limiting the number of school hours each week to a single short day. As a community, we have no vehicle to address such issues.
Example 2: As God’s “kingdom of priests and holy nation,” we are supposed to actively engage in creating a better world than the one we have. As a community, are we as engaged as we should be in the larger community around us? Beyond that community, do we consider Africa’s Ebola crisis, say, or Ukraine’s troubles as being our business?
“And for the sin we have sinned against You by defaming Your Name”: One way we do this is by not lobbying for more effective food programs to feed those people whom we now refer to euphemistically as “food insecure.” In the United States alone in 2013, “3.8 million households were unable to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children,” according to a government report. At one time or another during 2013, there were 17.5 million “food insecure” homes. As a community, what are we doing about hunger in our own back yard, much less around the world, where the problem is even worse?
In the Grace After Meals, we praise God for feeding all those who need to be fed. In one of the key psalms of the morning and afternoon service, we declare, “You open your hand and satisfy the needs of all living creatures.”
The only problem is that God does so through us. He made us His agents. Says Deuteronomy 14:29, “[t]hat they may eat and be satisfied, in order that the Lord your God will bless youâ€¦.” If there are hungry people in the world, God is defamed through our lack of action and concern.
This is but one example of how we cause God’s Name to be defamed.
Included in the litany are the sins of “breach of trust,” and “callousness,” which, for example, we as a community commit by ignoring the suffering of others, in whatever form that suffering takes. Do we even know the different kinds of suffering going on right now in this world? Do we even care to know? Do we even have a vehicle for keeping us informed, much less in involving us in efforts to alleviate suffering?
Then there is “the sin we have sinned against You by groundless hatred.” Within our own community, there are segments in all streams who want nothing to do with their fellow Jews. Even as we dislike it when people refer to “the Jews,” we do the same thing to others. All Christians are anti-Semites. All Muslims are terrorists. All gays are potential pedophiles.
Are we even fully cognizant of and involved in stemming the growing tide of anti-Semitism in France and the rest of Europe, much less all varieties of group hatred around the world?
As individuals, we have our work cut out for us over the next few weeks. As a community, we also have a lot of work to do.
“For all of these sins, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, atone for us.”