The road to repentance by the numbers
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ColumnKeeping the Faith

The road to repentance by the numbers

The Three Weeks and its Nine Days give way after Tishah B’Av ends this Sunday night to the seven weeks that are pivotal to a meaningful observance of the High Holy Days, which begin this year on the evening of Sunday, September 25. During these seven weeks, we need to prepare ourselves for the awesome task of assessing our lives and deciding how to do correct what we find wanting within ourselves.

This year, though, I propose adding another period to these seven weeks and the Ten Days of Repentance that follow. I call it “The Four Weeks,” because at their end is Election Day 2022, a day on which we can demonstrate practically and concretely that we actually took the High Holy Days seriously.

Tagging a political event on to so solemn a period may sound flippant and even disrespectful to some of my readers. They might even see it as yet another example of my passing off my “liberal progressive agenda” as normative Jewish belief. In my defense, I submit the prophetic reading on Yom Kippur morning. Isaiah, speaking in God’s name, bluntly sets out what Yom Kippur—and thus the entire High Holy Days season—is really all about.

Says God through Isaiah, “[My people] seek righteous judgment from Me….They ask, ‘Why do we fast if You pay no heed to it? Why do we afflict ourselves if You do not acknowledge it…?’ Is this [your idea of a] fast that I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head low like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day the Lord would find acceptable? This is the fast I choose: [It is for you] to loosen all the shackles of wickedness, to let the persecuted go free, to break every yoke. Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the homeless. Clothe the naked whom you come across, and do not ignore your relatives who are in need….[R]emove the yoke of oppression from your midst, the disdainful pointing finger and the malicious tongue…, put yourself out for the hungry and relieve the plight of the wretched, [for only] then…will the Lord guide you continually.” (See Isaiah 58.)

What does that mean “to loosen all the shackles of wickedness, to let the persecuted go free, to break every yoke” if not for us to be front and center in all matters of social justice? What does that mean “clothe the naked…, put yourself out for the hungry and relieve the plight of the wretched” if not for us to be front and center in all matters relating to social welfare needs and universal health care?

If we stand and beat our breasts at each one of the two confessionals recited over and again on Yom Kippur, but do not see such issues as matters of concern that we must address, can we truly call that “a fast, a day the Lord would find acceptable”?

This message Isaiah delivers in God’s name is the underlying theme of all his prophecies.

He sets the stage right at the beginning, in Chapter 1. Jerusalem was surrounded. No supplies of any kind—including fresh food—were able to come in, and the water supply had been blocked. Desperate, the people cried out to God.

God, through Isaiah, cried out to them in return. You brought it on yourselves, God told them.

They were a “people weighed down with crime,” as God put it. Social justice did not exist in Judah. The people, the underprivileged especially, were oppressed by society’s elite, who took advantage of them, exploited them, and impoverished them.

Said God told them, “Who asked you to trample My courts…? I cannot bear crime….I turn My eyes from you. Though you pray and pray, I don’t listen. Your hands are full of blood….Murderers! Your…nobles are dishonest and their companions are thieves….They do not defend the orphan; the widow’s case does not move them.”

“Remove your evil acts from My eyes,” Isaiah quotes God as saying. “Cease doing evil. Learn to do good, seek justice. Make the oppressed happy, defend the orphan, argue the widow’s cause….”

Supposedly, if we pray hard enough and fast long enough on Yom Kippur, we will achieve atonement when it ends. This is wrong, as a mishnah in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Yoma explains. No matter how zealously we go through the motions on Yom Kippur, it says, we achieve nothing. All that matters is how we act after Yom Kippur ends because it is only then that the process of repentance truly begins. We need to match our deeds to our words. (See BT Yoma 85b.)

God does not care about what we say we are going to do. God cares only about whether we consciously and ungrudgingly do those things from the end of Yom Kippur on.

Isaiah, speaking in God’s name, told us what it is we have to do: We need to observe the laws God gave us in the Torah.

In more than 50 places, the Torah insists that we treat the stranger the way we should treat our own citizens. We need to ask ourselves what we must do in the coming year to help ease the suffering of the strangers in our midst, and especially illegal immigrants, all too many of whom are living in subhuman conditions in detention centers.

Torah law insists that we provide financial aid to those who need it, and for us to do whatever else we can to help to ease their suffering. There is much suffering going on right now because of covid-19 and because of the high rate of inflation it helped to create. We need to ask ourselves what we must do in the coming year to help ease that suffering.

Jewish law requires that in times when prices for basic items rise excessively, those items should be sold at a reasonable cost to those who need those items but cannot afford the inflated prices. (See Sefer Chasidim paragraph no. 1049.) The Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative code of Jewish law, specifically singles out prohibiting charging anything but the regular price for medications. (See the Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De-ah 336.) We need to ask ourselves what we must do in the next year to see to it that everyone has access to the necessities, and especially to the medicines they need at prices they can afford.

Torah laws protect the homeless and the hungry, the elderly, and the infirm. They set forth our responsibilities to each, including that we must provide adequate medical care to people who need it, and that we need to have proper systems in place to deal effectively with such plagues as the coronavirus. We need to ask ourselves what we must do in the next year to help in those areas.

Because Torah law requires it, we need to ask ourselves what we must do in the next year to help improve the environment. Because the Torah takes seriously its prohibitions against causing distress to the lower life forms, we need to ask ourselves what we must do in the next year to protect them and even improve their natural habitats.

These laws may not be politically correct today—at least not in some quarters—but they are Jewishly correct and always will be so.

We need to integrate these laws into our individual lives, but we also must integrate them into our collective lives—and that is where those four weeks and Election Day come in. It is the only time out of the entire year when we can collectively demonstrate that we actually took the High Holy Days seriously.

We need to study the records of the candidates and the political parties they represent carefully, and we need to choose only those whom we sincerely believe to be the most likely to fulfill all that God’s Torah demands of us and as Isaiah proclaimed them in his prophecies. We need to look into our hearts, not into our bank accounts or stock portfolios, just as we must not look at a single albeit important issue as outweighing all the others.

We also need to consider which party poses the greatest threat to our religious liberties—the Republican Party. In the words of Andrew Torba, a consultant to the GOP’s Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, “This is the most important election of the 2022 midterms because Doug is an outspoken Christian. We are going to build a coalition of Christian nationalists, of Christians, of Christian candidates, at the state, local and federal levels and we’re going to take this country back for the glory of God.” After he won the Republican primary, Mastriano himself said, “Let’s choose this day to serve the Lord.”

We have four weeks from the end of Yom Kippur to choose whether to live up to the decisions we make that day in a positive, God-fearing, and responsible way.

First, though, may we all have an easy fast on Tishah B’Av.

Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.

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