We live in a world that teaches us to blame others for our failures and struggles.
Whether it’s health, finances, stalled careers, or emotional unhappiness, our often narcissistic and litigious society has trained us to look outside ourselves to justify our suffering. We explain our pain by telling ourselves that someone hurt us, our boss overworked us, or a merchant was dishonest with us.
Not so in Jewish tradition. Judaism asks us to turn inward when we are faced with conflict: Did I play a part in bringing this pain on? Could I have done something to contribute to my sadness? The classic expression of this is found in the rabbinic texts explaining reasons for the Churban – the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. They explain that the first Temple fell because of the sins of idolatry, murder and sexual immorality, and the second because of sinat chinam, unbridled hatred between Jews.
We are a people who believe that goodness will prevail over evil. So when evil seems to be winning, we assume there must be something wrong with the good, meaning with us. And more, as it’s been said, people and communities who don’t engage in self-reflection are bound to repeat the same mistakes. This is a lesson illustrated by the two Temples falling on the same day – the 9th of Av – centuries apart. Introspection, then, is crucial in all circumstances.
This is the season of inner examination within the Jewish community. Slichot – penitential prayers – begin after Shabbat at midnight and will lead us to the Ten Days of Repentance, which start with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur. Sephardim have been saying them since the start of the month of Elul, weeks ago. We embrace now in earnest the task of repairing and renewing our souls by seeking forgiveness from the Divine, from those around us, and from ourselves.
Arguably, this season of repentance began weeks ago, when we gathered mournfully on Tisha B’Av, as we do each summer, to read the Book of Lamentations, Jeremiah’s firsthand account of the destruction of Jerusalem. The opening word, “Eicha,” literally means, “How did this come to be?” But the Sages teach us that the original “Eicha” was “Ayekah” – “Where are you?” The two words are spelled the same way in Hebrew. “Ayekah?” God asked Adam and Eve, who hid from God in the Garden of Eden after they ate the forbidden fruit. “Where are you?” God probed. Where are you spiritually? Where are you psychically? How has your state of mind and being affected your circumstances today?
Sometimes this type of thinking is applied in ways that are profoundly disturbing and offensive: blaming the Shoah on Jews who were Zionists, or on those who were secular. Recently, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Yoel, N.Y., blamed the deaths of the three Israeli teens, Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, z”l, on their Zionist parents, who took their children to live in the West Bank. He said that instead of eulogizing their sons, the parents ought to have recited the Vidui, the confessional prayers, and repented. We are appalled by those statements, as we should be.
Often I wonder how the ancient citizens of Jerusalem felt being told that their city’s devastating desolation, the loss of their children to famine, their sisters and daughters to rape, and their homes to fire and pillaging was their fault. And yet, we persist in revisiting those teachings both on Tisha B’Av and on these days of Slichot, as we seek healing and renewal from the physical and figurative ills of our lives through appeals for forgiveness.
It’s a paradox: on the one hand we reject that kind of self-blame for the calamities that fill our lives, and we especially don’t want to suggest that those who truly do us harm are somehow not to blame. Yet, on the other, those teachings affirm that our actions matter, that our choices have consequences, that we can affect the fate not only of our own lives but of our communities, even of the world, for bad and for good.
Rav Kook taught that the healing from unfettered hatred between Jews that caused Jerusalem to fall a millennium ago, sinat chinam, can come only from its opposite: ahavat chinam, unrestricted love and respect between Jews. Our actions are the tikkun, the correction, even as our actions may have contributed to the brokenness.
Put simply, Judaism, ancient and modern, understands that conflict with others requires that we look deeply at ourselves, and that resolution to conflict with others requires a healing within, an inner tikkun, as part of the solution to our outer troubles.
While on an individual level the challenge this season is as compelling, if arduous, as ever, on a collective level this year it feels especially difficult.
These days of repentance come at a very painful time for the State of Israel and the Jewish people. The dust is just settling from the war this summer. For close to two months, civilians throughout Israel were terrorized by an endless barrage of rockets. We lost 66 soldiers and six civilians. Thousands of people in Gaza were wounded. More than 2,000 people there lost their lives, and while the IDF asserts that almost half of them were combatants, scores of those killed and hurt were innocent men, women, and children. The Israeli army uncovered a terrifying network of tunnels dug by terrorists to infiltrate Israel from Gaza and murder soldiers and citizens. While we destroyed many, we don’t know if there are more tunnels or how many. We don’t know the extent to which the IDF’s courageous actions diminished our vulnerability, or for how long.
Outside of Israel, anti-Semitism barely masquerading as anti-Israelism is in a terrifying upswing. People have been comparing events now with those of the 1930s, such as when a Belgian doctor refused to treat a Jewish patient this summer, stores there hung signs saying “Dogs welcome. Zionists never.” A Hungarian mayor burned Netanyahu and Peres in effigy. Israeli dancers from Ben Gurion University were dismissed from a dance competition in Edinburgh because the organizers felt they couldn’t protect them from anti-Israel demonstrators and chose to cancel their performance rather than banning the protesters. Jewish property was vandalized repeatedly in France. Raucous and violent gatherings in major cities like Berlin, New York, and Montreal had people yelling “slaughter the Jews.” A British MP declared his district off limits to Israeli products and people. People dared to speak of another Holocaust on the horizon.
And yet, even within this climate, observers throughout the world have begun to acknowledge the role Hamas played in the deaths of its own people: hiding rockets and launchers in schools and hospitals knowing the IDF would retaliate while delighting in onlookers’ sympathy for their pulverized homes and dead civilians. World leaders have decried much of the vicious anti-Jewish expressions and activities. And, most importantly for this message, Jewish support for the war, both in Israel and around the world, was almost unanimous: the justness of the IDF retaliatory strikes, the morality of the IDF, and the absolute right of the State of Israel to protect its citizens from current and future threats went virtually unquestioned in Jewish circles for most of the summer.
Against this backdrop and in this time of great angst for Jews and the Jewish state, how does the tradition of Slichot, which asks us to seek forgiveness in order to heal our suffering resonate when we feel such moral clarity about the rightness of our actions and our outlook?
To be sure, it’s often those who exude moral certainty who most need to be engaged in a process of self-reflection. So what might we, the Jewish people, bring to the discussion this year?
Some of the more obvious themes might include the horrific murder by Jewish vigilantes of Mohamed Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian boy burned to death in response to the killing of the three Israeli teens. Or the gangs of Jewish youth screaming violent slurs at Arabs and ultra-Orthodox men yelling “Death to the Arabs” after the fatal bulldozer attack in Jerusalem in which a Jewish man died. Israeli police had to evacuate a bus of Arab workers out of concern for their safety. And, of course, there is the larger picture of what just about everyone agrees is the unsustainable reality of Israel ruling over the Palestinian people, and the urgency of finding a long-term diplomatic solution to the conflict.
But do those very real and disturbing issues reflect the kind of inner wrestling the tradition demands? Is there a larger question to which those issues belong?
Rabbi Daniel Gordis, senior vice president and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem, who often is referred to as one of the most thoughtful advocates for Israel, posted an essay in the Jerusalem Post a while back, in the midst of the hostilities. It answers our question in a profound way. In “When the Guns Fall Silent,” Gordis described the anxiety that fills the generation of young Israelis today, who know that it is largely up to them to defend and protect the country, putting their lives and dreams and hopes at risk for a conflict that seems to have no end, no resolution, making their inevitable sacrifices seem meaningless, purposeless.
How prescient Gordis was. Just weeks after he penned the essay, the war is behind us (hopefully for good) and that once-solid support for the IDF and the government of Israel is giving way to questions about the worthwhileness of a battle that seems to have left us no closer to any prospects for peace, and with enemies more desperate and angry than before.
To those youngsters and for them, Gordis admonished, we must be able to answer the fundamental question of why we live in a protracted state of war, both with our enemies in the Arab world and with the swelling ranks of anti-Semites around the globe. We must be able to articulate a meaningful and compelling vision of Israel and Judaism, as a country and as a way of life, that fulfills the historic Jewish belief in a land flowing not only with milk and honey but with love and justice, compassion, and peace.
As Gordis wrote, “So why are we here? That’s the question which is going to hang heavily over this country when the uniforms return to the closets and the guns get put away. It’s the question these kids will want to hear their society discussing. They will want to know that this is a fight for our homes, but also for a vision. They want to believe that this fight is worth the lives of the children they haven’t yet had.”
Gordis continued, “When the guns go silent, are we really going to abide a Haredi sector that, for the most part, did nothing to protect this home? When the dust settles, what are we going to do about the Jewish thugs who beat up Israeli Arabs? When the dust settles, will we know how to pick up where Herzl, Jabotinsky, Kook and Berdichevsky left off? This is an earthquake, let there be no doubt. When the guns go silent, we’re going to need to renew a vision that blends resolve with tolerance, strength with utter decency, individual freedom coupled with a sense of serving something greater than ourselves.”
At least for now, the guns are, thankfully, mostly silent. It is the season for Slichot and the days of repentance, the time to emerge from our pain via the path of asking for forgiveness, a theme jumpstarted by Tisha B’Av just weeks earlier. A sacred Jewish myth tells us that thousands of years ago on that very day, a Divine decree was made that the generation of ancient Israelites swayed by spies and dismayed by the seeming impossibility of success in the land of Israel was to wander and die off in the desert.
Maybe this year, in this season of teshuvah, we can offer an inner tikkun, an inner correction to that decree, and prevent this generation from surrendering to dismay by bequeathing to it a renewed, reinvigorated sense of mission, as a country and as a people.
This year, Slichot have arrived just as Israel is beginning to return to normal life after a war most understood as defensive in spite of the vast destruction it entailed. Maybe this year the inner searching prompted by Slichot and the High Holy Days should be reframed for us as a community: less about how we may have sinned to make ourselves vulnerable to war and terrorism, and more about what we are capable of achieving to strengthen ourselves as a society and as a spiritual and cultural tradition to ensure a future of integrity, purpose and peace – with our enemies, of course, but first and foremost, with ourselves.