Where our fingers should point this Yom Kippur

On the eve of Yom Kippur, it may be worthwhile to read Maimonides’ analysis of how we can all improve our behavior.

October 7, 2019 22:46
3 minute read.
 PAINTING by the Polish artist Maurycy Gottlieb c. 1878, titled ‘Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yo

PAINTING by the Polish artist Maurycy Gottlieb c. 1878, titled ‘Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur.’. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve stopped watching and reading the political pundits. I know what they are going to say before they say it. Each has his or her bias, and will inevitably blame the other side for the ills of the world.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, it may be worthwhile to read Maimonides’ analysis of how we can all improve our behavior. He suggests that the first step is viduy, confession, to look inward and, with precision, offer self-evaluation.

From the beginning of time, this principle of self-evaluation has been difficult to fulfill. When God asks Adam why he ate from the tree in the Garden of Eden, he responds, “It’s not my fault, the woman who you created at my side convinced me to sin.” Eve responds in a similar fashion. When confronted, she declares, “It’s not my mistake, the serpent deceived me.”

Adam and Eve are not only two people, they represent the nature of humankind. It is the nature of all of us to turn outward and find others culpable rather than explore our own shortcomings.

A good example of this phenomenon occurred post-Holocaust. It was then that many Zionists attributed the murder of the six million to the anti-Zionists, insisting that if Jews in Eastern Europe would have immigrated to Israel in the ‘30s, European Jewry would have been saved. The anti-Zionists blamed the Zionists. If the Zionists were not completely focused on the establishment of the Jewish state, they could have devoted more resources and more attention to the plight of European Jewry.

Similarly, the religious blamed the anti-religious. If only European Jewry would have all kept Shabbat, God wouldn’t have been upset and the Holocaust would not have occurred. The anti-religious argued the reverse. It’s the religious who are at fault. After all, they were so preoccupied with keeping ritual law that their heads were in the sand, believing that God, against all odds, would intervene and save them.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, in one of his early essays, noted that all this finger-pointing was based on a misinterpretation of umipnei chata’einu galinu me’artzeinu – “because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” The text, he noted, does not say because of your sins – but rather because of our sins.  If one believes that some sin caused the Holocaust, one should not be looking outward, but inward.

I cannot imagine any sin that one has committed that would have been worthy of bringing about the murder of six million Jews. As Rabbi Soloveitchik writes, why the Holocaust occurred is a “metaphysical speculative question that has no answer.” My intent, however, in quoting the umipnei chata’einu argument is to underscore the importance of self-evaluation.

All this brings me to contemporary times. In America and in Israel, we are more divided than ever. Each side sees the other as the embodiment of evil – the cause of everything that’s gone wrong.

In the spirit of Maimonides, rather than instinctively seeing the limitations of one’s opponents, we should all step back and ask a more basic, more important question – is there anything within ourselves that we could do better?

For me, this is the test of a true spiritual activist. It is a preparedness to be critical of one’s own self, one’s own ideology – and to express those disappointments in front of one’s own supporters.

Imagine if, on this Yom Kippur, Democrats and Republicans, Likud and Blue and White would ask themselves, “What have our flaws been?” “What could we have done better?”

The flip side of this is to look at the other side, our antagonist, and ask, is there anything that the other side is doing that is positive, from which we can learn?

Maimonides knew that human nature is to blame the other when, in fact, we should begin by looking at ourselves.
Just for a moment this Yom Kippur, when we point our index finger at another person, notice that the majority of our fingers are curled inward, where they should be – pointing to ourselves.

The writer is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, New York, and founder of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. He is a longtime activist for Israel, Jewish causes and human rights.

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