Judaism is one of the few Western religions that institute a full day of fasting and introspection. Aware that most people are simply too busy to take time out of their daily schedule to dedicate even a few minutes to self-examination, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was instituted.
In How to Be a Jewish Parent Dan Greenberg writes: "Control guilt and you control your child. Let him hear you sigh every day. If you don't know what he has done to make you suffer, he will!"
As we engage in our yearly soul-searching, we find that we do not need a court of divine justice to determine the guilt we should feel for those whom we have caused to suffer by intent, neglect or misjudgment. There are simply too many acts we have carried out or words we have uttered that beg for forgiveness.
According to the High Holy Day liturgy the quality of our repentance will seal us in the Book of Life or the Book of Death. While one may not take such a peroration literally, the imagery should be sufficiently powerful to prompt us to action.
We stand self-accused. And yet Yom Kippur is not a day of narcissism, for the litany of sins we confess is expressed in the plural: "We have sinned, we have transgressed, we have gone astray." We may not all share the same measure of guilt, but we all share responsibility. "He who does not protest against the sins of his household is responsible for the sins of the entire household..." (Talmud Shabbat 54b).
Yet, those who are most responsible for the collective will of the "entire household" are the leaders of our country. In their hands rests the fate of the nation. Therefore, our leaders would do well to heed the admonitions of the prophet Isaiah, which outline the ultimate meaning of the Yom Kippur fast. Isaiah is instructed to "cry out aloud, without restraint, raise your voice like a shofar, declare to My people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sin."
AS AN introduction to our day of fasting and self-contemplation we are first commanded to cry out, not against the transgressions perpetrated against us, but against the sins committed in our name. Then comes an ominous warning: "If, on your fast day, you tend to your business and oppress your laborers, if you fast in strife and contention, if you strike with a wicked fist," your fast will not be accepted. "Rather, the fast I desire is" to "let the oppressed go free."
Throughout generations of oppression we struggled to gain the right to be masters of our own destiny. Now we must learn from our history and enable the Palestinian people to attain the freedom and responsibilities that come from self-determination. Disengagement from Gaza is only a first step.
"End brutality." Violence cannot be part of our society. We call upon the authorities to act to end violence in the family, against women, in our schools, on the roads in all spheres of our national life, even as we must assume responsibility for our own actions.
"Undo the fetters of bondage... to break every cruel chain." We must not ignore the plight of foreign workers and their families, subjugated to subhuman conditions of employment and housing. The government must act so they receive fair wages and fair treatment. The government must be vigorous in stopping the female slave trade, where women are exploited for sexual profit, imprisoned by cruel mobsters.
"Share your bread with the hungry and... take the poor into your home." We must tend to those who are on the fringes of society and alleviate their need. This means an end to "Bibi-economics" that increased the gap between rich and poor. The government must enact social policies that ensure a dignified life for all, not a Wisconsin Plan that further disenfranchises the weak.
"Do not avoid your own kin." When a Diaspora personality who has labored untiringly throughout his life for the Jewish people is buried in Israel, we can only hope that the president and/or the prime minister or any minister will attend the funeral, unlike the glaring absence of a high-ranking official of the Jewish state at the funeral of Simon Wiesenthal. Israel's engagement with the worldwide Jewish community must extend from life to death.
"Cease the malicious word." We must learn the language of equality and fairness regarding our Arab citizens. We cannot condone their marginalization and vilification. Nor can we disregard their judicial right to have those who killed 13 Arabs in the riots of October, 2000 brought to justice.
"Do not look to your affairs or strike bargains." We expect our political leaders to lead by ethical example. Corruption in all areas of government must end, from short-circuiting the right of someone to speak at a political gathering to campaign fund-raising violations to parceling out governmental jobs via crass protectionism to clandestinely granting extra-budgetary monies to preferred ministries and communities.
"If you remove the chains of oppression, the menacing hand, the malicious word; if you make sacrifices for the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted; then shall your light shine in the darkness."
The writer, a rabbi, is the author ofFifty Ways to Be Jewish.