Still Sinning After All These Years

The month of 'Tishrei' often causes Jews to reflect on their responsibility to the world; This year the People of Israel should consider leaving that responsibility to someone else.

Torah 521 (photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
Torah 521
(photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
Every so often, and especially during those early autumn days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I get to thinking about my responsibility for the world.
To be honest, it wasn’t my choice to take up this burden for the entire universe. It was my parents’ choice, part of my father’s crash course on how to grow up, which would reach its climactic peak at about this time of the year.
The course on responsibility for the whole world proceeds in stages. The first stage occurs when you blame yourself for things you don’t even understand. Any child who has been through this course remembers the first time that he or she had to mumble, together with the entire congregation, the words to the “Al Het” (“For the Sins We Have Committed”) prayer, while beating his or her breast fervently. Oh, how I would beat my breast, confessing to the sin of gossip and wondering how God could possibly know that sometimes I was in a hurry to do bad things. And although I was rather an innocent child, and not a particularly bad boy, I would publicly admit that I had shown disregard for my parents and teachers. Especially when my father was standing over me, making sure that I didn’t skip any parts, even though I already knew that he committed the sin of using coercion more often than I did.
But at that stage, I would have confessed to anything, just to save my soul.
Anything? Absolutely. Even to that gathering of lewdness? (What is lewdness, anyway? I wondered.) My father would try to speed me up so I could keep pace with the congregation’s list of sins, and he never stopped to explain things to me. So I never understood where that mysterious gathering took place, and it took about 10 years until I actually understood what was going on at those mysterious parties in San Francisco, and that that was what they were referring to. Now, all these years later, those gatherings seem innocently happy and filled with naked love, and they were certainly more exhilarating and inspiring than the feeling of dread that I remember from my hours of prayer in the synagogue.
But that understanding came too late. After saving my own soul, I took upon myself the fate of the People of Israel. At a very tender age, I understood that the people of Israel are in an ongoing conflict with The Holy One Blessed Be He and that even though He had chosen us from among all the other peoples, we still had to calm Him down, especially at the beginning of the year. I understood that we had to get our worthiness confirmed if we wanted to make it through to the next year. Each of us, as individuals, and all of us together, the entire downtrodden and oppressed people of Israel.
I loved the psalms that we would sing during the Hallel part of the service, and I loved to praise The Holy One Blessed Be He, who not only knows how to count and tally us as a shepherd counts his sheep, but also possesses all of the great attributes and can bring the wind and the rain.
He created us and he knows our most base instincts. Together with everyone else, I confessed to the horrible, awful national sins of our people. Even as a small child, I knew something about the Holocaust (and, anyway, I was willing to confess to anything) and, after all, how could such a tragedy have occurred if we, the people, had not sinned and transgressed and done wrong and strayed from our Torah.
Deep inside, I knew that I really hadn’t strayed even one inch.
Honest. But I also knew that since I could already read, I was responsible for the fate of the Jewish people. That’s one hell of a responsibility, and for that I was willing to confess to anything, whatever you say, as long as the People of Israel could emerge from darkness to great light, as promised.
And so , every so often, I think about that particular day when I came to realize that the responsibility I had taken upon myself for the People of Israel was even greater than I had realized. A sudden flood, a volcanic eruption, a tsunami or just a plain ol’ traffic accident, as the Yom Kippur prayers promise, could happen anywhere beyond the boundaries of our then-tiny city of Jerusalem. And these things might happen in a place where there aren’t even any Jews. And they wouldn’t even know it, because they’re not Jewish, but the Creator, that Holy One Blessed Be He, He’s a pretty up-tight and impatient guy, and the fact that they eat on Yom Kippur (the adults, that is, since their children were allowed to eat on Yom Kippur, just like we were) could cost them big-time, unless my prayers were accepted.
God, or so I thought, was pretty pleased with my prayers – fact was, my parents were more or less healthy, and our soldiers won all the wars. So if there were any problems – it wasn’t my fault.
As the years went by, I understood that the responsibility I had accepted, for a tsunami in Japan or an earthquake in Tahiti, was clearly an acceptable idea that had taken root even backwards in time. I bore responsibility for the outbreak of World War I, the outbreak of World War II, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Treblinka (just ask Ahmadinejad what he thinks about that) as well as Wikileaks. And, of course, 9/11, whose tenth yahrzeit we just observed. I was responsible – I hijacked those planes. (Were there any planes? Even a babe in arms knows that the Mossad had planted the explosives there.) It only took a few days for the world to realize that I was up to my neck in it.
The banking crisis in the US and the world were most definitely the result of a careless Yom Kippur – I didn’t pray in 2008, and since then, pensions have been wiped out and the entire world is in recession.
I elected President Barack Obama, and I would certainly vote for him again, so I am responsible for the Tea Party, for the entire mess in the Middle East that no one seems able to understand or solve.
I caused the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. The blood of little children is on my hands.
Yes, I confess.
And every so often, while confessing, I think about the other religions. At least those on the Western side of the world were born here, in the ancient synagogues of the Holy Land. So why didn’t they take some of that guilt with them when they started believing in their own Messiah? Maybe we can still change the rules and they’ll take at least a bit of that responsibility from us? Maybe this year, in honor of the Days of Awe, we’ll offer the world the chance to do a little tikun olam of their own. We promise not to bother them: we won’t provide financial services, we won’t write about it in The New York Times. We’ll let them say their own “Al Het” from the beginning to the end.
I’ve been waiting for them to confess to the sin of lying for years. And what about that gathering of lewdness – to the best of my knowledge, that’s a big part of the gatherings in most of the parliaments in most of the countries in the world.
We’re beginning to assume our real proportions – the important relationships are between an individual and his or her God, between an individual and his or her fellow human being. And if anyone really insists, they can take on responsibility for the People of Israel – whoever they are.
But this year, let’s leave responsibility for the world to others.
Just don’t say we didn’t warn you. •