National tshuva

Yom Kippur is often perceived as a time of reflection for the individual.

handshake 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
handshake 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Yom Kippur is often perceived as a time of reflection for the individual. Repenting is in essence a personal process of introspection and self-accounting with the goal of reaching operative conclusions and resolutions regarding one’s behavior in the future.
As Maimonides writes in the first chapter of his book of laws on tshuva, often translated as “atonement,” but which also means “return”: “At present, when the Temple does not exist and there is no altar of atonement, there remains nothing else aside from tshuva [of the individual].”
After the destruction of the Temple, notes Maimonides, the concept of tshuva was restricted primarily to the individual Jew’s process of “return,” whereas in the time of the Temple, the Azazel goat atoned for the entire nation.
And this was eminently logical. In exile the Jewish people did continue to foster a sense of peoplehood and mutual responsibility. But the extent to which Jews spread out across the Diaspora felt they had a shared destiny was limited. A Jewish self-reckoning on a national level made little sense as long as Jews were not gathered together in a country of their own.
On the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, as we unite with those who mourn family and friends and comfort soldiers who were wounded in body and spirit, we should acknowledge that the war and the collective act of self-reckoning that followed in many ways reinstated a national process of tshuva that existed before the destruction of the Temple and was symbolized in the sacrifice of the Azazel goat.
Admittedly, the lessons learned from the Yom Kippur War were radically divergent for the Left and the Right, as Yossi Klein Halevi noted in a video that appears on the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Internet site.
For the Left, the lesson to be learned from the high price paid to win the Yom Kippur War, which included the death of nearly 2,700 soldiers, was that Israeli society must not fall into complacency and a false sense of invincibility.
Instead, Israel must actively pursue peace and be sensitive to opportunities for reconciliation with our neighbors. The 1979 peace treaty with Egypt was a vindication of the Left’s pro-peace conclusion from the Yom Kippur War. Ironically, it was right-wing prime minister Menachem Begin who signed under the declaration “no more war, no more bloodshed.”
A no less well-intentioned, but less successful, outcome of the Yom Kippur War’s pro-peace thinking was the Oslo Accords, the 20th anniversary of the signing of which by PLO leader Yasser Arafat and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin we mark today.
The Right’s conclusion from the Yom Kippur War, in contrast, was that there was a need to combat the feeling of weakness and vulnerability that pervaded Israeli society after the war. Gush Emunim was formed in the wake of the war and the push to build Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza began in earnest only in 1974, more than six years after these lands came under Israeli control. The Left and Right have something in common.
Both reached conclusions on a national level as a result of a collective self-reckoning. More important, both took advantage of the Jewish people’s relatively new political sovereignty to shape their own destiny and the destiny of their children and grandchildren.
Whether they pursued the promised “peace doves” mentioned in Shmuel Hasfari’s 1994 song “Winter 1973” or strengthened the faith-based spirit of patriotism expressed in Yossi Gilpin’s 2010 song “Believers Do Not Fear” [Mi shema’amin lo mefakhed], both the Left and the Right acted to transform Israeli society in accordance with the lessons learned from the Yom Kippur War.
In his book Orot Hatshuva (“The Lights of Penitence”), Rabbi Avraham Kook (1865-1935), who in his lifetime saw the beginning of the return of the Jewish people to their land, wrote of the tshuva of the entire nation of Israel as “a mighty, powerful vision that provides reserves of might and strength,” as opposed to the tshuva of “isolated, fragmented souls.”
In the wake of the Yom Kippur War, Israeli Jews across the political spectrum embarked on a collective act of tshuva. In the process, they unleashed tremendous forces for change. These forces transformed Israel into what it is today – a proud, patriotic nation that nevertheless keeps a hand extended in peace to the Palestinians and its neighbors. This is the national power of tshuva that was unleashed on Yom Kippur 40 years ago.