Monday, October 06, 2003

Gilad Kariv, of the Israel Religious Action Center of the Movement for Progressive Judaism, speaks very movingly, in an article in today's Ha'aretz about Kol Nidre, war and freeing the enslaved. First he comments on the purpose of the Kol Nidre prayer itself and the heshbon ha-nefesh -- self-examination -- that we must engage in:

How many times do we put down others in order to feel stronger ourselves? How many times do we suppress our uniqueness so that no one can say we are not part of the crowd? How often do we take a certain position because it is fashionable, because everyone thinks that way, because we are afraid of what others will say?

All the vows we have taken in the desire to find favor in the eyes of others, all the promises we have made that we never intended to keep, all the conventional behavior we adhere to although we know it harms us and those around us - all these are the focus of the Kol Nidre prayer today.

When I was sitting in synagogue today, one of the events that I thought about was the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, which began on October 6, 1973, Yom Kippur. I was in synagogue then also, attending the Harvard Hillel services in Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. When the terrible news that the war had broken out came to Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold, he announced it to all of us that Israel had been attacked.

Gilad Kariv continues:

For 30 years, ever since the day when a shrill siren echoed all over Israel, the ancient holy day has been associated with a terrible war that left over 3,000 Israeli families broken and hollow. This Yom Kippur, as the scars carved into the flesh of Israeli society stand out with jagged intensity because of the round number of years gone by, it is hard to ignore the profound analogy between the tragedy of Aaron, the bereaved father [of Nadav and Avihu, who died when they offered "strange fire" before God], and the tragedy of the families whose sons did not return from the battlefields of the Golan Heights and the wilderness of Sinai.

In the same way that Nadav and Avihu were guilty of the sin of hubris, in the same way that complacency became their undoing, so Israel in its younger days learned, through the most excruciating means, the heavy price paid for smugness, for becoming inebriated with power and victory. In the six years that followed the six days, Israeli society preferred to close its eyes, to wallow in its glorious past, to lose its fear of the future. The catastrophe, as we all know, was waiting around the corner.

There is a wonderful Hasidic saying attributed to Reb Simha Bunem of Przysucha: A person should always carry two notes in his pocket - one with the words: "For my sake alone was the world created," and another with the words: "I am but dust and ashes." More than any other day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur is meant to remind us to slip that second note into our pockets. Have we learned our lesson?

Yom Kippur ends with the blowing of the shofar. Unlike Rosh Hashanah, where the blowing of the shofar is an explicit commandment from the Torah, the shofar blast at the close of the fast is merely a custom. It takes us back to the days when the Israelites celebrated the Jubilee. The sounding of the shofar was the signal to release the slaves and allow them to live their lives in freedom and dignity. It was the signal to "straighten out the social curve," as the Bible commands us to do every fifty years.

Over the years, the shofar-blowing at the close of Yom Kippur lost its original meaning. The loss of Jewish independence turned the sound of the shofar into a symbol of hope and longing for religious and political redemption. The wish "Next year in Jerusalem" was added for the same reason. From a religious symbol meant to remind us of our duty to free those in bondage and restore their dignity, the blowing of the shofar has become a symbol of self-liberation and restoring national pride.

After 50 years of Jewish statehood, the time has come to bring back the original significance of the shofar blowing on Yom Kippur. Israel has become a state of bondage and subjugation, a state that deprives some of its inhabitants of their liberty and self-respect. In a country that hunts down people in the city streets, where modern-day slave traders rake in money and escape without penalty thanks to their wealth and connections - in a country like this, the blast of the shofar should be shaking the door-posts.

In a country where the government oppresses foreign workers and blames them for its economic and social ills with one hand, and helps parties with vested interests get rich from the sweat of foreign brows with the other, the sound of the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur should be toppling walls of indifference.

If you go to the synagogue this Yom Kippur, take a good look at the worshipers sitting in the pews, praying so devoutly. Which one is the contractor who locks his workers up in shipping containers at night? Which one is the employer who withholds his workers' pay in the knowledge that they cannot complain? Which one is the young man invited to a bachelor party who takes along a tormented girl, released for a few hours from her prison cell to line the pockets of her torturers through the exploitation of her body? And who are the ones who keep silent, who turn a blind eye, who look on with indifference - if not us?

To all this, the Prophet Isaiah has already said: "Hear the world of the Lord, you chieftains of Sodom; Give ear to our God's instruction, you folk of Gomorrah! That you come to appear before Me - who asked that of you? Trample My courts no more. Your new moons and fixed seasons, fill Me with loathing; They are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them. Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime" (Isaiah 1:10-15).

Upon hearing the shofar blown at the end of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav used to say that he could already hear the synagogue beadle waking up members of the congregation for the Selihot [penitential] services the following year. Hopefully, in the course of this new year, we will succeed in eliminating at least a few of the reasons for beating our breast next year.

And I would add, not only foreign workers suffer in Israel today, although they are among the most helpless of those that suffer. The poor of all communities suffer, as the government declares that there is no hunger in Israel. Single mothers and others dependent upon government stipends suffer when their supplements are slashed again and again to balance the budget -- while at the same time the government spends billions on supporting the settlements, building bypass roads, building new housing in the settlements, and constructing the separation fence that will only ensure that in the future there will be no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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