Today is Yom Kippur, Day of Awe, the Holiest of Holies. I’m not fasting, for reasons my Muslim sisters will understand. I’m not at synagogue, because this day is too sacred to me to spend with people I don’t trust. And I’m writing, although I’d vowed to stay away from the computer except to read the news.
And oh, the news. That is why I am now writing.
Yom Kippur is, in so many ways, an oddity and anachronism to the rest of my modern, community-centered, social-justice-focused, Judaism. It is full of archaic language, mortal threats, and a thunderous, unknowing, and rather vengeful masculine God. It is the culmination of the 10 days that begin the new year, when on Rosh Hashana the book of life is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Terrifying, ominous stuff. We fast, dress in shroud-like clothing, beat our chests, and ponder fate. We recite the most macabre of all prayers, the Unataneh Tokef.
The Unataneh Tokef literally asks, “Who shall live and who shall die?” It does not stop there. “Who shall live out their time, and who shall die young? Who by water and who by fire? Who by the sword and who by wild beast? Who by hunger and who by thirst? Who by earthquake and who by pestilence? . . . Who shall be humbled and who shall be exalted?” After these gory options, we are then thrown a small bone and told that repentance, prayer, and charity shall lessen the severity of the decree.
Meditating on the meaning of this prayer and its utility is a yearly past-time for Jews, clerical and lay alike. A cursory internet search will turn up many sermons and essays more meaningful and better thought-out than my hastily-penned reflection. But it is not the fate of the victims I want to discuss, the randomness that might take them down and their actions that might save them. It’s the agency of the aggressors.
Judaism differs from Christianity in some critical ways beyond not having Jesus or Christmas trees. One of the most important aspects to me is the notion that we cannot ask God for forgiveness until we have attempted to right the wrong ourselves. Whatever your feelings on God (and I personally don’t buy into a monotheistic deity), this seems a good practice. It disallows us from making mistakes or acting in intentionally harmful ways and then just praying our way out of it (I realize that most Christians also don’t subscribe to this, so forgive me the oversimplification of our differences). The onus is on us. We don’t get to come to the Day of Awe to get absolved having done no work ourselves, nor do we get to approach the randomness of fate as though we have no role.
So now to the news. This morning, an airstrike in Aleppo killed 22 people. An attack on worshipers in a mosque in Afghanistan killed 14. Eight people were killed in a suicide bombing in Nigeria. A Palestinian was killed in a demonstration in Silwan. The death toll in Haiti has passed 1,000. And that’s just the homepage of Al Jazeera.
Something is wrong with these headlines. Not merely that these are human lives extinguished. But that the headlines omit something critical — someone killed these people. They did not go by the randomness of fate or the unknowable nature of God. They were murdered — yes, even those in Haiti, although a hurricane is the proximate cause. Syria is a proxy battleground for Russia and the U.S., and lives are expendable pawns as we haggle for dominance. Afghanistan is hell – it had already been invaded and occupied numerous times before the U.S.’s undeclared war began in 2001, ostensibly to capture the al-Qaeda plotters (remember al-Qaeda? no one else does either) even though they were from Saudi Arabia, a country that continues to get our full diplomatic and financial support even as it flattens Yemen (know about Yemen? neither does anyone else) in its own proxy struggle. Silwan is being ethnically cleansed with full U.S. support, and an Israeli soldier killed that demonstrator. And Haiti, meskeen Haiti — first black country to throw off its colonial oppressors, first independent colony in the Americas, has been punished for this ever since with crushing debt, harsh international policies, and aid experiments and incompetence that have increased its vulnerability to natural disasters a hundredfold.
And we, the U.S., we are all responsible. Our putative future leadership has unflinchingly vowed continued support for these sins. Hillary Clinton has cited Henry Kissinger, who is probably responsible for as many deaths as Hitler, as a foreign policy mentor. Donald Trump has promised to keep “bombing and bombing and bombing” Daesh (ISIS), which really just means bombing and bombing and bombing various Middle Eastern countries, residents be damned. We cannot excuse Hillary Clinton her willingness to act as a vengeful god because she is “the lesser evil.” While fate does act in random and sometimes tragic ways, we are not Fate. We cannot excuse our transgressions as the inexplicable hand of God or the unknowable ways of the universe. It is not those in the paths of the bombs that need to engage in repentance, prayer, and charity to save themselves, it is those manufacturing, selling, and guiding those bombs.
My favorite part of the high holiday period is the turning towards communal repentance. There is the Ashamnu, an alphabetical list of our sins, chanted together and in the “we” tense. And there is Tashlich, the ritual casting away of sins on the water, which for the past decade or so I have done with like-minded social-justice Jews, owning our role in racism, neoconservatism and neoliberalism (neo-colonialism), environmental destruction, etc. These serve to focus us on our sins, but that is not enough. More than that, they highlight our agency, charting the path in front of us to ask forgiveness not through words, but through deeds.
May 5777 be a year of communal repentance and action for all of us so that when we approach our next new year, we do not have to ask for forgiveness for complacency. The only non-option is doing nothing. Shana tovah.