Nu! Teaching the “We” in Yom Kippur

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By David J. Steiner, Ed.D.

ASHAMNU: we have been guilty, BAGADNU: we have betrayed, GAZALNU: we have stolen, DIBARNU DOFI: we have spoken falsely.

Maybe it is time to look in the mirror and say KEYSHALNU: We have failed.

We have failed because we have made Yom Kippur a day of repentance for our individual sins at the expense of our collective transgressions.

We have failed because we have adopted the singular, unique and problematic approach of Rabbi Hanina (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 38a) “The one who is commanded to do something and does it stands on a higher level than the one who does something without being commanded to do it.” In essence, Don’t question Jewish (divine) authority. Do as you are told.

We have failed because we have handed judgement over to an outside authority. Yes, to err is human, but so is forgiveness. We continue to teach that there is a Book of Life sitting around in some heavenly library waiting for the inscriptions of a deity who will make judgements. Why not replace, “Gmar Chatima Tova,” with “Our Chatima Tova,” Our stamp is good because we are the ones who have to manage this world, and we occupy it. Our forebears knew that morality is not in heaven. It is decided by leaning toward the majority and being constantly vigilant.

This notion of a day of judgement has its benefits if you believe – and want to teach –  that humanity is bound to transgress when not constrained by the threat of individual punishment or permanent banishment to a gruesome afterlife, but this system has failed for many reasons.

Human beings may not necessarily be good or bad, but they all live with the consequences of their actions. They are also interdependent. Yom Kippur is the holiday of our indebtedness to one another alongside our personal responsibility for our actions. There is no “we” without “me.”  Isn’t that why the rabbis prescribed the reading of Yonah? They wanted us to explore the balance between concern for our own will in the universe and the inevitability of the membership in a broad collective. Yonah isn’t even instructed to warn his own people, or good people – as if good people need warning. He is sent to Nineveh to take responsibility for the dregs of the region. So why is it that we create and teach this day as if it is all about “me”?

My best guess is that we individuals choose a path of least resistance. We can control ourselves, for the most part, so we can understand why we could be personably accountable, but we don’t want to feel accountable for the actions of others. We leave that to external forces, which is why we read Yonah and not the story of Abraham in Sodom on Yom Kippur. We want a good god to care about the sinners of a failed city by sending a messenger to warn them instead of an angry god who will insist on justice, like he did in Sodom. But in a world where God’s immanence is not clear, has not been proven and could be completely wrong, why do we insist on passing the buck. Most importantly, why do we insist on teaching this to our children?

Imagine a Yom Kippur where we come together, after a month of reconciliation, and we ask ourselves, “How are we doing?” Are we Sodom and Nineveh or have we learned to progress? What if we read the story of the Tower of Babel as the origin of the diversity and culture we created for ourselves by not striving to reach heaven anymore? How would we feel today assessing ourselves in the present state of our people? Two  points for asserting our sovereignty with a nation-state and taking collective responsibility as a people; subtract a point for not finalizing our borders. What about the two million people who live under our rule without full citizenship of democratic rights? Do we add a few points for our numerous Nobel Prizes? Reduce one for Bernie Madoff? What about deporting Sudanese refugees?

It’s hard to take responsibility for a collective, but this is exactly why we set aside this day.

“Howbeit on the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; there shall be a holy convocation unto you, and You All shall afflict your souls; and You All shall bring an offering made by fire unto the LORD. And You All shall do no manner of work in that same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for all of you…” (Lev 23:27-28)

It’s probably too late for this Yom Kippur. We will have to pound our hearts and say, “Keyshalnu,” but maybe next year we will do better. This is the Tikvah (hope) of our people, “to be a free nation,” unfettered by the threats of a gruesome afterlife and responsible for what we do, individually, and as a collective here on this lovely planet. This is the meaning of those two letters at the end of the verbs ASHAMNU, BAGADNU, GAZALNU, DIBARNU. Now lets attend to the “Nu.”

Wishing all readers, “Our chatima tova!”

David Steiner, Ed.D, is a filmmaker, mediator and rabbinical student at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. He has been a congregational director of education for both Reform and Conservative congregations.