We, Us, Our – The Yom Kippur Litmus Test
By Michael Lawrence
Much has been spoken of this already – how it is that now that places of worship, religious and communal gatherings are closed for long periods during this corona global pandemic, no small number of people have zoomed right back into their synagogues and community organizations for now uber-cherished connection with the wider Jewish family.
Communities that regularly struggle for a minyan (quorum of prayer participants) now fill multiple screens on Zoom. Havdalah ceremonies now attended by tens of families contrast starkly with Havdalah in 2019 when no more than a few households in many communities ever made Havdalah a focus of their week or family farewell to Shabbat.
If we were looking for another reconfirmation that Judaism is a nation, a way of life and a community, not just a religion, here it is again. Many of us have found new ways to connect with each other and our extended Jewish mishpocha as an unintended outcome of a virus that has interrupted so much of what perhaps had become too “routine.”
In order to connect, we have had to innovate and there room to contend that that in itself could arguably provide some reinvigoration and reset to many parts of Jewish life – private and communal.
Perhaps none of this “back to community” should surprise us and certainly not at this time of year.
Throughout the High Holyday prayers we are surrounded by the plural – so many of the central invocations are crafted for the “all” – admitting our errors and sins as a group. Requesting mercy, forgiveness and a place in the Book of Life – as a group.
Our Father, Our King – perhaps one of the most recognizable Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers. Each of the 40+ verses beginning with Our Father, Our King. A myriad of petitions to God for success, mercy, forgiveness, health and healing, sustenance and livelihood and beyond. But the words “me and I” are absent.
We are working for the whole. Thinking about everyone around us. Our community, our global community.
“God, listen to our prayers, spare us, have mercy on us, and accept our prayers with mercy and will.”
The well-known aphorism claims “there are no atheists in foxholes.” Our Machzor (holiday prayer book) would have it that there are no individuals separate from the community during the annual period of judgment and determination of the year to come.
“Do not send us astray, as our strength dissipates do not abandon us.“
Aging often strengthens our sense of mortality, of how short, valuable and delicate life can be. And yet, here we stand, on the holiest of days, and we plead not for the “me” but for the “us.” We go into battle for the group.
Even when we stand, traditionally beating our fist over our chest several times during Yom Kippur, the liturgy refers to us, all of us. If I didn’t make that error or act improperly like this in the last year, I am nonetheless here to plead for others who did. Or for our family, our community, or humanity – whoever got it wrong this past year.
“For the sin that we transgressed…”
Tens of lines, all start with the “we” and end with a different transgression that we have done over the past year – perhaps I, perhaps my neighbor, perhaps all of us as a people. How we have treated others, how we have behaved in business. Our jealousy, our wanton desires, our arrogance, our gossiping, our minimizing of parents and teachers.
Selflessly, we approach God on behalf of the whole.
It is all about doing it for the team.
Yet for me, one transgression and one accompanying request fly right off the pages of the prayer book each Yom Kippur.
“For the sin that we transgressed before you through baseless hatred”
And then part of a list of requests to God that come at the peak of the prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:
“Our Father, Our King, remember your compassion and suppress your anger, bring an end to pestilence, bloodshed, famine, captivity, destruction, iniquity, plague, evil mishap, every illness, every obstacle, every strife, every sort of punishment, every evil decree and baseless hatred from upon us and from all members of your covenant.”
On countless High Holydays across Jewish history, some of these listed threats and dangers were so very current and recognizable. This year, in this list, are several which have impacted our lives enormously over the past years. This year the pain and the plea should feel very raw and real.
But that baseless hatred has never truly waned during Jewish history and today it is a plague within communities around the world and between communities – Jewish and otherwise.
We find too much breath and too much space to hate, to reject and to alienate.
Yet on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we stand with prayer books in hand, crafted in the plural and we sing and pray together as one.
A few years ago, the chazzan (prayer leader) in our synagogue paused at the mention of “baseless hatred” in the quoted paragraph above. Paused and then let out a painful cry – “baseless hatred” and repeated it twice further before completing the section.
It rattled me. It unnerved me. The repetition captured a community.
Are we just going through the motions or is this a call to action?
On Rosh Hashanah we lost a leader, a pioneer and trailblazing personal example. In her office Ruth Bader Ginsburg displayed “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue.”
Right on time of course, comes this week’s Torah portion (Ha’azinu) and doubles-down on this central pillar of Judaism: “The Rock! – perfect is His work; for all His paths are justice” (32:4)
No matter their power and their strength, says Rashi, our Bible commentator, God’s judgment is exact and fair. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a living example of this attribute of God – as should be all judges and leaders. Moreover, as solid as a rock. Resolute, grounded. Unbreakable.
The said “Justice, justice you shall pursue” verse from Deuteronomy continues “that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gave you.” Indeed, as we ask God to inscribe and seal us for life, what a special tribute it would be to RBS, what a wondrous new path we would pave, if we understood the message that comes with the national, communal, shared design of our prayers – if we looked inside our Jewish nation, within our people, within our splintered countries and did ourselves justice, pursuing once and for all the thus far unattainable unity, understanding, tolerance and forgiveness which is so very much needed.
As Israel’s regional neighbors lay down their weapons, abandon boycotts, harmful narratives and instead embrace hope, cooperation and better futures, let us equally look to our left and right, across the breadth of our people and take a step forward on the way to a richer national harmony.
Let this be the year.
Michael Lawrence has been Financial Resource Development Unit Head and Chief Development Officer at The Jewish Agency for Israel since 2016. He is a qualified lawyer in Israel and in his native New Zealand and has lived in Israel since 2000.
He is the author of “Nonprofit Parasha” a weekly look at Philanthropy, Leadership and Community in the Torah portion.