Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat Yom Kippur

4 Comments 05 October 2011

Tents and private belongings of residents of the protest camps, Tel Aviv, Israel, 4/10/2011. Tents and private belongings of residents of the protest camps are seen in a parking lot in north Tel Aviv on the 4/10/2011 one day after the eviction of the camps by the Tel Aviv municipality. Photo by: Oren Ziv/

Parashat Hashavua “Yom Kippur” | What Will Be | What Was | Torah Thoughts

Yom Kippur Thoughts | Rabbi Arik Ascherman

My mood when I turn off the phone for Shabbat or a holiday very much depends on whether or not I feel that I did something meaningful that day to further human rights.  I have rarely felt as awful entering a holiday as when I went home after wishing Shana Tova to the families who would be spending the holiday in a tent encampment.

My thoughts approaching Yom Kippur are also occupied by two questions about teshuvah * I was asked recently.  One psychologist friend and colleague of mine has been particularly traumatized by sitting in military court and witnessing the almost automatic sentences this “justice system” issues against Palestinian children. (Btselem documents how the entire process violates both Israeli and international law, I would add that children are being arrested on a daily basis, and that a Palestinian child convicted of throwing stones after a general sweep arresting children without any witness that they were the throwers is certainly going to get stiffer sentence than an Israeli who throws stones.  While I could find no published statistics, there is a subjective element in rating the seriousness of crimes, and compiling statistics is more complicated because of the fact that Israelis in the OT are so rarely arrested or convicted, it certainly appears that these children are likely to spend more time in jail than Israelis in the OT who have committed much more serious crimes.  I don’t condone stone throwing  and, while this is quite unusual, just last week the army maintains that stone throwing was the cause for a fatal traffic accident.  On the other hand, who knows the extent of psychological damage caused to these children, and how much hatred is engendered towards Israel in this travesty of justice which does very little to stop stone throwing.)  My traumatized friend was wondering what process of teshuvah the perpetrators in this system could ever possibly do, and how they can live with themselves.  Could there ever be a process, as has been tried elsewhere around the world, by which perpetrators and victims attempt to face each other?

My friend Jeff Halper has been asking me for years whether we have anything in Judaism parallel to Christian forgiveness or the Arab tradition of sulha that could inspire an Israeli-Palestinian version of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”  I have always answered by speaking of teshuva, khesbon nefesh (soul searching) and Yom Kippur.  Jeff is of course aware of these concepts.  However, this year he pressed me further, asking whether we have anything which moves us beyond our individual teshuva to a collective/societal process.

I can answer Jeff’s question simply.  The vidui (Confession) we recite endlessly on Yom Kippur (Both the traditional vidui and the RHR vidui) are written in the plural, “For the sin which WE have sinned against you.  While the process of kheshbon nefesh is a very personal one, we recite the vidui in the plural because we must take responsibility as individuals for the collective sins of our society, and even for  sins committed by other individuals within our society.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was wont to say, “In a democratic society some are guilty, but all are responsible.”  Accepting collective responsibility for things happening in our society which we did not do personally is the starting point for any societal process of reconciliation.  This would already be a huge step beyond the current “blame game” in which Israelis and Palestinians each try to rack up points as to who has suffered more and who started what when.

What is involved in taking responsibility?  If my individual kheshbon nefesh entails taking responsibility for the collective, perhaps my understanding of what commands me to take responsibility as an individual can teach me what must happen for us to take responsibility as a society.  I have been reflecting lately on the fact that my life would be much easier were it not for three things:

  1. If I hadn’t seen what I have seen with my own eyes, and if I could hide my head in the sand and not know how, in the country I love,  we are violating the human rights of both Palestinians and of fellow Israelis.  I often feel like “The man who knows too much.”
  2. If I could say that I am not responsible. In our Jewish cycle of weekly Torah readings, we read every year just in the month of Elul in which we are already preparing for the High Holy Days, “Lo tukhal l’hitalem,” you can neither turn away and pretend that you haven’t seen, nor remain indifferent and say “I’m not responsible.”(Deuteronomy 22:3) The following week we are taught of the first fruits ceremony, in which we recalled our own history of oppression, how God has brought us to the Land of Israel, and the responsibilities toward God and our fellow human beings that flow from that history.  Regarding both our history and our responsibilities we must declare “V’lo Shekhakhti,  I have not forgotten.”
  3. If I could say that it doesn’t matter what I do because it doesn’t make a difference.  We are victims of our own success.  We have made a difference too often to hide behind such an excuse.

On both an individual and societal level something must cause us to see what we would prefer not to see, cause us to understand that we can not turn away and believe that our actions make a difference. Lןke Jonah, who finally realizes that he can not run from responsibility, we are then ready to answer God’s Call.

U’ Teshuvah U’T’fillah U’Tzedakah Ma’avirin Et Roa Ha’G’zeirah. (U’Netanah Tokef-High Holy Day Prayers)  As I have written before, we can midrashically translate this as “Answering God’s Call, khesbon nefesh thinking through our situation and what is necessary to change it, and then take the necessary concrete steps to change, repair (Where possible) and act justly, these actions avert the stern decree.”

As individuals, it is this sense of commandedness and of responsibility that push us to give work the extra hour for social justice and to add the extra zero to our financial contribution.

As both individuals and as a society, that “stern decree” might be a reality in which no process of reconciliation is possible.

Responsibility is demanding.

We who struggle for human rights walk a thin path between two slippery slopes.  So many of us beat ourselves up for what we haven’t done.  On the other hand, it can be easy for us exempt ourselves from responsibility because we are the “good guys” fighting the good fight.  What more was there for me to do other than go home after wishing the families in the encampment “Shana Tova?”  Should I have spent the holiday in the encampment at my family’s expense or invited everybody home?  It doesn’t help to beat myself up or violate my family’s human rights. On the other hand, I am a full voting member of the Israeli society and Jewish people that is responsible for the fact that families are spending Rosh HaShana in tents, that the Prawer report adapted by the government recommends expelling some 30,000 Bedouin from their homes, that the Jewish National Fund will plant forests over many of those former villages, that more settlers continue to build on Palestinian owned lands and scheme to take over more homes in East Jerusalem, that even as I write I am receiving new reports of Palestinian homes and water cisterns being demolished, that there is continued violence by Israeli security forces and settlers directed at Palestinians and their trees and property, and that Israeli working families live under the poverty line because they are not earning a living wage…. (I am using Israeli examples, but most of you reading this abroad live in countries where there are equally serious or worse human rights violations.  I am sure that you can come up with your own cases.)

If nothing else, this summer’s protest was a wake up call from people who had never been activists reminding us that we need not and must not ever accept our current reality as set in stone or pat ourselves on the back and say that we veteran activists have done everything that can possibly be done.

Somewhere between our responsibility as individuals and as society in general is our responsibility in social change organizations and the human rights community.  We must remember that the fact that we have taken the step of answering God’s call and taking responsibility does not exempt us from the stage of tefillah, serious thought and introspection about what is wrong and what could be the truly effective way to getting to the stage of tzedakah, of truly fixing things.

Part of being satisfied with ourselves because we are the “good guys” feeling that the amount of our activity excuses us from examining the quality of our activity.  One of the reasons that I do not as often run to the site of a home demolition as I used to is because I can offer “Tea and sympathy,” but can do little to rectify the situation.  My individual concern is nice, but that Palestinian family and Palestinian society in general need more than that.  There were years in which we were more effective, as we currently are on other issues. However, we had become less so.  Rather than simply feeling off the hook because we were running around as if we were doing something, or ceasing to believe that anything could be done, we needed to find another way. After many years of work, we (along with ICAHD, JLAC and St Yves’ Center) recently submitted a High Court appeal seeking to strike at the root cause of home demolitions by challenging the planning system manipulated to prevent Palestinians from building, and demanding that planning in Area C be returned to Palestinian hands. Perhaps I will feel more able to look myself and Palestinians in the face if we achieve something through this strategy.  If not, we will have to pick ourselves up and search for something else.

Sometimes, the problem is that we broadcast to others that we are the good guys in a way they find arrogant.  You will notice that in this year’s vidui we ask forgiveness for the sin or arrogance.  Those of us in Israeli human rights organizations that work in the Occupied Territories  have  been engaged in a full year of kheshbon nefesh and serious thinking in light of the statistics showing that on the left as well as on the right even those who support human rights find us arrogant and resent what the fact that we project to them that we see ourselves as morally superior.

There are some issues which are simply so cut and dried that there is absolutely no way that we can say that we can understand or respect another point of view.  However, we can and must project in a less judgmental way that for all sorts of reasons people who are basically good can do things which are wrong.  Even the fact that we shout is an expression of our faith in the goodness of our fellow Israelis.  Otherwise, there would be no point in shouting.  Furthermore, as I have learned from my mother so many times, projecting to somebody that you believe they will do the right thing often brings unexpected results.  As I write I just received a call from Quamar, the head of our OT Legal Department.  She made the extra effort she didn’t need to write a personal letter to the head of the Civil Administration appealing to him as a fellow farmer to feel compassion and take responsibility for a particular farmer whose trees have been chopped down repeatedly, while the C.A. and the rest of the army has not learned from history and taken steps to protect this particularly area. Nothing concrete has changed yet, but he replied that she had succeeded in moving him emotionally, and that he promised to come and visit the area personally.

We cannot let ourselves off the hook because we know what we meant or by saying that it doesn’t matter how Israelis hear us because they aren’t going to listen or do anything differently in any case. We have to find the way that what we say is heard the way that we meant it.

There are other issues where we must understand and convey that we understand that there is a real moral dilemma.  When we have condemned the IDF’s violations of the it’s own code of ethics by seriously changing the balance between protecting our own soldiers and not harming Palestinian civilians, I thought that we have always acknowledged the terrible reality that the policies we advocate could result in more of our soldiers being harmed, and/or our not using all the tools at our disposal when our own civilians are under attack (And our insistence that we get “out of the box” rather than remain trapped in a lose-lose situation).  Again, what we thought we were conveying has not been what has been heard. We must do better.

RHR sometimes proposes positive solutions to various internal Israelis social problems, while many believe their responsibility is only to criticize what they oppose.  I think that what we are doing is smart tactically and practically, but we must do so in a way that articulates what the goal is, and allows for the fact that some who share our goals might legitimately come up with alternative solutions.

Taking responsibility is something that could and ought to start now. Averting the stern decree is something which we hope to achieve at the end of the process. Reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians is unlikely as long as the Occupation continues – until we have fixed something.  It is true that the conflict did not start with the Occupation, and that human rights violations will not end when the Occupation ends. It is also true that there are groups who manage to overcome the current reality and refuse to be enemies, even as the conflict continues to rage. However, true collective reconciliation is not imaginable for most when we are bombing each other and we Israelis are continuing to steal Palestinian land. We learn in the Talmud that one cannot enter the mikvah (Pool of water for Jewish ritual immersion and purification) and expect to be purified while still grasping a ritually contaminating dead lizard in one’s hand.  Maimonides teaches us that the true test for teshuva is when one has the opportunity to make the same mistake one made in the past, and does the right thing.

In terms of perpetrators and victims, it is psychologically easier to ask forgiveness, as well as to live with ourselves, when we know that we have stopped doing whatever we were doing, even when we had the opportunity to continue to do so.  It will be easier for us to forgive others when they have done the same.

Let us experience this Yom Kippur, and beyond, with the faith that accepting responsibility, serious thinking and introspection, and concrete acts to effect change can avert many stern decrees, allowing us to reconcile with others individually and collectively, with God, and with ourselves.

May the Final Seal Be For the Good,


* Teshuvah is the process we especially concentrate on during the High Holiday season by which we answer God’s call to us (One way of translating teshuvah is “answer”), turning, and returning to our highest and truest selves (The Hebrew word for “return” comes from the same root as teshuvah, sin bet bet. The Hebrew root of the word “turn” is samekh bet bet.  Linguists point out instances where samekh and sin have been switched, so we can midrashically also make a connection to “teshuvah,)

What Will Be

Wednesday,5.10.2011 – The Next Harvest in Madame, near Nablus. We will leave from Jerusalem (only) at 11:30 AM from Gan HaPaamon. To sign up to come, please call Moriel 0543157781

Thursday, 6.10.2011, 11:00 am – The high Bedouin popular committee of the Negev
Demonstration and General strikeNo to Prawer Plan. Be’er Sheva, in front of the “Authority for the settlement of the Negev Bedouins”. Buses to the demonstration and back will leave from Tel Aviv (9:00 Arlozorov train station, Masof El Al) and Jerusalem (9:00 Gan Hapa’amon). Registration at: Mumtaz – 0507701118, Ilan – 0542895000

The Week that Was

Social Justice Department

Trachtenberg forgot about public housing – Find out what happens when citizens spend Rosh HaShana and the first rains in tents and the Trachtenberg Committee, set up by the government to address (i.e. bury) the demands of this summer’s tent protest movement, ignores them? Continue reading →

Days of Hope and Worries – Every year the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are self examination and days of hope, hope that this new year will be better than the previous years, that I will succeed to fulfill my obligations to myself, my family, my job and to the society I live in. After the amazing summer this year is a more optimistic year, but so are the worries. Continue reading →

RHR Media Coverage

Messages from Other Organizations

We publish these media links as a service to the community, but they are not our activities and we are not responsible for their content.  The links are a mixture of English and Hebrew articles

Hatima Tova and Shabbat Shalom

Your Comments

4 Comments so far

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful message, Arik. It’s just what we need to ponder….

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    i like member in your associtions

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