Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat HaShavua for Shabbat Shuva: A Happy New Year Begins with Shopping

0 Comments 19 September 2017

Shabbat Shuva is the Shabbat that falls during the ten days of repentance separating Rosh Hashannah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur. In his commentary, Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom reminds us how we must continue to seek strength not only from our own tradition, but also from the global community.


By Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom

“A happy new year begins with shopping.” So reads a billboard in Jerusalem, and probably in other Hebrew speaking cities in today’s Holyland. Jewish tradition would offer this response: A happy new year begins with “we have sinned before You.”

It’s not the settlers, the Civil Administration, the IDF, the Border Patrol, the police, the High Court of Justice, and the politicians who are cutting down olive trees, demolishing houses, putting up road blocks, arresting demonstrators, giving the occupation a green light, and preventing electricity from reaching Gaza; we are the ones. Because this Jewish statement is made in the first person plural. And even if we didn’t personally do every one of the full long and awful list of crimes against humanitarianism, if not humanity, they were done in our name: WE have sinned against You.

Had the penitential prayers of these Days of Awe (from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, and they really are awful) been composed by today’s spin masters, there would be no confession here, rather blame and mudslinging against the other side, against all who protest against human rights violations and against any display of minimal compassion for unnecessary human suffering. They would surely recycle obscure passages from classical sources that have become the basis for a perverted Ten Commandments of conquest and subjugation (“Our poor come first”; “someone who comes to kill you, kill him first”; “whoever is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful”) and repeat that most cynical and pathetic claim: “They’re worse than we are.”

Of course, it’s hard for us to employ the first person plural here, because in reality we are a small minority of sensitive people among a vast majority of indifferent Israelis. This central lament from the holiday liturgy (but also found in the daily prayerbook) could have been written just for us:

“What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What is our righteousness? What is our helpfulness? What our strength? What our might? What shall we say before You, O Lord our God and God of our fathers? Are not all the mighty men as nought before You, the men of renown as though they had not been, the wise as if without knowledge, and the men of understanding as if without discernment? For most of their works are void, and the days of their lives are vanity before You, and the pre-eminence of man over beast is nought, for all is vanity!”

Dr. Ruhama Marton, who founded Physician for Human Rights, recently had the following to say about this powerlessness: “The Zionist left is afraid of radicalism because it is afraid to be lonely, without a sense of belonging. But we belong to greater public, which is outside [of Israel]…and it’s growing worldwide. We have to understand that within, we are too few and too weak. We won’t be able to accomplish much without allies on the outside.”

The core liturgy of these Days of Awe articulates this very idea of reaching out when it imagines the entirety of creation uniting to do God’s will. My translation cannot render the power of this sublime Hebrew text:

“Strike Your fear in all your creations, so that they all be in awe of You; let all creation bow down before You, and form a collective to do Your will with an undivided heart.”

But I do want to impress upon you that this nugget of classical universalism provides a toehold and a rallying point for my own Jewish humanism. I am grateful for the inspiration from the outside (geographically speaking, and from activists of other religions) that have kept me going, and pray that we always remember that we are a part of a larger public, the human family.

Jeremy MilgromRabbi Jeremy Milgrom is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights

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