General, Parasha / E-Letter

Yom Kippur 5778: Always pushing to do more

3 Comments 27 September 2017

In thinking about the activities of Rabbis for Human Rights and Yom Kippur, Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann answers the question of how we can cultivate appreciation for all people born in the Image of God. In these days when so many strive to hide the injustices of the occupation by silencing and delegitimizing our work and the work of others like us,  we must remain steadfast in our commitment to an Israel living up to our highest Jewish ideals. 

"On the Eve of Yom Kippur" Jakub Weinles, 1900

“On the Eve of Yom Kippur” Jakub Weinles, 1900

By Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann

Yom Kippur is first and foremost a day of reconnecting with G-d. This is done through a process of introspection and acceptance of responsibility for individual and collective sin and a public commitment to change that we call “teshuva” repentance or “turning”). On the day itself, most Jews fast 25 hours, and many, wearing white clothing to indicate a state of purity, or otherwise specially dressed, come to synagogues with their families all over the world. By participating in communal prayer they publicly connect with this process of teshuva. Some pious Jews also refrain from speech during the day as a means to spiritual focus. The sins of hurtful or stupid speech are common and many, as the “Al Het” prayer emphasizes. No one is free of them. As we are taught, the consequence of “the evil tongue” is likened to bloodshed, and sometimes tragically leads to actual bloodshed.

As we approach this holiest of days in the Hebrew calendar it is appropriate that we of Rabbis For Human Rights also take the time to consider where we have sinned and gone astray and how we can reconnect to G-d in our work, and through that to our basic humanity. It is this connection to the Divine that is the root of our commitment to pursue justice for all, the rule of law and the pursuit of peace.  It is our strongest response to those whose Torah is grounded in exclusion, and even in hatred, or who have no “fear of G-d”.

We have not done enough to end injustice here, nor have we been free ourselves of the sins of “small-mindedness,” gossip, egocentricity and turf wars. The community of human-rights and peace NGOs in this country (there are one hundred!) suffers greatly from these sins and from a lack of humility and unity. Our opponents in the current Israeli government (and the many well-financed right-wing organizations working to delegitimize us) want to silence our justified criticism of the abuses of the occupation and of the many social injustices ignored by  an Israeli ruling elite that lacks  compassion or empathy for the weak and disadvantaged. The government and its supporters  exploit our weaknesses   continuously. They have little respect for the rabbinic notion of dialogue, or basic democratic norms.

One of the central themes of the “Days of Awe” of which Yom Kippur is the climax – the Sabbath of Sabbaths – is our common humanity and creaturliness. We are reminded again and again of our mortality and the fragility of our existence.  Humility and honesty are, I believe, the desired spiritual result of these reminders.  We are all one before the one G-d, all existentially weak and vulnerable, Israeli and Palestinian, Jew, Christian and Moslem. We are all, according to our tradition, judged and, if we repent, forgiven on this day, given the opportunity to overcome despair and guilt and renew our lives in hope for a better future,  written into  the Book of Life.

This message is radically universalistic. We are all equally in need of forgiveness and renewal. Forgiveness for our petty weaknesses faced as we are with the hatred and bloodshed that has plagued this Holy Land far too long, forgiveness for our past lack of adequate action to turn things around and to truly strive for justice and peace here.  We can do what we haven’t done before now. We must. Our impact as rabbinic opponents of the occupation is invaluable, as so many have gratefully told us, but it could be greater and our ideological enemies are keenly aware of that. That is why they strive constantly to undermine us, to prevent others from financing our holy work.

We are all responsible, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us, as does the liturgy of this holy day, even if not all are directly guilty.  Only from such humility and honesty can grow respect for all G-d’s creatures and a vision of dignity for all. Human rights work grounded in Torah must entail that understanding, the understanding of our common humanity, and a common vision of a better world.

Praying that we all succeed in “turning things around” this year!

Gmar hatimah tova – May we all be sealed in the Book of Life.

yehielRabbi Yehiel Grenimann is the director of the organizational development at Rabbis for Human Rights

Read RHR’s vidui (“Major Confession”) for Yom Kippur 

Your Comments

3 Comments so far

  1. Manzoor says:

    Dear Rabbi Yehiel,
    Thanks for your speech. I like the words Justice for all. We can not make G-d happy unlesss our neighbours are happy. Our prayer of forgiveness can not be heard unless we return land, money, stolen items return to their owners. Please use correct spelling of word Muslim.
    Please continue your effort to prevail justice. Our prayer are with you and those who do sincere effort from their hearts.

    Thank you.
    Yours sincerely,

  2. Naomi Ben-Ari says:

    Gmar Chatima Tova!

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