LJ E-Bulletin, Thought for the Week: Yom Kippur (5779) – Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Nearly every time I dictate the words ‘Yom Kippur’ – due to RSI, I’ve been writing by dictation since 2010 – ‘Yom Kippur War’ appears on the screen before me.
It seems that for the dictation programme I use – ‘Dragon Naturally Speaking’ – the war that began on Yom Kippur in 1973, when Israel was attacked by an alliance of Arab states, led by Egypt and Syria, trumps the sacred annual Jewish commemoration that goes back well over two thousand years to the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
It feels incongruous for Yom Kippur to be associated with war, but the fact is that each year since 1973, the most sacred date on the Jewish calendar has also been the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. And this year, it’s the 45th anniversary. Meanwhile, a peace agreement was signed between Israel and Egypt in 1979, and the Arab states no longer act in concert in relation to Israel or anything else. And still, there seems no end in sight to the conflict at the heart of it all between Israelis and the Palestinians.
So, what we do about this difficult conjunction of Yom Kippur and the Yom Kippur War? We could simply ignore it, or we could go deeper, and explore the meaning of this sacred day. We live in an individualistic society, and, of course, Yom Kippur is a day for the individual to reflect, confess and make a journey towards atonement. But interestingly, when Yom Kippur was introduced into the calendar in the Second Temple period, the ritual acknowledged the need of all the community of Israel for atonement. As we read in the Torah (Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:7-19), the High Priest would take two goats, and by placing lots upon them, one would be sacrificed as a sin offering, and one would be sent out into the wilderness bearing the sins of the Israelites
We Jews know only too well what it is to be burdened with collective responsibility. By a terrible irony, the practice of sending a goat out into the wilderness weighed down with the people’s sins later gave rise to the term, ‘scapegoat’, which was employed against the Jewish people, scapegoated for the sins of humanity. Indeed, scapegoating, is the central motif of anti-Semitism: Jews have been victimised throughout the ages for being what anti-Semites see as the perpetrators of every malevolent evil – depending on the particular perspective of the Jew-hater or Jew-hating group – from the killing of Jesus through capitalism, communism and imperialism.
Given the nature of anti-Semitism and how it has been expressed in practice – in particular, during the Sho’ah – it may be hard to recognise that taking collective responsibility is essential to the journey towards atonement. Nevertheless, the haftarah we read on Yom Kippur morning from the second part of the Book of Isaiah makes it clear that as individuals, we also bear responsibility for the sins of the community and for the society in which we live. We read (58:5-7):
Is this the fast I look for? A day of self-affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Eternal One? / Is not this the fast I look for: to release the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? / Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to cloth them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?
The prophet known as ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, the ‘Second Isaiah’ was addressing, both, the individual and the society – the Jewish society – which had been brought to ruin by social and economic injustice.
On Yom Kippur we confess to sins in the plural: ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi, ‘we have offended, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have slandered’. Regardless of whether or not we, as individuals, have engaged in any particular wrong mentioned, we make collective confession because we recognise that we could have committed these wrongs, that amongst the Jewish people, there are those who have committed these wrongs, and that as a society we do wrong – in particular, against the most vulnerable and marginal and vulnerable; referred to repeatedly in our sacred texts as ‘the stranger, the orphan and the widow’ (sse, e.g., Exodus 22:21-24, Deuteronomy 24:17-18).
The focus of aseret y’mei t’shuvah, ‘the ten days of returning/repentance’ that begin on Rosh Ha-Shanah and conclude on Yom Kippur is on the repentance journey of the individual. And yet, from the perspective of the ancient rites of Yom Kippur during Temple times, and expressed in the texts of rabbinic liturgy which we still use today, taking collective responsibility is also integral to the yamim nora’im, ‘the awed days’. And so, to be reminded of the Yom Kippur War on Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to reflect not only on our own personal mistakes and wrongdoing, but also to think beyond our immediate lives to the wider community and society in which we live, and to the Jewish people across the world, including Israel, gathered together on Yom Kippur in the hope of making a new beginning.