I stood on the pulpit, in the traditional posture of Jewish prayer leaders, facing the Holy Ark, on Yom Kippur/the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year, a 25-hour fast day devoted to prayers of soul-searching and repentance. Behind me were hundreds of worshippers in my congregation’s beautiful sanctuary in California. At mid-day, we had reached a particularly dramatic moment of the service, when the prayer book has us reenact portions of the ritual of the High Priest on Yom Kippur millennia ago when the ancient Temple stood. As the prayer leader, I chant the liturgical text of the High Priest’s penitential prayers, asking for forgiveness first for his own sins, then for the sins committed by his family, and then for the sins of the whole Jewish people. Unique in Jewish liturgy, the words are accompanied by multiple full-body prostrations. It is an intense time of prayer.
Some years I have struggled with the meaning of this ritual, as I, a 21st Century woman rabbi with no desire to see the Temple ritual restored, replicate words and actions of the High Priest in ancient times. Sometimes I have been able to leave these questions behind and simply pray for forgiveness for my own misdeeds and those of members of my family and of my people in the past year.
This year something powerful happened. In the week prior to the holiday, I had been anguished by two terrible acts of violence in Israel: one, an arson attack on a mosque in northern Israel, bearing the signature of the extremist settler “price tag” campaign, and the other, a violent attack by secular Jewish settlers on a group of Israeli Jewish peace activists in the settlement of Anatot. I had taken some comfort from the near-unanimous round of denunciations of the mosque attack by Jewish leaders in Israel and around the world, and by an impressive range of Israeli government officials. Yet I was plagued by the thought that this attack was not the first such hate crime, presumably by Israeli Jews, against Muslim sacred sites in the West Bank and now, for the first time, within Israel itself. By contrast, the assault by Israeli Jewish settlers on Israeli Jewish peace activists had received scant media coverage. The silence was torturous, and the reality of Jewish-on-Jewish aggression horrifying.
What is happening in the country I love? Commentators may find logic to explain the increasing incidence of violence within Israel, as Israeli Jews feel ever more frightened by the support of many nations for Palestinian independence. But the logic does not touch the horror in my heart, as members of my own people engage in violent hate crimes against members of other religious communities and even against fellow Israeli Jews.
Ironically, these events had all unfolded in the midst of our annual “Ten Days of Penitence,” dedicated to deep self-examination, self-critique, words and acts of apology, and recommitment to righteous living. The practice is at once personal and collective: it is directed toward the individual’s process of repentance, but the language and setting of the prayer is collective. In keeping with our tradition’s unabashed tradition of rigorous self-criticism, several Israeli thought leaders had recently written about the need for collective self-examination, as violent and racist trends in Israel have risen.
As one American Jewish leader, there is little I can do to prevent acts of hate by individual Israelis, even as I align myself with organizations that monitor, combat and educate about trends of rising intolerance and aggressiveness in Israeli society. But in that moment of prayer on the pulpit on Yom Kippur, symbolically standing in the place of the High Priest, I prayed desperately for the sins of my people. Acting as if my prayers could carry the weight of great leadership, I prayed that the terrible historic wounds that my people carry would be healed, so that acts of hate would become impossible. I prayed for a change of heart for the people of Israel, a turning toward generosity and compassion. I prayed that the wisdom of Jewish tradition, centered on the values of justice and lovingkindness, would transform a troubled society, and Jews would never again be guilty of acts of unprovoked violence.
I am no High Priest, but I also know that I was not the only Jew offering such prayers this Yom Kippur. May our pleas be heard, and may the power of the sacred day of Yom Kippur do its work to heal the hearts of my people, and of people everywhere.