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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776
For Our Sins

By Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

This article appeared in Tikkun,
September/October 2002

(Click here to download PDF format version of article.)

As we approach the anniversary of the second intifada, the themes of the High Holidays have special resonance for Jews of all political stripes. I say this knowing that most of us are not comfortable with the blunt language of the High Holiday liturgy, which reminds us of the human capacity for sin and demands that we repair our conduct and change our ways. The High Holiday prayers do not deal with sin in an abstract or philosophical manner; in the Al Cheyt prayers, repeated ten times during the traditional Yom Kippur service, the sins listed are the stuff of everyday life. The rabbis were practical people who knew that it made no sense to talk about sin unless one concentrated on the specific vices to which we are all so prone-deception, slander, envy, and gossip.

It is difficult for us to truly understand the concept of sin, because the psycho-babble of modern culture explains everything in terms of impersonal forces-social, economic, psychological, and genetic-that release us from individual responsibility. Furthermore, like Jews of all ages, we are experts at self-justification and eternally resistant to change. We recognize righteousness only in our own beliefs and are quick to pigeonhole those around us, enemies and friends alike, assigning them to impermeable categories that permit us to ignore what they say without truly listening.

With Israel living in the shadow of war, with terror erupting day after day, with casualties mounting on both sides of the conflict, one might hope that this is the time for Jews on both sides of the political divide to overcome their natural inclinations and do what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ask us to do: to look within and engage in serious and searching moral accounting. My experience is that in times of crisis, we are more resistant than ever to changing ourselves, scrutinizing our innermost thoughts, and confronting our own sins. Nonetheless, given all that is at stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, let me suggest additions to the Al Cheyt prayers for Jews of the Left and Jews of the Right.

For Jews of the Left:

For the sin we committed by making excuses for Arab terror and blaming Israel for the sins of others.

We perfunctorily condemn suicide bombings, but immediately shift the blame to Israel by talking of Israeli occupation. We tend to suggest, at least by implication, that the terror is somehow Israel's fault. We describe terrorism as the last resort of desperate people who have no other options; but in fact, there are always other options, and we know that terror would not be justified even if there were not. We claim to love Israel but magnify her sins and minimize her virtues, and we patronize Palestinians by not holding them to the same moral standards to which all peoples at all times must be held. We are always ready to believe the worst of Israel, even when her soldiers stand accused of massacres they never committed; later, lamely and without contrition, we justify our own credulity and silence by saying, "What Israel did was bad enough." And, perhaps worst of all, we never muster the outrage that the systematic killing of Israeli civilians deserves, that our moral credibility requires, and that the values of Torah and the civilized world demand.


For Jews of the Right:

For the sin we committed by encouraging hatred, ignoring the pain of the Palestinians, and compromising our most fundamental values as Jews.

When Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz makes a reference to the suffering of the Palestinian people at a rally in Washington, we join in the booing, or remain silent and satisfied. When Washington attorney and Jewish leader Nathan Lewin suggests executing the families of suicide bombers as a means of ending the attacks, we say nothing. When Israel's cabinet designates areas of the Jewish state as "Arab-free" zones, we utter not a word of protest. We reject desperation as an excuse for Arab terror but accept it as an explanation for Jewish extremism. We forget that without dignity for the Palestinians there can be no dignity for Israelis, and that without peace for the Palestinians there can be no peace for Israel. We forget the humanity of the Palestinians who live under Israeli control, and we ignore their suffering. We forget that even now-indeed, especially now-the Jew must sympathize not only with his own people but also with the stranger, the Other.

Forgive us all sins, O God of forgiveness, pardon us, grant us atonement.


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