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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776

Sins of omission

Galilee Diary #407, September 14, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein

The great shofar is sounded, and the still small voice is heard…
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: Who shall live and who shall die…
But prayer, repentance, and tzedakah avert the harsh verdict…
-from the traditional high holiday liturgy, the "Unetaneh Tokef" prayer

There is a widely known legend that the powerful "Unetaneh Tokef" prayer, one of the most popular expressions of the spirit of the high holidays (recited on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), was written in medieval Germany by one Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, a respected communal leader summoned by the local bishop and ordered to convert. The rabbi asked for three days to think about it – and promptly went home and was wracked by guilt for even giving the appearance of hesitation. He was dragged back to the bishop three days later, tortured, mutilated, and sent home. He asked to be carried to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, where he recited this prayer before he died. (By the way, this prayer was set to a new melody by a composer at Kibbutz Bet Hashitah after eleven members of the kibbutz fell in the Yom Kippur War – as a sort of memorial to the fallen and to the trauma of that war; it became a "hit" among the general public; now everyone knows it, including many who have never heard it in a synagogue.)

At this season, even though my situation is of course far different from that of Rabbi Amnon, his story is always in my thoughts. It is not the sadness or the powerlessness or the religious fanaticism that affects me, but his guilt over hesitating. Indeed, why did he not just stand up and say "no way!"? What was that three days all about? Was he really going to think about it? Indeed, a few hundred miles away, in Spain, lots of Jews let themselves go through conversion to save their lives, intending to return to Judaism when the climate changed. Maybe he wanted to think about whether martyrdom was really productive. Or maybe he wanted to give God time to intervene, so he stalled. Or perhaps he was just afraid. Ultimately, he realized that whatever may have been his reason for hesitating, his act sent a message of doubt, of ambivalence, to his community, perhaps undermining their faith and solidarity.

And here I sit, in the Jewish state, the one place in the world in which the Jews, with our Torah and our values and our history, are fully responsible, for we are sovereign. In other countries we are a tiny minority, a voice crying in the wilderness; even if we ever managed to agree on a particular policy or direction, we wouldn't have the power to implement it. Here it is different. We have left powerlessness behind. We're in charge here. We have shown that we can achieve amazing things in a short time – building a stable democracy, ingathering the exiles, serious contributions in science and culture, creative social experiments… So we really have no excuse for the injustices: they are wholly ours. And they really do cry out – in our treatment of each other, in our treatment of our minorities and our refugees and our foreign workers, in our treatment of the land itself. As my mother used to say: so if you can get a 95, why couldn't you get a 100? We are not, any way you look at it, "doing our best."

I hesitate like Rabbi Amnon – I just need a few days to think about just how loudly to speak out, and how, and where, on which issue; after all, I wouldn't want to be too strident, alienating those whose support we need; I just need time to sort out which activist agenda is the most effective, which party's platform is right; I need a few days to finish this project so I'll have time to devote to community activism; if I could just figure out which of the voices shouting at me really does have the moral high ground. And since I can't do everything, I need a little while to decide what is most important. Meanwhile the grass needs mowing and porch needs painting. Three days. Three weeks. Three months. Three years…

"But prayer, repentance, and tzedakah avert the harsh verdict…" I hope so.

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