It’s just a few hours before Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Most Jews, even many not otherwise religious, will spend the day in fasting and in prayer.
Yom Kippur is perhaps the most observed Jewish holiday after the Passover Seder night. I think the reason for this is largely because the idea of teshuva – and of forgiveness – is universal. All of us have done things we are sorry for. We all want to make amends and seek forgiveness. But this is hard to do. Yom Kippur gives this process structure and, perhaps more importantly, makes it communal. Asking another for forgiveness, especially at a time when he is himself seeking forgiveness from someone else or from God, makes the process much easier. It is difficult to refuse another’s apology when you must yourself ask forgiveness of someone.
So Jews will flock to shuls, synagogues, and temples to seek forgiveness, or to hope that their one-day presence is enough to excuse their year long absence, and that God will forgive their neglect.
Others will sit, perhaps in the seat next to yours, and will quietly demand an apology from God and from man. For what? For entire families burned to smoke and ashes or buried in mass graves. For starvation and torture and neglect. For the rabbi, God’s messenger, who raped and abused them, and for the rabbis who stood by and let it happen. For the Kolkos and the Lanners and for their enablers, the Margulies and the Willigs, and, sadly, the gedolim.
Chances are, in your shul, someone will be alone within the crowd, lost in the pain of abuse present or past.
But we will ignore them. We will beat our chests, cry and seek forgiveness for tying the wrong shoe first or accidentally eating a piece of non-yoshon bakery. We will beseech God with all our might to forgive us these sins. For the day we ate a Hebrew National hot dog, for the day we ate the wrong cheese, for the day we didn’t learn enough or daven hard enough. And, as the day ends and the fast lifts, we feel renewed and forgiven.
This Yom Kippur take a few minutes out of your scripted self-centered piety and think about those people who really needed your help, but you ignored them. Maybe you wanted to avoid a “hillul hashem.” Perhaps you denied their cries by citing lashon hara law, or you chose to side with the rabbis because of their power and social standing (“they must be right – they’re rabbis and community leaders, after all”). Or maybe through the din of your daily life you did not hear their cries.
When the fast ends will you feel renewed and forgiven? I don’t think so.
It is our job, our mission as Jews, to make God known in the world. We do that whether we realize it or not, often whether we want to or not, for better or for worse.
The world is what we make of it. If you want to see God’s presence, make room for it. How do you do that? Help people. Feed the hungry, protect the defenseless. Reject corruption, stealing and fraud. Deal honestly with everyone, and protect the weakest among us.
If you do that, people will look at your communities and they will see God and they will say God is good.
If you do not, they will look at your communities and they will see a God of evil, a corrupt God, a falsifiable God, a God of welfare fraud and political fixes, of nepotism and abuse. You may not understand this but, all frum propaganda aside, this is what many people now see when they look at Orthodoxy.
It doesn’t have to be that way. You each have a choice. It may be difficult and it may be painful, but it’s yours. Please act on it.