7 Tishri 5778 B’SD
To say “I have sinned” is an understatement. Who has not? Indeed, if that would be the extent of my wrongdoing, I would be pacified and content. Yet what I have done is far worse than sinning; I have sat idly and watched others contaminate all that I hold sacred. And to make matters worse, my heart is yearning to speak out in protest but I fear the reactions of my friends. My situation is exacerbated by my inability to clarify the complexity of anyone’s wrongdoing. Who is guilty and who is innocent? Can both positions be equally wrong? Are my emotions overpowering or influencing the incongruities in my brain? Vulgar language is unbecoming, but if truth be told, the issues that have Americans on edge are far more complex than merely the verbiage used.
In a letter from a Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King wrote “Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?” Fifty-four years have passed since he wrote those words, but the lessons are still applicable today.
On Yom Kippur, many don white garments or a Kittel hoping to imbue their inner self with solace and internal peace. We utter prayers in an effort to console our souls and we beat our chest in anticipation of relinquishing any vestige of guilt. Yet, no matter how hard we try, it often fails to reign in the challenges that permeate our thoughts. Organized religion may have done wonders in addressing the needs of hurricane victims but it is an abysmal failure in addressing the core issues facing our country.
Throughout Yom Kippur I recite the Al Chet and imagine what it would be like if it were mandatory for Americans to recite this prayer. It’s the prayer that articulates specific wrongdoings. It includes the sin of wronging a neighbor (any neighbor). It includes the sin of inner thoughts that we carry within but never bring out to the fore. It includes asking forgiveness for the sin of exercising power and foolish speech. But it also asks for absolution for the sin of baseless hatred, the scorning of other people, and throwing of the yoke of communal responsibility.
I utter the words “I am guilty” yet fail to grasp the depth of my guilt. I may try to seek absolution from God, but often fail to articulate my misdeeds. I don’t understand why my belief that Americans should stand during the singing of the National Anthem inherently reduces me to being a racist. Am I being unfair and hypercritical of African Americans by ignoring the intolerance and bigotry they face daily? I beat my chest and utter the words “I am guilty of the sins that are known and those that are unknown.” Am I guilty of lacking empathy by ignoring the realities of police brutality and excessive jail terms faced by my African American brothers and sisters? Can I just pray my way into a delusional state of euphoria and ignore the failed policies of our government? Can sitting in synagogue or fasting absolve me of my responsibility towards my fellow man?
I don’t understand. I haven’t walked in their shoes to fully grasp the depth of depravity and struggle they face. But I also haven’t walked in the shoes of our president. He may be so passionate in his beliefs that he can’t control his outbursts. I can’t know the pressure he is under or the anxieties he faces from partisan politics. I am not excusing or justifying either party, for who am I to judge that which is unknown to me. I’ll never forget these notable words heard over the radio: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of man? The shadow knows!” In other words, to know the inner recesses of our heart is too great a challenge for most of us, to know the inner recesses of someone else is nearly impossible.
My intention in writing this article is not to challenge anyone’s belief. Everyone should have the courage to decide right and wrong for themselves. Standing or taking a knee during the singing of our National Anthem is symptomatic of a far greater crisis in our country. It is the “Al Chet” of a systematic lack of caring for our fellow human being. The left is so preoccupied with their agenda that their lack of peripheral vision hampers their ability to understand Middle America. While the right is so intent on being God’s torch bearer that they fail to conceptualize a world able to exist beyond the parameters they establish.
I don’t have any good answers because the questions are far too complex. I can only conclude by further quoting MLK… “But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” If our heart is directed to our fellow man with love instead of hate, then even when we fail to solve the immediate problem, the long-term prognosis is positive. I had hoped that all this nonsense would dissipate and I could enjoy my Sunday Football without it being politicized. However, there is optimism on the horizon. In all the devastation in Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico, our country worked together to support one another. There were no Jews, Christians and Muslims, but only Americans.
And my final prayer is: God if you are listening to our prayers; please remember that actions speak louder than words. That despite all the rhetoric and negativity uttered in the past few days, when push came to shove we overcame our differences and our country rose to the occasion. Indeed, may this year usher in a year of peace from external conflict and a renewed hope for harmony to all our citizens.
G’mar Tov and an easy fast.
Rabbi Jack Engel