September 23, 2012
Yom Kippur: Expanding Our Communal Roles
The Jewish community at large is struggling to find common spaces where all can be together. After all, where can we be united as 21st-century Jews? In religious belief? On Israel? In Jewish education? On some type of mitzvah day or day of learning? Only a small fraction of the community shows up to anything or agrees to anything. We have become so fragmented.
If the Jewish community is merely a restaurant, then we come when we’re hungry and like what’s on the menu. We pay for our food, leave our trash, and go home. But if the Jewish community is more like a family, we show up to support things even when they do not totally speak to us, even when the meal being served is not what we would have ordered. Perhaps what has been most lost from Jewish community building is a sense of connection to the big picture, the whole, and the notion that we sometimes must sacrifice our desires for the well-being of the broader community.
In the Yom Kippur liturgy, before Vidui, we sing “Ki Anu Amecha” (because we are your people) and in this prayer we use 11 metaphors of our collective relationship to G-d (Nation before God, Child before Parent, Slave before Master, Congregation before Portion, Heritage before Lot, Sheep before Shepherd, Vineyard before Watchmen, Handiwork before Shaper, Beloved before Lover, Treasure before God, Designated before Designated). We are able to sustain as one people before G-d, since there are many Divine roles. Perhaps no one role could hold the attention and trust of us all.
And yet, there is an important growth opportunity for each of us hidden in this song. One aspect of teshuva we focus on at Yom Kippur is learning how to connect to all of these different Divine manifestations (G-d as shepherd, G-d as parent, G-d as watchman, etc.). By doing so, in addition to strengthening our personal connection to our Creator, we can learn how to emulate each of these roles and how we can broaden ourselves to play multiple communal roles. We do not come to shul just to see our three or four friends and achieve personal goals, but also to connect to the community as a whole and achieve communal goals. To do that, we must be broader in our vision.
As part of the philosophical mind-body problem, we know that we cannot know each other’s essences. We cannot know each other’s minds and hearts. We come to learn about each other through our actions. Someone smiles! Someone picks up a table to help! The way one walks and talks! One reveals oneself through actions. We relate to community not through our belief but by what we give, by what we do publicly, and sometimes just by showing up.
Elie Wiesel explained that we can connect to one another through our common history:
"We are bound by tradition to believe that together we have stood at Sinai, that together we have crossed the river Jordan, conquered the land of Canaan and built the Temple; that together we have been driven thence by the Babylonians and the Romans; that together we have roamed the dark byroads of exile; that together we have dreamed of recapturing a glory we have never forgotten—every one of us is the sum of our common history."
This is true, but we are also much more than a “sum of our common history.” We are the present as well.
The early 20th-century Jewish Russian philosopher Jacob Klatzkin wrote: "To be a Jew means the acceptance of neither a religious nor an ethical creed. We are neither a denomination nor a school of thought, but members of one family, bearers of a common history."
To be a family means to show up for one another and to support one another, to fulfill what the Talmud (Shavuot 39a) mandates as "Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh"—"All Israel is responsible for one another." We do that by broadening ourselves and by building bridges not through putting up walls.
Unfortunately, there are those who would reject this family. Recently, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar stated that if a Jew should encounter only Reform Jews on Rosh Hashanah, “it is better for him to pray in his hotel and not go near them. Moreover, it is better that he not pray at all than pray with them.” In response, Reform Rabbi Uri Regev said: “It is sad that Rabbi Amar chooses the holiest time of the Jewish year, which should celebrate Jewish unity, to pursue his sectarian fundamentalist views.” Rabbi Regev added that “pluralism and diversity,” rather than seeking “fault with fellow Jews,” should be what Judaism stands for.
There are very valid disagreements about how we should practice Judaism today. We need not agree with one another but we must respect one another and find spaces for sharing, dialogue, cooperation, and support. We need not love everyone in our spiritual family but we must support one another nonetheless.
One of the themes of Yom Kippur is that we enter alone. Each of us arises in fear for our lives, standing alone, feeble before the Creator without any good explanations for how we lived the previous year. Yet, we conclude by singing about our collective destiny, “L’Shana Haba B’Yerushalayim.” We enter as individuals, but if we truly internalize the day, we feel more connected to our whole community and people.
This Yom Kippur, may we emulate the Divine to become larger presences, playing greater roles in our communities to have our own unique impact in our magnificent national story.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"