As a young Jewish boy in 1960s Glasgow, Scotland, I accompanied my father and my two elder brothers every Yom Kippur to the shul he had founded. We always sat in the first row, and to this day I still feel the awesome intensity of prayer, the deep anguish of my father’s generation as they dwelt on their sins and looked for redemption.
Yet I always found it hard to take part in the ceremony, including the customary fast that plays such an integral role in this solemn day. While God judged “who will live and who will die,’’ I was distracted, as if catching smells of my mother’s best homemade cooking — a mix of spicy Jewish fare and Scottish fresh salmon. My mind and soul could not connect to the set pattern of the prayers. The text had already been written — in Hebrew, which I didn’t understand; we were there to follow what had been said for hundreds of years. I just wanted the service to finish and to return to my family, sitting down at the dining table for the traditional “breaking of the fast’’ meal. What was missing? The concept of the need to re-examine our deeds and choose a better path for the future is fine — but it has to come from me: I need to be part of the process, I have to take ownership of my redemption.
Fast forward to Oct. 6, 1973, Yom Kippur. I had left the cold streets of Glasgow for the boiling Beit She’an Valley and for the life of a kibbutznik. On that day, I heard Golda Meir’s dramatic announcement that Israel had been caught in a surprise attack on two fronts — in the North against the Syrian army, and in the South against the Egyptian forces. Nervously, I immediately packed a few things and traveled all night to join my tank unit in the South. Reports said that Egyptian hordes were already crossing the Suez Canal. My mind was heavy, and my pulse was truly racing. Would I, the son of Glasgow’s Jewish deli family, really go into battle? Could I come back seriously injured? Or perhaps even worse? I had never thought about these questions, yet for the first time in my life, I was in physical danger. I was faced with a terrible judgment call — to kill or be killed.
I spent six months with my tank unit, which held its position after the cease-fire in Egypt. And during those long, moonless desert nights, I thought long and hard with my brothers in arms about what had happened. How was Israel so surprised by the Arab attack? Didn’t Israel have the best intelligence community in the world? The problem, I realized, was with the concept of victory that Israel had built since 1967, not with our ability to gather raw intelligence. No matter what the Israeli leadership saw on the ground, they never believed that Arabs would attack. Our mindset had grown so out of touch with the geopolitical realities that it had led all of us astray. Here was a call toward self-awareness and self-understanding in a language that I understood. Here was my Yom Kippur. This was a lesson whose price was so terrible that I could never forget. From then on , Yom Kippur became for me a Yom Kippur of reflection, of challenging the relevancy of my mindset in regard to the reality I lived in.
Fast forward to this year’s Yom Kippur, September 2010. I live in Jerusalem and work at the Reut Institute, a strategy group working to influence the State of Israel, committed to making Israel and the Jewish world a safe and prosperous place for all. Reut understands that to fulfill its core mission requires more than a traditional Yom Kippur every year. It requires a ‘’Yom Kippur concept’’ every day — a constant , systematic re-examination of Israel’s behavior in relationship to reaching its goal of peace and prosperity. And to be successful, it requires a methodology like Reut’s that allows one to tashlich, to throw away one’s misconceptions while retaining one’s core ideals.
All of us create our own Yom Kippur from our life experiences. Each of us has memories of the past, the struggles faced and the vows made for the future. We can’t afford the luxury of falling into a false sense of security. Too much talk of atoning, too little real adapting the way we think and how we behave has tragically affected many crossroads in Jewish history. We have to see Yom Kippur and other days as opportunities to re-examine our mindset, to challenge our usual behavior, to make the adaptations needed in order to fulfill our goals as individuals and as citizens of Israel and the Jewish world. The terrible price of an alternative Yom Kippur was paid in full by so many of my generation in 1973 .
I wish each and every one of you a soul-searching Yom Kippur and an easy fast.
Martin Ben Moreh is program director of Judaism, Zionism and Israeli Society at the Reut Institute, Israel.