This past week, Jews around the world paused for reflection and atonement during the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur. I always value this day of introspection – to consider the wrongs I have wrought and the transgressions that I intentionally and unintentionally committed, and ask for forgiveness as well as fortitude for the year ahead. It is, in many ways, a “mirror moment” that provides for a deeper opportunity to look at myself and ask those hard questions – could I have done better, and how so? The answer is always “yes,” and the challenge of the “how” for the coming year is always redoubled.
But this year, even while immersed in my own personal penitence, it was hard not to also think of where the United States is as a nation and what necessitates atonement on a personal and collective level. What have we done, both individually and collectively, that has caused pain to others? What have we done that has fostered ill will and division within and amongst our communities? What words have we used that has caused shame or fear? And lastly, what hardships of others have we turned away from, saying it is “their issue,” not “our issue,” and intentionally forfeited our responsibility to provide common cause?
Aside from the rancorous (and increasingly rancid) political gamesmanship that has pervaded this election season, this upcoming election also seems like a solemn “mirror moment” for the American body politic. Confronted with a nation and a world filled with challenges and opportunities, both of which increasingly have disparate impacts on individuals and communities, we need to ask ourselves, can we do better? Can we right the wrongs of our past by striving to be better in the future (in whatever ways “better” can be defined)?
Like our own personal lives, a national mirror moment requires looking long and hard at oneself. It is not merely about the decisions and actions of the past year. It is about the decisions and actions of the past that predicated this year and that created the foundation of our failings as well as our successes (and sometimes, paradoxically, creating both at the same time). As an individual, sometimes the consequences of our actions can appear quite linear and deductive; in terms of national policy and well-being, they are rarely that simple.
And yet, if we were to all to undertake the Al Chet, the Jewish confessional prayer that is repeated several times over the Yom Kippur holiday, and confess the sins of our nation, there would be some transgressions that would be hard to ignore. Using the formulation of this ancient prayer six examples of our sins for which we would seek pardoning and atonement might include:
For the sin of failing to create inclusive and safe communities for all of our citizens
For the sin of failing to provide excellent educational opportunities for all of our children
For the sin of turning a blind eye to the racial prejudice that pervades our society
For the sin of focusing too greatly on imprisonment rather than empowerment
For the sin of responding to those in need with apathy rather than with empathy
For the sin of using faith to divide us, not to unite us
Fortunately, elections allow us those collective moments to take an important look in the mirror and acknowledge these harsh statements (and others that we might identify depending on our perspectives and politics). Aside from the pounding of chests, there is a moment to make deeper, more heartfelt promises to do better in they year ahead on all of these transgressions and many more. Rather than sit in front of a throne of divine judgment, in elections we serve as our own judge and jury, collectively choosing how we will inscribe our nation and ourselves in the books of life and history for the year ahead.
Will we strive to do better? Will we commit to repairing our world? In this “mirror moment” of history, do we like what we see? And if not, how will we change? What personal responsibility will we take in effecting that change?
One thing is certain: we won’t need to wait until next Yom Kippur to find out.
Seth Cohen is a senior director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.