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Atoning in a time of hatred and division

Slavery was abolished in the US long ago, but the hatred its foundations foment will only be gone when we all pitch in to foster the country's healing
Nkyinkim Installation by West African artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. Part of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
Nkyinkim Installation by West African artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. Part of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Yom Kippur is about atonement. It’s about setting things right with God, but it’s also about setting things right with each other. Yom Kippur calls us to own up to our shortcomings, our transgressions and the hurt we have inflicted on others. Because when we hurt others, we hurt God.

Today, this call is more important than ever, because we are woefully close to repeating the sins of our past. And this is the message I will share with my community, when I stand before them on the bimah this Yom Kippur.

White supremacy and Islamophobia are on the rise. Racism and violence are devastating communities across the country. Immigrants and refugees are being terrorized with family separation and held in unconscionable conditions. Attempts are underway to roll back rights for LGBTQ people and women.

Dangerous and violent expressions of anti-Semitism have shaken Jewish communities to the core. But with so many of our neighbors facing similar threats, we can’t afford to turn inward and close ranks. We no longer have the luxury of accepting the American narrative of “Land of the free” at face value.

This year, the United States marked the 400th anniversary of slavery in our country. To bear witness to that terrible legacy, I recently took part in a trip to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, sponsored by the organization I lead, The Central Conference of American Rabbis. Alongside 50 other rabbis, I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice created by the Equal Justice Initiative. Steel monuments hang from the ceiling at the memorial, one for each county where a lynching took place. The monument lists the names of all those who were victims of lynching in that county.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a sacred space for truth-telling and reflection about racial terror in America and its legacy. (PD Wikipedia)

Laid out next to the memorial is also a duplicate set of memorials, lined up like a long trail of coffins. These duplicates are waiting to be claimed by the counties that are willing to create a local lynching memorial and take responsibility for their role in this painful history. Over time, it will become very clear which counties are willing to do the work of atonement – and which are not.

At the nearby Legacy Museum is a wall of jars, each containing soil gathered from different lynching sites. It is breathtaking, heart stopping, to see the jars lined up. Some are dark, some are sandy, some are red like clay – each reflecting a different topography of this country on which the humanity of some was denied by others.

A collection of soil from lynching sites across the United States on display at The Legacy Museum. (PD Wikipedia)

I was reminded that the hate that has been unleashed against immigrants, Jews, people of color and LGBTQ people all has its roots in the same soil that allowed slavery to flourish. The same environment that long after slavery was abolished, continues to feed systems that disempower, humiliate and kill black Americans through mass incarceration and police brutality.

Yom Kippur teaches us that before we can expect forgiveness, we need to take responsibility for the harm we’ve caused. We tend to think first about making amends with those closest to us. But this is also a collective responsibility.

As Americans, it is time for us to consider our national sins and reflect on what we can do to help this country heal. Four-hundred years after the beginning of slavery in the US, and 154 years after slavery was officially abolished, there is still much work for each and every one of us to do.

In the Torah’s description of Yom Kippur, in the book of Leviticus, we are instructed to practice self-denial. We are also instructed to make an offering. Even after we have made things right with those we’ve hurt, even after we’ve done the person-to-person work required of us, we can’t just ask God to forgive us. Making an offering means meeting God halfway. It means asking ourselves what new commitment we can make to bring healing into the world.

With the High Holy days upon us, I challenge our community to think about what we need to do, individually and collectively, to atone and set things right.

About the Author
Rabbi Hara Person is the chief executive for the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the publisher of CCAR Press.
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