The glass mirror before which we spend a good deal of our time as we prepare to venture out into the world or these days, present ourselves on Zoom, was invented in the early 1300’s. Prior to this people polished precious metals that only gave them an inkling of how they appeared to others. Imagine looking at your reflection in the waters of a lake. This gives you a rough approximation of how you might appear in ancient mirrors. Glass mirrors by contrast offer an accurate measure of how others see us. We stand before the mirror and ask ourselves if our grey hairs are showing or the outfit we are wearing is flattering to our figures or prior to that Zoom call, do we have any food stuck in between our teeth.
I have been thinking about mirrors and the technological leap they represent. Seeing ourselves more accurately, being able to hold a mirror so close to our faces that we can glimpse even our pores, helped to give rise first to an explosion of portrait painting and now to a heightened sense of individual rights. For our ancient rabbis, from whom we draw inspiration and wisdom, the mirror was not like our mirror. It was only an approximation of our appearance. And so, they saw our reflection more in how we behaved toward others rather than how we looked. For them the mirror was not about appearance but instead about how we acted. Our hands, when doing good, became a reflection of the divine image with which each of us is created.
And so, during this season of repentance, I wish to look into their mirror and ask ourselves some difficult questions. Yom Kippur is devoted to heshbon hanefesh, self-examination and soul searching. This fundamental Jewish value is central to strengthening our souls. As difficult as it is, this soul searching, and self-examination offers needed medicine for this difficult and trying year. We stand before God and admit our errors. We make amends for our wrongs. We say, “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu…. We are guilty.” We beat our chests and proclaim, “We have gone astray.” Although I have done plenty of wrongs and you have also committed errors, we never say it like that. It is always, we. “Al cheyt shechatanu… for the sin we have sinned.” And so, on this day soul searching is not an individual undertaking as much as it is a communal confession. How can we do better? What must we change?
Judaism furthermore believes that we are not sealed for life (chatimah tovah), that we are not guaranteed a healthy soul until we have done the hard and painful task of looking within. We believe we can always do better. That only starts with an honest accounting of our wrongs. The idea that each of us perfect is false. The Talmud teaches: “Even the perfectly righteous cannot stand where the repentant sinner stands.” The idea that our community, or our nation, is without error is also wrong. Strength comes from admitting wrongdoing. Character is honed by confessing sins. That is what we are supposed to be doing on this day.
Years ago, in 1990 to be exact, I was invited to participate in a three-day conference organized by the American Jewish Committee. It was a small group of seminary students; half were Black seminarians from Chicago and the other half Jewish seminary students like myself. I still recall the closing luncheon. I was sitting with some of the Black students with whom I had become friendly when the conversation turned to policing. I don’t recall the exact details of the discussion, but I do remember how passionate the Black seminary students became. They spoke about how the police had it in for them and how Black people are far more likely to be killed by the police than White Chicagoans. And I also remember how defensive I became. “That’s ridiculous. That’s absurd,” I said. “The police are trying to protect all of us.” And then I added, “They’re not singling you out.” A student then grabbed a napkin and scribbled a diagram of his Chicago neighborhood and explained in exacting detail how the police could easily surround the Black neighborhoods and seal them off from the rest of Chicago. “That’s nuts,” I believe I blurted out. Even then I was never one to conceal my inner thoughts.
It is now thirty years later. And, only a few months ago, did I first heard their words and become attuned to their pain. Al cheyt shechatanu! (Did you also see the pictures on the news of the dump trucks blocking Chicago’s highways?) This past summer was a summer of reckoning for many of us. It is belated and long overdue. And I have set myself on a journey to learn more and understand even better the racism that is embedded into the fabric of our great nation. Affirming Black lives matter means that one believes Black lives should matter as much as White lives. It does not mean that White lives matter less. It means that Black lives should equally matter. And the truth is, they don’t yet. They did not thirty years ago, and they do not today. I don’t know how else to understand what we have witnessed this past summer or the staggering statistics I have only recently come to fathom, that for example, Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than White people.
George Floyd gasping to breath under the knee of a White police officer should be a call for all of us to do an honest soul searching, a real heshbon hanefesh and to ask, “What can we do differently? How can I do better?” Look in that mirror and ask, “How many Black friends, or neighbors, do I have? Can I truly open my heart and listen to other people’s pain?” What more can we do to help lift our fellow Americans out of their suffering? What more can we do to end such discrimination?
And I know by saying this some might object and say that there are those affiliated with Black Lives Matter who have rioted and that some of its leaders have spewed antisemitic hate. But these instances do not diminish the rightness of the calls for justice. I never once sat my children down and gave them “the talk” so that if and when they were pulled over by the police, they would know what to do. “Keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times so the officer can see them. Never talk back. Always say, ‘Yes sir.’” Offering such advice never even occurred to me. And the fact that an entire segment of our population must do this and sends their children out into our shared world with such added fear, should be cause for every American and every Jew to say, “Ashamnu.”
This is what heshbon hanefesh means. It’s not about small and trifling things. We can do better. We must do better. The American Jewish community is secure. Antisemitism is a menace to be sure, but we can keep our guard up while also helping to lift others up. We can look out at the world as if we are still living in a ghetto or we can approach our convulsing and hurting world with the recognition of the power and influence we have achieved. Here is but one thing we should do. We should raise our collective voices in support of making Juneteenth a national holiday. Why? Because we would all be better if we knew even a fraction more of this part of American history, if each and every American knew the date when enslaved Black people finally heard that they had become free Americans. The Civil War was not about states’ rights, as I was taught in high school, but about slavery. That is what an honest accounting of our collective souls entails.
So, let us raise our voices loudly and clearly not only for what benefits our community alone. We are rightly united in calling out antisemitism and fighting to make sure that the alliance between Israel and the United States remains strong. But let us also be united in calling for what will not only elevate Black Americans but us all. We live not at a time of Jewish weakness but one of strength. There is not only a successful and thriving American Jewish community, but also a sovereign Jewish state with a powerful Jewish army. And yet, we still respond to the issues of our day as if we are living in a shtetl and that we are waiting for the Cossacks to attack. Don’t get me wrong. There are still Cossacks out there, but we are also not Tevye and this is not Anatevka. We are secure. We are strong.
I love two countries: this great nation, the United States of America and the State of Israel. But I want them to do better. I want them to own up to their mistakes and failings. Why? Because they are strong enough to do so. And admitting errors will only make them stronger and greater. Israel has made many mistakes, and committed sins, in its treatment of Palestinians. Of course, the Palestinians have made even more mistakes and committed plenty of sins, but this does not mean Israel cannot and should not do better. Heshboh hanefesh means we stand up and say, we have done wrong. It is wrong that Palestinian villages and West Bank settlements receive unequal services. It is wrong that Israel does not do more to support the legitimate national aspirations of Palestinians. The early Zionists laid out a vision for Israel, that it would live by both Jewish values and democratic principles. It is failing to cling to these ideals.
The Torah proclaims: “The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Torah makes clear from where this command emanates. We know what it feels like. That is what the Seder is all about. Eating matzah is not about the taste. It’s about reminding us what it feels like to be a slave who cannot choose what to eat and is forced to eat awful tasting bread.
And I say all of this not in an attempt to raise as many people’s blood pressure as possible but so that I can illustrate what honest soul searching really means. This is what heshboh hanefesh is about. It’s about looking in the mirror and rather than saying, “Do I look good?” instead asking “Where have we gone wrong? How can we do better?” This is what Yom Kippur is all about.
I worry that people might now accuse me of not loving America enough or not loving Israel sufficiently, that somehow by publicly declaring our failings we project weakness or lack of devotion. But I don’t think my wife Susie loves me any less when she says, “Honey, that sweater is ugly. You look awful in it.” Or more profoundly, “Steve, you have been friends for so long. You really need to call him to say you’re sorry.” I recognize her statements as emanating from love. Why is it any different when we criticize America and Israel? Do we not want our nation to rid itself of racism—in addition to antisemitism? Do we not want America to reach even higher and be even better? Do we not want Israel to end its unequal treatment of Palestinians and be the light to the nations that the prophets dreamed about?
When standing before that mirror we have a choice to make. Do we see ourselves as secure enough to make room for others, to help lift up our neighbors and fellow citizens or do we wish to dwell on the worries and wrinkles that line our own faces? The rabbis’ mirror with its dim approximation of an individual’s appearance but with its exacting focus on our collective behaviors is the mirror in which I wish to look.
And we should feel more secure after these past few weeks. We can for the first time in a while be grateful. We should join in a united chorus of gratitude to the Trump administration for helping to achieve the peace agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Israel and Bahrain as well as for its earlier recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. If these two agreements are indeed the beginnings of more treaties and a more peaceful and prosperous Middle East then we should loudly proclaim, “Thank you.” We can and should feel more secure. Peace is our most fervent hope and prayer. Let us pray that this is the beginning of a new era, one in which Israel might even reach a peace accord with its Palestinian neighbors. I will continue to dream. And the place where we might begin creating that dream is by beating our chests and saying, “Ashamnu—we are guilty.” We can do better. We should do better.
On Kol Nidre evening we open the Ark and stand before the holiness of the Torah scrolls. It is to symbolize that we open our hearts before God. We say on this evening that we are ready to do heshbon hanefesh, to do real, painful soul searching so that we might turn and change, so that we might do teshuvah, repentance.
On Yom Kippur morning we read from Deuteronomy and remind ourselves that the Torah was not just given back then to our ancestors but to us today. The Torah reading states: “For this mitzvah, which I command you this day, is neither beyond you nor far away. It is not in heaven, causing you to say: ‘Who will go up to heaven on our behalf, get it for us, and let us hear it, that we may do it?’ No, this is so very near to you—in your mouth and in your heart—that you can surely do it.” It is strange that the Torah says “ha-mitzvah ha-zot—this mitzvah.” The Torah of course contains 613 mitzvahs. Our sages understood this phrase as applying not to one mitzvah but to the entire Torah. The medieval commentator, Nachmanides—Ramban, disagrees. He sees “this mitzvah” as pointing to one mitzvah alone, to the most difficult mitzvah of all—repentance. Teshvuah is not in heaven. It is in your mouth and in your heart. And you can surely do it.
If come tomorrow each of us looks in the mirror and begins to feel a sense of guilt, then this day is doing what it is supposed to be doing and we are doing some honest soul searching. Too often we think that guilt is a bad thing, that it is incapacitating rather than ennobling. But guilt is the feeling of the soul that has failed to live up to its responsibilities and expectations. Guilt and regret are the starting points for building a better world.
A healthy soul is an examined soul. Look in the mirror. And ask yourself can I do better? Can we do better? Can we end the unequal treatment of our Palestinian brethren and help them achieve their rightful aspiration of self-rule? Can we end the discrimination against our fellow American citizens, our Black neighbors, and help lift them up out of their pain and suffering? Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu. Yes, that hurts. But it’s the only way to start on the path of repentance and repair.
The rabbis offer a balm for all this painful self-examination. When one is looking in a mirror and sees a figure approaching, it appears to be twice as far as it really is. Imagine looking in your car’s sideview mirror. The path ahead appears distant and far off. But with every step the figure takes a step towards us. So, it is with repentance, our sages remind us. Our goal seems so far off, and distant, but with each step and each recognition of where we have failed and how we can do better, God says, “Take one more step toward Me and then another, and I will meet you more than halfway.”
God is waiting for us. God is waiting for us to look deeply at our reflections. That is what heshbon hanefesh is about. It is about loudly proclaiming, “Where have we failed? How can we do better?” Look into that mirror during this season of repentance! A better world depends on it.