Matching Words With Actions: The Next Act With Syria

With the High Holidays in our metaphorical rear view mirror and Sukkot already upon us, the change in atmospheric pressure, both literal and figurative, is very much apparent. Autumn is in the air.

Sukkot, in a physical sense, is far more demanding that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are. No matter how tiring or discomfiting fasting might be, it pales in comparison to hosting large holidays meals in a Sukkah. And yet the “heaviness” that drapes the High Holidays like a thick fog is gone, and it feels so good to be outside, enjoying the sensory pleasures of good food, and the sheer joy of being alive and with family and friends. Sukkot always feels like the reward that one attains after making it through the ardors of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Yes… but …

The truth is, of course, that the real work of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is just beginning, and Sukkot does not push it aside. As Stephen Stills once wrote so beautifully, “now begins the task…” All of the resolve that we felt so powerfully on the High Holidays must be translated into action, or the good intentions of our attempts at penitence and forgiveness will have been for naught. Fraudulent penitence -– i.e., a declared intention to change one’s ways when, in truth, there is little if any intention to actually do so -– renders the entire experience of the High Holidays not only meaningless, but actually offensive. The Talmud teaches us that God wants our hearts; our innermost selves. Words are the externals that declare intention. Deeds are what matters.

This is, of course, of greatest importance to us as individuals whose lives continue on their courses after the holidays. The easiest thing in the world, and by far the most likely to happen, is to slip back into familiar patterns of behavior, not necessarily because we want to, but because change is difficult and inconvenient. Good intentions are easy to come by. Following through on them is notoriously difficult. People change in a real and substantive way only when they make a conscious and sustained effort to change, and rarely is it a pain-free process. Often our change inconveniences others, particularly when it impacts a long-established lifestyle or pattern of behavior. Even if our change is, in a larger sense, a good thing, accomplishing it without causing damage is a challenge.

But the relationship between stated intentions and actual action is also an issue in the political realities of our world, particularly on issues that are of great concern to the Jewish community. Syria, pushed (allegedly) by Russia, declares its intention to rid itself of chemical weapons, and place its stockpile under international supervision. Every fiber of my being is skeptical about Syria’s intent to follow through on this, and I am equally cynical about Russia’s intentions as well. And now we are told that the new Iranian President wants to negotiate his way out of the crippling sanctions that Iran is under by limiting Iran’s push towards the acquisition of nuclear weapons.


How does on gauge the seriousness of a nation’s intent to change when the stakes are so high? Iran has done absolutely nothing to make anyone believe that its word is to be taken seriously, particularly regarding its nuclear program. Its rulers have proven themselves to be repressive and cruel, and not beholden to any power or authority other than extremist clerics.

Should Israel– or the West as a whole– put any stock in the promises of a man who, when asked if he, in contradistinction to his immediate predecessor, believed that the Holocaust had indeed taken place, replied that he was not a historian, and it is not his place to judge whether or not something was a historical fact? How does one gauge the relationship between stated intentions and actions when the players are states, not individuals, and the actors involved are not beholden to truth as we know it?

The proof, in all of these instances, will ultimately be in the doing, and not the talking. Our job as individuals is to follow through to the best of our ability on the good intentions of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and to improve our lives. And as we do that, we’d best keep a wary eye on those countries whose intentions and actions will not necessarily match up. It’s judgment time for them, too. I am hoping against hope that the Western world will be as demanding on them as we are called to be upon ourselves. I am not at all sure that that will indeed be the case.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.