Yom Kippur – The Urgent Need for Unity

It was the first night of Slichot, and all over the Jewish world, as midnight approached; Jews were beginning to leave their homes and walk, quietly and with introspection, to the Shul.

The great Chasidic Rebbe made ready to leave his home. But rather than set off for Shul, he called his gabbai, and asked him to have the horse and carriage made ready.  The gabbai did not dare question the Rebbe, but sat in astonishment as the Rebbe directed the driver to a poor neighborhood, on the very edge of town, far, far away from the Rebbe’s shul where all the Chasidim had gathered for slichot.

Climbing down from the carriage, the Rebbe went to the smallest, most broken down hovel, and silently peered through the window. He stood, silently transfixed, sobbing quietly as he looked into the house.

The gabbai came and stood next to him – and watched in utter astonishment at the scene. Through the window he saw a poor Jew in old, shabby clothes all by himself in the room. He took out a bottle of schnapps, and filled two glasses. He placed one on the other side of the table, and the other he raised up in a toast. He drank first his glass, and then the second glass.

At that, the Rebbe turned back to the carriage with a great sigh, and ordered the driver to return home. The gabbai said to him –“ Rebbe, shall we go to shul to say slichot?” And the Rebbe answered – “there is no need, slichot have been said on high.”

The very next morning in shul, the gabbai, to his utter astonishment, saw the poor man from the night before. He rushed over to him and says – “Please – you have to tell me, what you were doing last night?” The man answered him – “Here is my story. I am a tailor; I used to be very successful, very wealthy, and very pious, very frum. All the landowners for miles around used me to make all their suits, and all the uniforms for their staff. With 10 clients, I lacked for nothing.

But little by little my fortune changed. I lost first one customer, and then another. And when I lost the first customer I was upset with G-d. And so I gave up rising in the middle of the night to say Tehillim, psalms. And when I lost the second customer, I stopped saying Maariv. And by the time I lost my last customer, I stopped davening entirely; I stopped living how a Jew ought to live.

But last night, something began to stir inside of me. And I thought to myself – here we are me and G-d. He is angry with me, and I at him. When the local villagers have a fight, I see in their inns that when they wish to make up, the pour out two glasses of vodka, and drink a toast.

And so last night, I said to G-d, come, it is a new year. Let us make a new beginning. Come let us have a l’chaim, from now on, let there be peace between us.”

Friends, the litvak in me may not go as far as to suggest drinking a l’chaim with G-d instead of saying slichot, but I have an idea for the next best thing – after Yom Kippur, we need, we desperately desperately need, to make a l’chaim, and start over again, with our fellow Jews.

Because I don’t think I can recall a time when we Jews have been quite so divided, quite so at war with each other. Last summer, it took the tragedy of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers to unite the Jewish people. The sense of achdut, unity, was palpable, and so very welcome. We all hoped it would last – but it did not. This year the hatred, the invective, the name calling and worse is as bad as ever

Of all the many new and exciting things in our shul this past year, one seemed to have been barely remarked upon is the fact that we have flags – American and Israeli flags – in our sanctuary for the first time. It was long overdue, and I am glad we have them now.

There is actually a halachic discussion about whether flags belong in a Shul or not. And I want to share with you briefly something the late Rav Moshe Feinstein, the undisputed gadol hador, THE torah luminary of the late 20th century wrote about flags in 1956. He was, for the record, not a fan. He felt it was a meaningless gesture.

But the end of his responsum, he addresses those who were planning on leaving the Shul and setting up a new one because they felt they were too religious to pray in a Shul with flags and he wrote

ולכן אלו שרוצים לעשות בשביל זה מנין במקום אחר וחושבים שעושים בזה דבר גדול אין עושים כהוגן ורק הואע נין פוליטיקא מצד כח היצר והשטן אשר בעוה”ר מדקדבינן עד אשר ירחם ה’

“And to those who wish to create a new minyan and pray elsewhere, and think that this is a great thing they are doing, they are not acting properly; this is merely politics that comes from the power of the evil inclination and the Satan that is dancing among us, because of our many sins.”

More than 50 years ago the great Rabbi Moshe Feinstein could observe a Jewish community that was determined to pull itself apart and say this is not righteousness – this machlokess is the work of Satan – the devil himself.

And believe me, the last 50 years has not made things better, it’s made them much, much worse. The two communities – over lapping of course – that I spend most of my time involved with – the Modern Orthodox community and the pro-Israel community –  are quickly coming places where it is hard to have even a rational discussion about important issues.

Reflecting on the cause of all of the exiles the Jewish people have known Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes what is one of the most sobering lines of his that I have read; “Only one people in history has had the power to threaten the very existence of the Jewish people, namely, the Jewish people”

When we become narrow, we weaken ourselves. Judaism is not a narrow religion, we are not an exclusionary people – but we are in danger of becoming both. The genius of Judaism – the DNA of what it means to be a Jew is the ability to think differently – to hear, to debate to argue – and to listen. When you enter a yeshiva and hear the roar of students arguing with each other over how to understand the Gemara – that’s our genius!

This idea is amazingly expressed in Yom Kippur’s haftarah. A stirring text, the prophet Isaiah accuses the Jewish people of insincerity in their lives, especially their religious lives. “You all look so pious, you pray, bent over like reeds, with no sincere thoughts at all.” He says.

“Halo zeh tzom avchrehu – is this the fast I have chosen?” Instead says the prophet, free the oppressed, stop perverting justice. Feed the hungry, end homelessness. And Isaiah goes on to appeal for a different type of sincerity too  – “tashiv mishabat raglecha asot chafatzecha biyom kodshi” – stop looking for loopholes in the observance of Shabbat – stop talking about weekday things, reading secular words on the holy day.

Friends, imagine two Jews get lost tonight, and each end up at the wrong shul – One may hear a sermon how Yom Kippur is about social justice, poverty, hunger – and a Jew from another camp would scoff and say – “Not at all – Yom Kippur is about our failure to properly keep the Mitzvot.”

And the other Jew will hear a sermon telling them that laxity in observance – Shabbat, kashrut, prayer, needs to be improved on. And that Jew listening will roll his eyes and say – “Fanatics! – Obsessing over minute details.”  Yet Isaiah’s vision was bigger, grander, than any one of ours, any one flavor of Judaism today. And that’s what happens when we cut ourselves into pieces – we lose any sense of what our true mission is.

And in fact right at the heart of this incredible haftarah is what I assume is the origin of a well-known English phrase – the prophet warns the people – remove from your midst – motah, perversion, shelach ezbah – vidaber aven – finger pointing and evil speech. And we have become a religion, a people, a community of finger pointers.

Something tragic is happening in the Jewish community – the best scholarship, the most energy – certainly the most heart – is going in to attacking fellow Jews. Pointing out others mistakes. As well as what this intolerance does to our Jewish lives, I have to say this is a luxury, and indulgence that we cannot afford.

At the end of the Second World War American Jewry were as much as 5% of us Jewry. Now it is less than 1.5%. To me the greatest lesson, the most sobering lesson about the passing of the Iran deal – and I am not saying this, especially tonight to alienate anyone who disagrees with me, rather as an illustration – is that if we ever were a big powerful, almost invincible community as friends and detractors proclaimed – we aren’t anymore.

What is wrong with us? Jews to the left or the right, the orthodox, the reform – they are NOT the enemies. Look at Europe, look at terror attacks, look at Hamas – we have enemies – we have more than our share of vicious enemies and we have to be united to stay strong, not so piteously, piously divided.

I want to be clear – if we were merely talking about personal dislikes, brogies, machlokess – we could simply say – “Who cares? Grow up.”  But the points that divide Jews now are not trivial – they are important. Israel – peace or security – Iran,  liberal values, democracy, how to apply halachic reasoning to today’s times, whether to be accepting of modernity as inevitable – or to resist it as corrosive, and many many other issues.  These are not trivial issues – they are important issues – and we are allowed to disagree.

But here’s the thing – we have gone too far – way way too far.And I am going to be blunt; You can think the Iran deal is terrible for Israel – I do but that does not make Congressman Nadler a Nazi, or a kapo or the nauseating things that have been said about him. It doesn’t make Chuck Schumer a Mosad agent, a bad American. You can think other Jews – even on the orthodox spectrum – are completely misguided, but that doesn’t make them destroyers of the faith.

And so I have a humble, but urgent suggestion. Not that we should all just get along. But we can make a plan, a code, to walk away from this terrible abyss.

We have to be open to hear other points of view, even if you have no intention of agreeing.

You cannot throw people out of the tent of the Jewish community because you disagree with them. You cannot prevent them marching in the Israel Day Parade.

You cannot call names, break up friendships, stop talking to, stop loving your fellow Jew – no matter what.

This matters, and it matters on Yom Kippur. We begin tonight’s prayer anu matirim lithpalel im a arvaryanim –“We are permitted to pray together with the Sinners.”

On Yom Kippur we come before Hashem not as individuals, but as a nation. In need of mercy, protection and forgiveness. We appeal to Hashem to remember our ancestors, remember our past, and remember the covenant.  We make with him a stark plea – we may not be perfect G-d, we indeed are deeply flawed – but you are a G-d of mercy. Do not write us off, although we have fallen short.

It is inconceivable to me that on this Holy night we will ask G-d to overlook our many lapses and imperfections, and at the same time be incapable of doing the same to others. On Yom Kippur the Jewish people are compared to the angels. The Midrash says – just as the angles do not eat or drink – so may we not. Just as the angels wear white – so do we. And adds the Midrash – just as the angels have only shalom, peace among them, so do the Jewish people.

May we be inspired, wise enough to daven for each other have compassion and tolerance of each other, and may the Almighty do the same for us.

About the Author
Born in Glasgow, Scotland. Holds a BA in Economics and an MBA. Former Rabbi of Cambridge University and Barnet Synagogue in London. Appointed Senior Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan in 2005.
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