The Universal Message of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

Any Jew who has just finished attending many hours of worship services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ought to know that the liturgy of these holidays is not just about us. Too many prefer to see these holy days only through separatist lenses.
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On the day before Yom Kippur last week, I wrote to my daughters invoking the memory of people in my family and many from among the Jewish people over the generations, all of whom I was planning to especially remember during the Yizkor memorial service on Yom Kippur.

And after this long horrible war this past summer in Israel and Gaza, I also remembered all Israeli soldiers and civilians who were killed. At the same time, I remembered all the innocent citizens of Gaza, especially women and children, who were killed in this another senseless war, which solves nothing and just causes so much pain and suffering on both sides and just makes the chances for peace more problematic.

I feel that it is important to remember these human beings who died, and not just Jews, since we are part of the human family. The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies emphasize that we are part of the human family over and over again, yet it is amazing how so many Jews today prefer to ignore this.

Any Jew who has just finished attending many hours of worship services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ought to know that the liturgy of these holidays is not just about us. But it is often surprising to me how many Jews -- and non-Jews -- are not sufficiently aware of the powerful universal message of these holidays and prefer to see these holy days only through particularistic or separatist lenses.

Let me explain.

First of all, on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we proclaim: "Hayom Harat Olam!" "Today is the birthday of the world!" Not just of Jews, but of all humanity! It is one of the main themes of the day. It says very clearly that we are part of the world, that we are not just a separate people.

Secondly, in one of the central prayers that are added to the Amidah (the silent meditation) which is also repeated aloud by cantor and congregation in all services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), we read this famous paragraph:

O Lord our God, let all Your creatures sense Your awesome power. Let all whom You have fashioned stand in fear and trembling. Let all humankind pledge their allegiance to You, united wholeheartedly to carry out Your Will...

The word "all" is repeated no less than three times in this central prayer of our "High Holidays"!

I could go on to discuss about how we read about Ishmael (Genesis 21) on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, in which we learn that God cares about children, wherever they are. I could also mention how we read from Isaiah on Yom Kippur morning and learn that the fast is not about the contest of simply not eating for a whole day but it is about caring for the poor, and the orphan and the widows in our world, about seeking to create a society based on social justice.

So how is it that so many Jews -- especially in Israel -- are becoming more and more separatist, divorcing themselves from The World, living as "a People who dwells alone" (Numbers 23:9). Why is it that so many so-called "religious Jews" seem to gloss over these prayers and only emphasize the ones that refer to the Jewish People as "The Chosen People"?

In fact, there are also many prayers which remind us that we are chosen and special. They are part of our Tradition too. But they are not the whole story.

What is really called for is a synthesis. We are part of the world, and at the same time we are a special people, not "chosen", but, unique, as all peoples are unique in their own ways.

In our synagogue, Kehilat Kol Haneshama, the largest and most successful Reform/Progressive/ Liberal synagogue in Jerusalem, founded and led by Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, we also pray for peace repeatedly in our worship, not just on the "High Holidays" but on every Shabbat. When we do so, we do not only pray for peace for us and our tribe, but we pray for peace for kol yoshvei tevel, "all people in our world".

In our part of the world, perhaps more than in other parts, peace for us alone won't work. We need peace in our region, not just in our state. Peace for Israel is inextricably intertwined with peace for the Palestinians. We won't have one without the other. We are interconnected.

This year on Yom Kippur I also attended a new synagogue, Kehilat Zion, led by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum. When she offered a prayer for healing, she offered it not just for our Jewish family, but for all peoples, and for the planet, which is sorely in need of healing. Rabbi Tamar got the message, and she imparted it well to her growing and dynamic congregation.

So, let's not separate ourselves from The World. It's time to rejoin the Human Family, after this Yom Kippur.

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