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Toward Personal and National Redemption — Yom Kippur

October 09, 2008

This past summer I reacquainted myself with books by Martin Buber – the eminent rabbi, philosopher and theologian – who is best known for his applied philosophy of ‘I-Thou,’ the quest for intimate relationship with God and with each other. I was riveted by an article entitled ‘The Jewish Soul,’ written by Buber in 1932. It is the published speech that he gave in Stuttgart in 1930 to Protestant theologians who were genuinely interested in Judaism and Christian-Jewish dialogue. The speech began, “You have asked me to speak to you about the soul of Judaism. The focus of the Jewish soul is the basic consciousness that God’s redemptive power is at work everywhere, and at all times, but that a state of redemption exists nowhere and never…The Jew, as part of the world, experiences, perhaps more intensely than any other part, the world’s lack of redemption. He feels this lack of redemption against his skin, he tastes it on his tongue; the burden of the unredeemed world lies on him. Because of this almost physical knowledge…he cannot concede that the redemption has taken place; he knows that it has not.” {The Martin Buber Reader, edited by Asher D. Biemann, St. Martin’s Press, 2002: page 111}

One need not be Jewish to realize that the world still awaits redemption, but Buber wrote that we Jews have a heightened sensitivity based on our “physical knowledge” of suffering at the hands of the unredeemed throughout history: “He [the Jew] feels this lack of redemption against his skin, he tastes it on his tongue, the burden of the unredeemed world lies on him.” On this holiest day of the Jewish year, we ask ourselves, “Does the weight of this burden overwhelm us or does it motivate us? Does it drag us down toward cynicism and despair, or does it inspire us to answer the call to engage the world in the spirit of tikun olam: the Jewish imperative to help heal those who are in pain and bring hope to those who are in need. The ancient Hebrew prophets – Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah – demanded that we care for the widow, the poor, the stranger and the orphan. It was an obligation, not an option.

The call to social justice is found in ‘The Holiness Code,’ in the third book of the Torah called ‘Leviticus’ and known to us as Va’Yikra – “And God called [to Moses]” {Leviticus 1:1}. What does God call us to do? “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field…You shall not pick your vineyard bare…You shall leave them for the poor and stranger” {Leviticus 19:9-10} so that in their time of need, they will not have to beg you to provide their family with food. Share the blessings of your bounty, a reminder of the words in the 24th Psalm: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” {Psalm 24:1}. The Holiness Code also instructs, “You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind” {Leviticus19:14}. Do not take advantage of those who have disabilities. “You shall not render an unfair decision” {Leviticus19:15} is an echo of a verse in the Book of Deuteronomy: “Justice, justice shall you pursue” {Deuteronomy 16:20}. “Do not profit by the blood of your neighbor” {Leviticus19:16}. Do not be a bystander to his pain or the beneficiary of her suffering. “You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart” {Leviticus19:17}. Open your heart to those who are closest to you, in the hope that it will expand to those who are furthest from you. This call to conscience brings us to the defining verse in the Holiness Code: “Love your neighbor who, like you, is also created in the Divine image” {rabbinic commentary to 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself”}.

When we read our newspapers over breakfast or as we travel to work, we see photos of men, women and children in distant parts of the world who are displaced by drought, wracked by disease, or dismembered by sycophants who carry out the orders of warlords. Darfur and Sudan have become synonymous with suffering. Their names are added to the long list of places where people are powerless in the face of depravity and indifference.

“The poor and the stranger” {Leviticus19:10}. How easy it is to step over them, walk around them or ignore them. How easy it is to disparage them. In Vogue Magazine’s India edition published this past August, a 16-page fashion campaign featured photos of an elderly woman missing her upper front teeth, holding a child in rumpled clothes, wearing a Fendi bib with a retail price of about $100-. Another photo is of a toothless, barefoot man holding a Burberry umbrella. Its retail price is $200-. Another photo spread shows a family of three squeezed on a motorbike for their daily commute, the mother riding sidesaddle in the traditional Indian manner, with a Hermes Birkin bag – with a retail price of more than $10,000 – prominently displayed on her wrist. India has a population of 1.1 billion people, and nearly half – some 500 million of them – live on less than $1.25 day! {source: The World Bank}. Most people in India will never amass $1,000 in their lives! Yet Vogue India’s editor, Priya Tanna, sought to deflect criticism by saying, “Lighten up. ‘Vogue’ is about realizing the power of fashion.” She added, “Fashion is no longer a rich man’s privilege. Anyone can carry it off and make it look beautiful.” {‘Vogue’s Fashion Photos Spark Debate in India.’ The New York Times, Sept. 1, 2008: Business Section page 1}. When ‘it’ has greater value than ‘thou’ – the individual created in God’s image – we know that we have not heard God’s call.

“Do not profit by the blood of your neighbor” {Leviticus19:16}. Two weeks ago, a 10-year old Israeli boy sustained minor wounds to his back and hand when stabbed by a Palestinian at the illegal settler outpost of Shalhevet Yam. That was terrible, but what followed was horrible: dozens of West Bank settlers rampaged through the closest Palestinian village, directed live fire at Palestinians, destroyed their property and painted Stars of David on their homes. At least eight Palestinians were injured. Israeli soldiers stood by and watched. They did nothing. All of this is on film provided by B’Tzelem, the Israeli human rights organization. Did soldiers of the IDF believe that they would somehow “profit by the blood of [their] neighbor” by receiving praise from right wing settlers who embarked on what Ehud Olmert called a “pogrom against non-Jews in the State of Israel”? Did they think that praise from settlers who took the law into their own hands would exonerate them? Not in God’s eyes and not in the eyes of the government of the State of Israel! When Cain asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” {Genesis 4:9} God’s instant, condemning response was, “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” {Genesis 4:10}. The color of our blood is the same. Our pursuit of justice must not draw the boundary at the border of the tribe.

“You shall love your neighbor who, like you, is also created in the Divine image” {Leviticus19:18}. This past year has been very difficult for millions of our neighbors in America. They have lost jobs and pensions, and their homes are in foreclosure or at risk. They scramble to put the ever-increasing price of groceries on the table. They fear that injury or illness will require them to try to borrow money to meet medical needs that their non-existent health plans used to cover. The once-dominant steel and airline industries have declared that they cannot pay $24 billion in accumulated pension promises. Major corporations have been able to shift the consequences of their mistakes onto the shoulders of defenseless employees. There are precious few ‘safety nets’ but there are massive bailouts. The Federal Government gobbled up two gigantic mortgage companies. Bank of America bought out Merrill Lynch, and Bear Stearns was forced into the arms of JPMorgan, and the ‘chase’ is on to see who will survive and at what cost to American citizens. Is there no collective shame among the CEOs who drove their companies south, their employees out and their investors down? Their mantra, in the words of Richard Fuld, former CEO of Lehman Brothers, is “It’s not our fault and, by the way, our compensation was not $500 million dollars but closer to $300 million.” In the spirit of acknowledging transgression, all of them should feel ethically compelled to donate several hundred of their ‘meager millions’ to help homeowners who are paying the price for their arrogance, and in a gesture of humility, help support homeless shelters and food banks.

America’s credibility in the world has also been plummeting. I cannot think of a time in my life that our country has been held in such low esteem, even by our allies. Brett Stephens, writing in last month’s Commentary Magazine, informed readers that our “favorability ratings” have taken a nose-dive in Muslim nations once relatively well-disposed toward us: in Turkey, descending from 52% in 1999 to 12% in 2008 and in Indonesia from 75% to 37% in the same period of time. This is even more alarming given the massive humanitarian aid provided to Indonesia by the United States after the 2004 tsunami. The same is true of Pakistan, where despite critical American assistance after the 2005 earthquake, low opinions of the United States have sunk still further. Here at home, no American President in modern times has ever been held in such abysmal regard by his countrymen as the current occupant in the Oval Office. Bush’s ratings bottom out under Truman’s during the Korean War, Nixon’s during the Watergate crisis and Carter’s during the Iran hostage crisis. I love this country, and it pains me no end to see the low state to which we have descended, even in our own eyes.

Are we listening to God’s call today, or is the desire for post-9/11 revenge so strong that our leaders are subverting justice in the name of deterrence? Our government trumpeted false claims about the existence of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ throughout this country and at the United Nations: a nefarious plan hatched at the highest levels of the administration to justify invading Iraq in order to expand our ‘war on terror.’ Immediately after 9/11, Vice President Cheney brought together some of the best-trained lawyers in the country. They held secret meetings in the White House and the Department of Justice, and they came up with legal justifications for a vast expansion of the government’s power in waging war on terror. For the first time in our history, government officials were permitted to physically and psychologically torment U.S.-held captives, making torture all but the official law of the land. By simply labeling those in custody as ‘enemy combatants,’ the President suspended the writ of habeas corpus. They could be held incommunicado, indefinitely. The President could assert his prerogative to establish the military commission process without review by Congress or the courts. Statutes that prohibited torture, secret detention and warrantless surveillance could be set aside. The White House proclaimed that terror suspects were not automatically entitled to “receive the protection of the Geneva Conventions or the rights that laws of war accord to lawful combatants.” In a series of tightly controlled meetings to which the Justice Department and anyone not aligned with Bush and Cheney were not invited, the central principle of the Geneva Conventions was gutted. On January 8th, 2002, according to top State Department officials, President Bush decided to nullify the Geneva Conventions.

We outsourced interrogations to Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Jordan and Afghanistan, all of which have long been cited for human rights violations by the State Department and are known to torture suspects. Torture produces falsehood and false corroboration. Many of the prisoners claimed unimaginable torment, and much of what they provided in the name of “evidence” proved to be false and cases were thrown out. When torture is committed under foreign flags with American connivance, it radicalizes the very populations we are hoping to convince that democracy offers them something better than what they are accustomed to, and it makes a mockery of what we claim to be one of our most sacred principles: the primacy of justice. Two days ago, a federal judge ordered the Bush administration to release 17 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, where they have been held since 2002. In the judge’s words, “The moment has arrived for the court to shine the light of constitutionality on the reasons for detention.”

There are those who say that given the ruthlessness of our enemies, we should not be constrained by limits that put us at any disadvantage in this new world of warfare sown by terrorists, but I believe that we must strive to be – in the words of the prophet, Isaiah – “a light unto the nations” {Isaiah 42:6} and not a dim reflection of rays that only periodically beam forth from a benighted world. We must adhere to a higher standard.

On November 4th, we will elect the next President and Vice President of the United States of America. The votes we cast will make a fundamental difference in how America sees herself and how she is perceived abroad. This will be one of the most important votes you will make in your lifetime. This election will set the course for America’s next twenty years or more. This election will determine how we will address our economic, environmental, energy, health care and foreign policies, but on November 4th, even your vote will not be enough. I urge you to donate four hours of your time that day to drive people to their polling places because they suddenly discover that they have no other way of getting there, or prefer not to endure long hours waiting for public transportation. Go to the local headquarters of your candidate and volunteer your time. Your vote for your candidate will be multiplied five-fold, ten-fold or more by the number of people who also support him.

On November 4th, we begin to move from darkness toward light. We begin to redeem this nation from its flaws. Make no mistake about it: we are engaged in a struggle for the soul of our country.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin