|Soul-searching: From Personal to National|
|Written by Tamara Symonds|
Yom Kippur always reminds me of my grandmother. She immigrated to Israel from Russia in 1920, when she was 22 years old, stately and beautiful, born to a family of rabbis and scholars. She left religion behind and she became, with my grandfather- an idealistic, well educated intellectual- a secular "kibbutznikit". They were ardent Zionists, founding members of a kibbutz atop one of the Jerusalem hills. Their vision was to establish a state for the Jewish people. That happened 28 years later, although grandfather, who died young, never saw his dream realized. Before grandmother's awed gaze, the State of Israel was declared. For her, it was a miracle, won with much blood. More than once, I saw her wipe a furtive tear as "Hatikva" was sung. The state she yearned for was a dream, and from the moment it became reality, she cherished it.
Even as a little girl, I knew that grandmother fasted on Yom Kippur. And she kept that yearly practice up until her death. It was something I could not grasp; she was not in the least religious so why was she fasting on this day? At first, I thought it was to honor the memory of her parents. Then, I thought that perhaps she fasted in memory of the religion she had abandoned. Ultimately, I understood that it expressed the connection in her soul between Judaism's religious and national aspects. The two were inseparably bound up, with Yom Kippur the thread binding them together. The day of personal soul-searching in Jewish tradition is also the day of our national soul-searching. Many non-religious Israelis feel their Jewishness on this day. The fast symbolizes belonging to a people, even for those who are not affiliated with religion. The fast is an external expression of the connection, although the fast itself is not necessary for whoever has internalized the concept of soul-searching one day a year, personal as well as national. That is how I too came to these thoughts on this day.
The day of personal and national soul-searching focuses on the moral values that lie at the heart of Judaism. Every child is familiar with these sayings "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you", "Love thy brother as thyself", "Pursue justice" – these sayings hover on our lips even before we are able to express an opinion.
Soul-searching is penetrating introspection, with all disguises stripped off, every one of us alone. This is when we acknowledge the true facts of our lives. The critical look takes those values we were taught, puts them in front of us to gaze upon, and asks the stark question: do our actions truly reflect the values we preach? This goes for those closest to us as well as on the national level. How easy it is for us to feel the pain caused by others, how hard to acknowledge the pain we have caused. So hard, in fact, that denial is the most common remedy. On this day, however, we are expected to overcome our weaknesses, and acknowledge, first of all to ourselves, that we can take no pride in what we have done. But acknowledgment is not enough. Forgiveness is expected too.
And since these words are in the public domain, I will engage in national soul-searching: I belong to the majority in Israeli society that has grown accustomed to the deprivation of others, to discrimination and exclusion of many among us. We close our eyes to the weak and needy, the elderly, the lonely, the underprivileged. We close our eyes to the needs of children in development towns, who lack the opportunities of children in the central region. We close our eyes to institutionalized discrimination against women who wish to extricate themselves from a terrible marriage and women who are relegated to the other side of the street or the back of the bus. We close our eyes to young couples doing their best who cannot afford a home of their own, to the inexcusable discrepancies in education and to the plight of public healthcare. We close our eyes to the Arab citizens of Israel, sons and daughters of this land, who wish to be equal citizens, yet encounter repeated discrimination, humiliation and rejection.
We have been cruel not only to our own; for 46 years we have imposed military rule over another people. We took their land. We drank their water. We built houses up and down their land, while we denied their basic human rights. When I recall those phrases, loving thy neighbor and pursuing justice, I am deeply ashamed. Yes, I too am part of the mechanism causing all these; as you yourself are. All of us. For we, as a people, have been silent. We were full of high-flown phrases about our own rights. We decorated our speech with talk of morals that we failed to uphold. We claimed to be the most moral army in the world; we failed to admit that no army could remain moral while ruling another people for generations. We prided ourselves on being "the only democracy in the Middle East" without looking at the millions of Palestinians, neighbors, with no border between us, yet they have no political rights. We failed to heed the pleas of our own people, nor did we listen to another people. We hardened our hearts, we closed our ears.
So Yom Kippur approaches, and perhaps this year it will do some good. Perhaps during the "Kol Nidrei" prayer we will open our hearts to those we have neglected or hurt. Perhaps we will understand what we have denied and repressed. Perhaps we will return to the values of democracy – justice and morality. Perhaps we will seek peace with ourselves and with our enemies. Perhaps we will think of forgiveness. Perhaps this time. May it be so.
Talia Sasson is co-chair of the New Israel Fund's International Council.