America Needs Repentance: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Atonement Are Not Just for Jews
Now that the Iraq war is supposedly winding down, America needs a period of reflection, repentance and atonement before rushing into more of the same mistakes we’ve been making globally and domestically. So I’d like to invite my non-Jewish neighbors and friends and allies in the struggle to heal and transform America to join with Jews to use the ten days of repentance from Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 9) through Yom Kippur (Sept. 18) for that purpose-to create an All-American version of the Jewish High Holidays!
What makes the Jewish tradition useful in this regard is that it focuses not only on our own individual lives, but on taking collective responsibility for our larger world. The formulations of repentance and atonement use language like “Our father, our king, WE have sinned before you” and “For the sins WE have committed by….” (and then the community fills in the blanks).
The notion of collective responsibility means that we acknowledge how impactful the community, its institutions, its worldview, its shared understandings and assumptions, and its daily operations shape the behavior and consciousness of each of us. In contemporary terms, this means: Don’t expect a society that privileges money, fame and power and ridicules idealism, prophetic critique and anything not judged “realistic” by the inside-the-beltway commentators and power-brokers to then produce human beings who can look beyond their own immediate self-interest and concern themselves with the well-being of the rest of the world and with the survivability of the planet.
The notion of “sin” in this tradition is also relevant. The Hebrew word for sin is cheyt, and derives from archery — the arrow shot toward the target has gone off course. In my own Jewish Renewal synagogue we expand on this notion by singing the atonement prayers this way: “Who are we? We’re God’s image and truth and infinite wisdom, eternal goodness. Yet we’ve abused, we’ve betrayed, we’ve been cruel, yes we’ve destroyed.” Rather than see ourselves as at the core evil, the Jewish tradition sees us as created in the image of God and hence intrinsically good and worthy — and it is with this understanding that Americans can then feel safe to explore where we’ve gone off course, missed the mark, and hence need a mid-course correction.
It won’t take long to help each of us to construct a list of the areas that we need to address in our repentance. We could start with the easy ones: our inability to stop deep ocean drilling for oil and gas even after the Gulf oil disaster; our inability to limit carbon emissions even though the scientific evidence is clear that rising emissions are above the level consistent with continuing human life (and possibly all life) on earth; our inability to acknowledge the pain we’ve inflicted on the Iraqi people by our invasion, pain manifested not only in having let loose a war that killed over 100,000 Iraqis and caused hundreds of thousands of casualties and millions of people fleeing their homes and becoming permanent refugees; our ruthless attempts, aided by drones, to kill or imprison immigrants who have been driven to our country by the economic devastation brought by American trade agreements that wiped out local agricultural competitiveness for small farmers in South and Central American countries; our continuing legacies of racism, sexism, and homophobia which have not decreased even when prominent women and blacks assume national office or head major corporations; our growing Islamophobia leading some to participate in public burning of the Qur’an; our dedicating huge national resources to bailing out banks and investment companies while refusing anything comparable to the unemployed, under-employed, and those facing impossible-to-pay mortgages whose prices escalated dramatically when lenders invoked their small-print “rights” to raise monthly payments without limit; and the continuing degradation of the human rights fought for by the American Revolution but now being undermined in the name of a war on terror.
We have plenty of communal sins to address. Yet the cultural speed with which we forget and rush ahead, accelerated by the internet and by our sound-byte politics, makes it unlikely that we will ever have this badly needed community reflection and atonement unless we create a common ritual for doing so. President Obama is unlikely to help us do that — so this is one reason Americans might consider using the spiritual technology of the Jewish High Holidays to create public events in which we engage each other in public in this kind of a process.
Creating a Communal Atonement in Your Community
Invite your friends this year, and your larger community next year, to try this ritual. If your community assembled for the purpose of repentance and atonement, it might start by people reciting together the following “For the sins…” communal acknowledgment and then meet in small groups to discuss each one. We Americans take collective responsibility for our own lives and for the activities of the community and society of which we are a part. We affirm our fundamental interdependence and interconnectedness. We have allowed others to be victims of incredible suffering, have turned our backs on others and their well-being, and yet today we acknowledge that this world is co-created by all of us, and so we atone for all of it. While the struggle to change ourselves and our world may be long and painful, it is our struggle; no one else can do it for us. To the extent that we have failed to do all that we could to make ourselves and our community all that we ought to be, we ask God and each other and all the people on our planet for forgiveness-and we now commit ourselves to transformation this coming year, as we seek to get back on the path to our highest possible selves and most ethically and ecologically sensitive country we can possibly be.
We take communal responsibility and atone:
For the sins we have committed before You and in our communities by being so preoccupied with ourselves that we ignore the larger problems of the world;
And for the sins we have committed by being so directed toward outward realities that we have ignored our spiritual development;
For the sins committed in the name of the American people through our invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and the violence we used to achieve our ends;
And for the sin of not rebuilding what we have destroyed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan;
And for the sin of failing to prosecute those in our government who enabled the torture of prisoners around the world and in American detention centers and the denial of habeas corpus and other fundamental human rights;
And for the sin of not demanding that our elected representatives provide affordable health care and prescription drugs for everyone, and for the sin of not demanding that they make the dramatic changes that are needed to save the planet or to lessen the power of big money to shape our democratic process to serve the interests of the corporations and the wealthy;
For the sin of those of us in the West hoarding the world’s wealth and not sharing with the 2.5 billion people who live on less than two dollars a day;
And for the sin of supporting forms of globalization that are destructive to nature and to the economic well-being of the powerless;
For the sins of all who became so concerned with “making it” and becoming rich that they pursued banking and investment policies that were destructive not only to their investors but to the entire society;
And for the sin of honoring the wealthy for their wealth but not the wise for their wisdom, the artists for their creation of beauty, or the prophets for their sounding the alarm of concern about the ways we have all gone astray and “missed the mark”‘
For the sin of being cynical about the possibility of building a world based on love;
And for the sin of dulling our outrage at the continuation of poverty, oppression, and violence in this world;
For the sin of not being vigilant stewards of the planet or protecting it from those who area abusing it for the sake of private gratifications they are unwilling to share with others or for private profit;
And for the sin of indulging materialism and selfishness, consuming the resources of the earth without regard to the needs of future generations and the need to protect the life-support systems of the planet;
For the sin of believing that major changes in the global economy are “utopian” and hence allowing private profit to dictate destruction of the Earth for the sake of private gain and in defense of “giving people jobs” or “giving people what they want”–instead of redesigning our economy in ways that environmental sustainability would no longer be counterposed to people having enough food, clothing, shelter, energy and mass transportation to sustain a pleasant life with good-enough material benefits, and in ways that no longer allowed advertising and media to generate wants that could only be fulfilled by denying others their own needs or denying human life on Earth long-term sustainability;
And for the sin of believing that we have to be “realistic” and settle for “the lesser evil” candidates in elections–instead of building political parties and movements that actually reflect our own highest vision of the good;
And for the sin of allowing our media and elected officials to have no problem finding the monies to make wars in Afghanistan, maintain troops in Iraq and Japan and drones in Pakistan, to support close to one thousand U.S. military bases worldwide, and to bail out the banks and the large corporations-only raising questions of where the money will come from and the dangers of inflation when addressing health care reform, environmental measures, or aid to the unemployed, the homeless, and those facing crushing debt or impossible-to-pay mortgages;
For the sin of not doing enough to challenge racist, sexist, and homophobic institutions and practices;
And for the sin of turning our backs on the world’s refugees and on the homeless in our own society, allowing them to be demeaned, assaulted, and persecuted;
For the sin of allowing immigrants to be persecuted, exploited, and denied shelter;
And for the sin of ignoring the Torah command to “love the stranger”;
For the sin of not sharing responsibility for child-rearing;
And for the sin of not providing adequate community emotional and material supports for those who are aging;
For the sin of being so concerned about our own personal tax benefits that we failed to oppose tax cuts that would bankrupt social services;
And for the sin of being “realistic” when our tradition calls upon us to do “tikkun” — that is, to transform reality; For these sins we ask the people of this planet and the Earth itself to forgive us.
For the sins we have committed by not forgiving our parents for the wrongs they committed against us when we were children;
And for the sin of having too little compassion or too little respect for our parents or for our children or our friends when they act in ways that disappoint or hurt us;
For the sin of cooperating with self-destructive behavior and addictions in others or in ourselves;
And for the sin of not supporting each other as we attempt to change;
For the sin of being jealous and trying to possess and control those we love;
And for the sin of being judgmental;
For the sin of withholding love and support;
And for the sin of doubting our ability to love and get love from others;
For the sin of insisting that everything we do have a payoff;
And for the sin of not allowing ourselves to play;
For the sin of not giving our partners and friends the love and support they need to feel safe and to flourish;
And for the sin of being manipulative or hurting others to protect our own egos.
For the sin of stockpiling and modernizing atomic weapons and other weapons of mass destruction rather than eliminating these weapons;
And for the sin of spending hundreds of billions of dollars each year on militarism to support the global American Empire– that could be spent on more urgent human needs;
For the sin of giving attention to the sins of our own country (the U.S., Canada, U.K, Australia, France, Italy, Israel, etc.) while not giving equal attention to what is wonderful and positive about it;
And for the sin of avoiding the needed ethical confrontation with what is destructive and immoral in our country;
For the sin of tolerating racism, sexism, homophobia, disrespect for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people,
And for the sin of tolerating anti-Muslim behavior and speech;
For tolerating a global economic system that leads to the death every single day of somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 children under the age of five from starvation or diseases related to malnutrition of that could be cured with adequate health care and pharmaceuticals;
And for continuing to be puzzled at why some people “hate us” for our insensitivity to the suffering imposed on them by the unfair distribution of the world’s wealth and resources that could be remedied through a Global Marshall Plan;
For the sin of not ever having provided reparations to African American families still suffeirng the aftermath consequences of having their ancestors brought to this country as slaves and then facing a legacy of racism that still plays out today in the economic and political life of the U.S.;
And for the sins of never having provided reparations for Native Americans who are survivors of a genocidal assault on their communities by settlers on the North American continent, or all those other victims of Western colonialism and imperialism throughout South and Central America, Africa, Asia and Australia;
For the sin of not taking hatred of Jews or anti-Semitism seriously when it manifests around the world, among our friends, or in our community;
And for the sin of seeing anti-Semitism everywhere, and using the charge of anti-Semitism to silence those who raise legitimate (though painful to hear) criticisms of Israeli policies;
For the sin of giving disproportionate attention to the human rights violations of the State of Israel while ignoring or giving far less attention to the far greater human rights violations of the U.S., China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Sudan, and many other states;
And for the sin of not acknowledging the human rights violations that are an integral part of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza–and the pain and suffering that they cause, and not acknowledging or providing reparations for the Palestinian refugees displaced in the creation of the State of Israel;
For the sin of teaching hatred about Palestinians or Muslims, and then claiming that it is only they who teach hatred;
And for the sin of insisting that there is no “moral equivalence” between the deaths of innocent Israeli civilians, 9/11 victims, or victims of other terror attacks, and the deaths of innocent Palestinian, Iraqi, Pakistani, or Afghani civilians;
For the sins of tribalism, chauvinism, and thinking our pain is more important than anyone else’s pain;
And for the sin of not putting our money and our time behind our highest ideals;
For the sin of allowing and participating in the dumbing-down of our culture;
And for the sin of refusing to read longish emails that have important messages, or longish articles in magazines or newspapers, or longish books; thereby conveying to everyone that the short attention capacity generating sound bytes or type-bytes must replace the more complicated and complex thinking required to get a sophisticated and nuanced view of any given reality;
For the sin of not recognizing and celebrating and feeling blessed to experience the beauty and grandeur of the universe that surrounds us;
And for the sin of focusing only on our sins and not on our strengths and beauties;
For the sin of not giving adequate time to developing our own inner spiritual lives;
And for the sin of not building communities that nurture our spiritual capacities;
For the sin of religio-phobia and allowing cynicism to be dumped on those who believe in the possibility of a world healed and transformed;
And for the sin of believing that anything that cannot be verified through sense data or measured is not to be given serious place in our communal lives, but relegated entirely to our private lives;
For the sin of not being present to ourselves or each other;
And for the sin of being so caught up in the struggle for “success” that we didn’t give ourselves time to relax, enjoy, and celebrate all that is good in our lives and all that is good in others;
For the sin of not transcending ego so we could see ourselves and each other as we are: manifestations of God’s loving energy on earth.
And for the sin of not believing in the goodness of the American public enough to know that all these sins could be overcome when people feel safe enough to go for their own strong desire for a world based on love and generosity.
For the sin of always noticing what is wrong with others or ourselves and not enough attention to what is right in ourselves and others;
And for the sin of not forgiving others or ourselves for the ways that they and we have gone astray;
For the sin of moral relativism and believing that everything is OK;
And for the sin of being overly judgmental toward others or ourselves:
For all these, we ask each other, and the people of the world, the planet Earth, and the God/Spiritual Reality/Force of Healing and Transformation of the universe to forgive us and support us to do what needs to be done so that we can stop this kind of sinning and begin to be fuller manifestations of the love and goodness that sustains all life and of which we are an intrinsic part.
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