Thursday, September 20, 2007

Slichah: the challenge of remittance

As it happened quite often during the past year, major Feasts fall on a Shabbat in 5768. This is the case for Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonement, the 25 hour fast and return to God that will start on Friday 21st and end on Saturday 22nd - 9 and 10 of Tishri. The feast takes precedence over the Shabbat. This mainly implies to respect the fast (no food or beverage), the abstention from washing or shaving, wearing leather and having sexual intercourse during all that period. Hugs and kisses, "breakfasting" family and community suppers are then joyously allowed and recommended after the closure of the heavenly Gates (Seder Neylah) and the havdalah service (distinction between sacred and ordinary days). It may be strange but forgiveness shows many similarities with resting and renewing over the Shabbat and the seventh day is definitely in harmony with this shemittah'ing year for the restful time of Eretz Israel and ecological reflection about human beings living in a pilot plant area as Israel. Remittance of debts is then a plus that should change the relationships of a rather large part of our population. This is not a dream…

Seven years of war too. Before he fell asleep Prime Minister Ariel Sharon explained at length in different interviews and meetings that the State of Israel is embattled in a long-term process and that the war situation might be last for quite a long time. Over the past seven years, terror attacks could be stopped by a terrible effort to develop and correct the intelligence services. We had one (first) Lebanon war II, a pullout that dismantled the cities developed in the Gaza Strip that is at the present outlawed by a terror-reigning system. Gush Katif evolved into outcasts with unemployment. Impoverished Arabs swarm like bees or wasps in overcrowded cities and got taken hostage. It is a more and more shameful scandal that should interrogate human consciousness. A place of drug transit and sniper shooting that, over years, deeper and deeper harm desperate households and strongholds of settlements. And, as if we all in the region would deny the Lord Who had some “aftermath” walk or stroll at dusk when the breeze is so cool, we sadly built in these seven years the fences and walls that put the wind up various communities and framed us from those whom we consider as aliens; worse: it also made us alien to each other. We do need a Sabbatical year but hardly accept to consider 5768 as a true year of remittance and pardon.

When aliens become foreigners, estranged, bizarre in our views and own suspicion, we cannot be astounded, in return, to be considered with the same lack of respect, honesty, decency. In that particular case, we alienate ourselves without getting higher. But Judaism and Jewishness precisely constitute a positive opening-up teaching process and monitor to defeat any kind of rejection. Yom HaKippurim is the most sacred, the most precious – priceless and exquisite – D-Day of the Jewish year. Just as each Shabbat is the dearest and invaluable refreshing time for having a reflection stroll and break the walls of our own repulsive enmities. Still forgiveness and pardon are uttered with much piety by any believer but may be expressed with much reluctance. We take then the risk to be liars or lightheaded. “Selach, mechal, kaper lanu – forgive, remit and atone us” is the greatest spiritual and societal challenge because we expect to be ransomed by God and we enjoy the free choice and obligation to release all the people we know. We know the vitz / joke of two born enemies meeting on Yom Kippur; and one says to the other: “I wish you all the best you can wish on yourself”. The answer is clean cut: “Don’t start again right now, will you!” Yom HaKippurim is the inspiriting set of 25 hours of move from human frailty and weakness to a real awakening awareness of the existence of a community. We are given a chance to get conscious that sins and transgressions can be wiped out (by God) and enter a year of bright creativity. Still, do we believe in pardon?

My son told me recently that he was very interested by a permanent question. Firstly, of course, how and who are we Jewish? Good enough – then, how he feels Jews are and how he feels Jewishness. He used to answer that being a Jew/ess does not depend on any personal and individual opinion or self-conviction. There are tons of ways to be Jewish; but he underscored the fact that Judaism is not only a private “feeling”: it is shared and given inside of a community. In last year blog “Tiftach – open the gates” (09/29/06), I tried to connect this Kippur experience to the unity of the pardon: “at-ONE-ment” that reinforces the Klal Israel. As a young adult, my son would be more “emotionally” involved because young people are emotional. Feelings are not only a matter of privacy and individuality. Feelings are “on air” with a lot of connections and debugging clashes. Indeed, being Jewish and acting as a believer or simply showing some requirement to being a member of the Jewish community includes the move of warming our hearts and souls til pardon becomes a personal reality, and thus can be extended to a community and to any soul. You bet! Nothing to do with being in the land of Nod! This requires having the guts and the nerve to face who we are and to proceed to a substantial repair.

The texts read on Yom HaKippurim are: Vayikra / Leviticus ch.16-17; Bemidbar 29:7-11 and the haftarah / prophetic reading portion: Isaiah 57:14 – 58:14. There is an additional prophetic reading for the Day of Atonement, i.e. the reading of the Book of Jonah (haftarah). All the prayers said during the fast, focus on penance and return to God. It should be noted that the blessing “Shehecheyanu = Who maintained us living and gave us to be living and allowed us to reach this period” is parallel to the closure of the Day / Neilah and the Birkat Kohanim / priestly blessing (Numbers 22:6). Whatever transgression involved, humankind is overshadowed by a powerful life-breathing-in Godly blessing and pardon. In the meanwhile, “Yom HaKippurim/Day of Atonement atones for transgressions of man in his relationship to God, but as for transgressions between man and man there is no expiation on the Day of Atonement until wrongful acts have been corrected and repaired.” (Mishnah Yoma 8, 9). Rabbi Jacob Tam, the grandson of Rashi changed the intention of the introducing “Kol Nidrey – all the vows (annulment)” pointing out that past vows cannot be canceled, but vows should be free, without pressure and “From this Yom HaKippurim till the next Day of Atonement”. This very ancient text is in Aramaic and focuses on our relation to God (Nedarim 23b). Interestingly though absolutely evident, numerous vows and prayers insist the spiritual pressure exercised by the Gentiles either to convert and accept Christianity by force but it should be underscored that the Jews had been persecuted and obliged to abandon the Mitzvot long before the Jewish and Christian communities separated and banned each other. The pagans, heathens and barbarians exerted a terrible compelling strain, obliging the Jews to deny their call to worship the Lord of the Universe. The Kol Nidrey should also invite the Israelis to respect the vows freely taken by others, provided that they don’t harm them.

We often had the opportunity to point out how little people appreciate true freedom. Oh yes, freedom would be on every mouth. A banal motto! We may have to face a problem: that, we may fast, stop drinking and eating – indeed we know that after the havdalah of the Shabbat we shall meet with our friends and families, congregations and not with those who are against us and enjoy a nice supper. Then we ritually observe Kippur, barely the moving spirit of this Day of pardon. When we are ransomed, redeemed by God and not sharing with our reconciled enemies the best Jewish recipes from all over the dispersion.

This is why the “Vidui / Confession of sin” is a masterpiece of insights that traces back to the the Antiquity (Yoma 87b). It starts with: “Ashamnu (we have sinned)” and continues in Hebrew alphabetical order. It is the same text that is read three times a day, but on that special move of forward turning to God, it recounts the depths of human distance amidst the beings and between humans toward God. “We transgressed, acted perfidiously, robbed, slandered, acted with perversion, wickedness, willfully sinned and acted with violence; imputed falsely, counseled evil, lied, scoffed, rebelled; provoked disobedience, iniquity, wantonly transgressed, oppressed, stiff-necked; committed evil, acted perniciously, done abominations, went astray and led others astray” (“ti’avnu, ta’inu, tit’a’nu” are redundantly so expressive").

Thus, in different series of penitential prayers, we must also try to “materialize” this introspection in order to dare, often with courage, apologize and ask for forgiveness those that we have offended. The usual greeting “shalom uslichah – greetings and pardon” tends to disappear. It is too formal and void. This also shows how far we may be from the real necessity for the Community of Israel to receive Divine atonement because of their spiritual consciousness that God sustains life and respect. Otherwise, Jews among themselves and Christians and others may get hurt, deceived, distrustful and feel abandoned or rejected.

We are both united and profoundly divided, on the verge of suspecting the “others turning to aliens”. There is a need to apologize for the indecent social and medical care conditions of the Shoah survivors who live in Israel. If Jewish Israelis sell the grounds, even fictively, to non-Jews, in particular Arabs, Christians or Muslims, this means that we can accept that God’s pardon has no borders or fence, walls in the sky. Maybe this Yom Kippur we would not lead astray from God those who seek Him or want to feel free to develop their own reflection. HaShem malach… God has reigned, reigns and will reign” is at the heart of true release and remittance of souls. This does not exclude any breathing soul that getting new forces anywhere in the world and especially in Israel.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches have included this spirit of pardon in their usual prayers. “Let us ask the Lord to pardon and atone our transgressions and faults” is a constant demand as also “forgive, dismiss and release all the transgressions and faults, sins…” The Faithful has to accomplish a huge task by proving that God shows His holiness and thus gives the possibility to sanctify His words, the land and any soil and the people. “For I do not desire the death of the one deserving death, says the Lord God; “vehashivu viheyu – therefore return (ahead to God) and live” (Ezekiel 18:32). Atonement implies to envision a year of freedom and openness.

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