Published in The Jerusalem Post on September 28, 1997
How does a Jew do “* cheshbon nefesh *”? Beat his breast and repent for his sins? No. He reaches over to the guy sitting nearby and hits * him * on the chest.
Finding fault with others is something that politicians, journalists, columnists and others do all year long. Self-criticism, of course, is harder, requiring humility and honesty. Spiritual stock-taking, one level yet higher, is almost non-existent. It’s a challenge our society has elected to neglect.
“It is a positive commandment to petition the heavens and to blow trumpets following any misfortune that may befall the public”, writes Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Fast Days, 1:1). “This is the way of repentance….to recognize that adversity results from our wicked ways……It is brutish to discount tragedies as natural or random events”, warns the Jewish philosophical giant.
So, it’s incumbent on us to seek deeper meaning for all that happens around us, to improve ourselves and beseech G-d for relief.
After a year of national tragedies galore what is our conclusion? The Hasmonean tunnel riots, helicopter calamity, murdered schoolgirls in Naharayim, Lebanon commando catastrophe, and the Apropo, Mahane Yehuda and Ben-Yehuda bombings — did all this happen only as a result of nefarious or poor policy (Arafat’s, Assad’s or Netanyahu’s)? Is the sum total of our analysis merely military or diplomatic — crack down on Arafat, dump Bibi, or withdraw from Lebanon? Is there no level of meaning beyond the prosaic political calculus?
Throughout our history, Jews have always thought there was. G-d keeps a moral scorecard. What we do individually, how we speak and how we act – to our neighbors, co-workers, fellow immigrants, kids, the poor and weak, strangers and the deviant among us, Jews of different religious stripes, even our political rivals – effects what happens to us on the national level.
Unfortunately, our capacity for such ethereal reflection, and willingness as a people to contemplate G-d’s hand in history, has been dulled. Perhaps technological society is to blame; there’s too much sensory noise, too much media and information, not enough time or mental space to think. Perhaps we simply don’t believe in much anymore, aside from personal fulfillment. Perhaps we lack spiritual leadership.
In the Rosh Hashana prayers we repent for the sin of “confusion of the heart” (*timhon laivav*). This is confusion that stems from inadequate perspective; from not making the effort to reach beyond the commonplace and consider the macro in an ethical/religious context.
Let’s not rule out the possibility that we can spiritually navigate ourselves out the current national troubles. More refined use of language in public discourse, just a little less hacking at each other politically, a touch more tolerance in education, less public promiscuity, more honesty in business and increased philanthropy, a crackdown on crime (look at all the murders!), fairer distribution of the national burden (army service by all!), more concern for the widow, orphan and unemployed, some reverence for heritage – all this might go a long way in ameliorating the misery that heaven decreed upon us.
Unlike some arrogant clerics and idiotic soothsayers, we cannot decisively ascertain why things happen or for what purpose. We can only seek respite by refining ourselves, in the hope that G-d will take notice and reward our catharsis. Engagement is the key. The process of self-improvement and searching for G-d, itself constitutes recognition that there is a Divine guiding hand in our lives, and the appeal for His guidance is intrinsically beneficial. At the least, we can ethically improve our communities and society.
And for the hard-core believer, I’ve got a philosophical adage to consider. Why the redundancy in wishing each other a “good and sweet” new year? By definition, everything that G-d does is for the good, even if we don’t always experience it that way. Answer: our additional prayer is that His decisions also will be felt and understood by us as beneficial. If we can only embrace this verity, difficult as the times are, perhaps we’ll merit mitigation of the hardships and renewed sweetness. Amen.