Yom Kippur 5769 — Pick your sin

Image_006 This past Sunday I joined colleagues and volunteers from Rabbis for Human Rights in the olive harvest in the West Bank, between the Arab town Awarta and the Jewish settlement of  Itamar.

Palestinian who have groves of olive trees near Jewish settlements unfortunately are often harassed by extremist settlers. The presence of Israeli and international volunteers often helps prevent problems as the settlers are less likely to attack when there are non-Palestinian witnesses. And in the event of any problems, the police and military are likelier to respond if an Israeli calls them benefit Palestinian calls them.

While we were out harvesting olives – which is very hard work – the mayor of Awarta came out to thank us for our presence. One of the things I enjoy about volunteering with Rabbis for Human Rights is you often meet very interesting people. On this particular day we had a Czech journalist with us. He want to do a radio interview with the mayor, but the mayor did not speak English. The mayor did, however, speak excellent Hebrew. So I found myself translating from Hebrew to English for a radio interview a Czech speaker was conducting with an Arab speaker.

Anyway, the mayor had a lot of interesting things to say. He talked about how they had good relations with the settlers until the Intifada. He was disappointed that things did not go back to normal after the Intifada was over. He blamed Hamas for stirring up trouble and keeping hostilities alive. He also told the story of an old man who had a small flock of sheep and he tended on his property, just down the hill from Itamar. A few extremist settlers came down the hill and beat him up and killed some of his sheep. Needless to say, the old man was very upset.

 Those of us hearing the story were also upset. One of the volunteers, when she heard the story, said “sometimes I’m embarrassed to be a Jew – to think that my people could act this way.” My reaction when I hear of ostensibly religious Jews acting that way is to question whether they could possibly be studying the same Torah that I do. You know, the Torah that talks about “love your neighbor” and “do not oppress the stranger?”


The extremist settlers – the ones who support violence against Palestinian civilians and Israeli police, who steal sheep and olives, destroy private Palestinian property, represent the worst of the Jews – they are sinners, and an embarrassment to the Jewish people.

 Several of us who were there felt that those kind of activities or something we needed to atone for. And that was one reason we had for being there, to show both Palestinians, and the world, but not all Jews are like them.

 But is it possible to atone for someone else?

 The Hebrew Bible makes a major point that we are each punished for our own sins, and by extension it would seem forgiveness and atonement should also be for the parties directly involved. In Deuteronomy we read “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin.” The prophet Ezekiel is even more emphatic: “The soul that sins, it shall die! The son shall not bear for the sin of the father, nor the father bear for the sin of the son. The righteousness of the righteous person shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked person shall be upon him.”

 The midrash notes an apparent contradiction: right after the “el rachum v’chanun” that we recite over and over again on Yom Kippur the Torah continues and says “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, to the third and to the fourth generation.” The midrash pictures Moses arguing with God over this verse. He points to the many righteous descendants of wicked people, like Abraham, who was descended from the idol worshiping Terach.  God reflects on what Moses had to say and proclaims, “You have taught Me something! By your life, I shall cancel My words and confirm yours; as it says, The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers.”

 If everyone is punished for their own sins, how can you provide forgiveness on the one hand, or atonement on the other hand, for someone else’s sins?

 There is a well-known story from Simon Wiesenthal. He was captive in a concentration camp, and a dying Nazi, laying on a hospital bed, confesses to him that he helped destroy, with fire and guns, a house filled 150 Jews; he asks Wiesenthal to forgive him. Wiesenthal walks out. Wiesenthal was haunted by the decision, and wonders whether he did the right thing – however, there are many who are quite certain he did the right thing. Who say “you can’t forgive a crime against someone else – forgiveness must come from the victim.” Who are you to forgive sins that were not committed against you?

 Similarly, we usually think repentance also must come from the “concerned party,” the sinner. Maimonides’ famous model for teshuvah says that the person who sinned must confess, repent, fix any damage done, and THEN ask for forgiveness. Intermediaries not allowed.

 In fact, we often think of suffering on behalf of others or forgiving on behalf of others as a very Christian concept – something alien to Judaism. The verse I mentioned earlier, which talks about God visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation can be understood metaphorically – sin creates a lasting negative legacy. But the Talmud, in masechet Shabbat, gives a far more radical teaching on the subject: “For R. Gorion-others state, R. Joseph son of R. Shemaiah-said: When there are righteous men in the generation, the righteous are seized [by death] for the [sins of the] generation; when there are no righteous in a generation, school-children are seized for the generation.”

 Righteous people and schoolchildren are seized – are killed – for the sins of others. I believe the key message of that passage is that we are all in it together, the things we do affect others as well. The pollution we create – environmental, emotional, or spiritual – poisons the air for innocent people as well.

 Communal responsibility is also a theme we see in our liturgy today. Over and over on Yom Kippur we will recite the vidue, the confessional. The vidui is a prayer that is written in the plural — ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu: we have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen. If we believe in individual responsibility, does that mean we should we only beat our chest when we come to the sins that we personally have done? Which, of course, would have everyone eagerly keeping track of just when their neighbor beats their breast.

 Another interpretation is that we recite the vidui in the plural form because there is no doubt that in a sufficiently large community someone within our midst has done each of those sins.

But I suggest a better interpretation is that we have communal responsibility – we have not created the kind of community where those things don’t happen. It is our job to teach our children so they won’t grow up into people who lie or steal; it is our responsibility to take care of disadvantaged children so despite parental failings they will grow up ok.

 IF WE ASK GOD FOR COMMUNAL FORGIVENESS, DON’T WE HAVE TO DO COMMUNAL REPENTANCE??? If we go back to Rambam’s model for teshuvah, we can be forgiven if we don’t first make an effort to repair any damage.

 So that brings up the question, what are our communal sins, and how do we repair the damage?

 For our communal sins we have a long list of “al chet sh’chatanu l’fanecha,” “for the sin that we have sinned against you, God…”

· For the sin of turning our eyes from our poor brothers – one out of every three children in Israel lives in poverty

· For the sin of not being proactively caring to those in need – a woman could lie dead in her apartment for days with her disabled son stuck there, and no one knows

· For the sin of allowing the exploitation of foreign workers – forgetting we ourselves were “foreign workers” in Egypt

· For the sin of failing to keep our promises to the evacuees from Gaza to provide them new housing

· For the sin of demolishing the homes of Palestinians because they dared to build a home when we refuse to grant a permit

· For the sin of failing to adequately protect our brothers in Sderot from rockets landing on their heads

· For the sin of allowing extremists to steal sheep and olives and physically harm innocent people

· For the sin of closing our borders to refugees from Sudan, forgetting that our grandparents were refugees seeking shelter just 60 years ago

· For the sin of resorting to violence against people we disagree with

This list is, of course, only a very partial list.  But as partial as it is, the list is overwhelming – how can we atone for them all?

 Pick a sin, any sin.  Which sin annoys you the most?  Gets you the most riled up?

 The Talmud talks about how while the rabbis would try to follow all the mitzvot, every rabbi was particular about one mitzvah that was especially precious to him – R. Huna never went bareheaded, R. Sheshet was meticulous about his tefillin, R. Nahman made sure to always have three meals on Shabbat, R. Judah was very focused on prayer.

 Decide which of our communal sins most concerns you – and do something about it.   If you are concerned about poverty – volunteer with a soup kitchen, or an organization that distributes food.   There is an organization in Jerusalem that goes around to restaurants after closing time, picks up the leftovers, and distributes them to the poor.

 You can lobby politicians about important issues of social justice.

 You can visit Sderot and give chizuk to the residents, and support their businesses.

 You can donate money to organizations that support the cause that is important to you.

 My w
ife Lauri was concerned about neglected children – so she set up a web site to support Jewish orphans in the FSU.

 I was concerned about how we treat others – so I joined the board of Rabbis for Human Rights and went on the olive harvest to help protect Palestinian farmers from extremist settlers.Rambam teaches that forgiveness comes only after we make an effort to repair any damage we have done – this is surely just as true for us communally as it is for us individually.

As we learn from the Mishnaic teaching Pirkei Avot, you are not obligated to finish the task of fixing the world, but neither are you exempt from contributing to the effort.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah

Rav Barry

PS…Just a small personal note…if I believed in "hashgacha pratit," the theology that God consciously controls everything that happens, I’d probably be a little angry with God right now — while I was up in the Galillee leading services, on Yom Kippur, my car was stolen!  I try to remember Rabbi Akiva’s story of "gam zu l’tovah," this too is for the best.  I’m not quite at R. Akiva’s level as it’s tough for me to accept completely calmly, but I do appreciate that "it could have been worse" and "it’s only money…"  Fortunately, I’m a big believer in "free will," so I don’t blame God for the actions of the thief.  But one of my daughters asked "did God really need to give us THAT much free will that we could steal stuff?"  Not an easy question to answer…


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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