A little more mercy is good for us all

What the people of Israel need more than anything else is true reconciliation within the nation.

By Aviel Schneider | | Topics: Yom Kippur
Photo: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90
Photo: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90

The division among the people is becoming ever greater and everyone is talking about “us and them.” Just look at social media where brothers and sisters shout at each other and put each other down. The situation is out of control and if it is not stopped, we will all fall into the same pit. On both sides there are extremists who always denigrate an entire community, either the right-wing and religious or the secular and left-wing. The left-wing media often only highlights the bad things about the right-wing siblings, and the right-wing media does the exact same thing in reverse. But reconciliation and atonement always involved blood.

Since the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, the ten days of repentance (עשרת ימי תשובה) have begun, counting down to the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. It is a time of self-examination, accountability, repentance and an opportunity to receive forgiveness and make things right with God. On these days, the people pray the so-called Slichot prayers. A leitmotif throughout the ten days: “Father, we have sinned, have mercy on us!” At the Western Wall at night, thousands beg God for forgiveness and mercy in sonorous harmony. These moments at the Western Wall are overwhelming. We go there every year with our children. This time too we met friends.

In conversations with some of them, I heard how everyone asks God for grace and mercy, but everyone is less merciful towards their neighbor, who is politically on the other side of the street. “The leftists in Tel Aviv are not Jews, for me they have no place in this country,” a long-time friend named Baruch tells me. He is not religious, but traditional and votes for Likud. We were in a class together at primary school on Hebron Street. When I asked him why he asks God for forgiveness but cannot forgive those around him, he answers: “I am not God.” He cannot be merciful. Chico, another friend, wanted to pray at the Western Wall, along with all left-wing Tel Avivians. But in the same breath he said that wasn’t possible. “They have turned away from God and Judaism,” he accused his brothers and sisters among the people. That makes no sense. I also hear the same from the left. We recently published a video showing radical left-wing protesters in Tel Aviv freaking out and calling religious Jews fascists and non-Jews when a rabbi walked by.

Israelis protest against Rabbi Yigal Levinstein before his class at a residential building in Tel Aviv on September 19, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90

Next Sunday evening begins the biblical Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur (יוֹם הַכִּפֻּרִים). For many, this day of repentance is the holiest day of the year, which should have a deep and spiritual meaning for each of us. I emphasize: “should.” The majority of the people are fasting. But fasting and penance do not bring the reconciliation that we all so desire. For years I have understood that God is more merciful than we humans. We ask him for forgiveness, but we cannot forgive our neighbor. This is typical of man.

According to the Bible, only the shed blood brings about forgiveness of sins, and for this animals were sacrificed on the altar to God. In Hebrew, atonement is called Kippur, Kappara: “For the life of the body is in the blood, and I have appointed it to you as an altar, so that you thereby make atonement (Kappara) for your sins, for it is the blood that makes atonement (Kappara) through the life that is in it.” For this reason Moses said to his people: “You shall not eat blood, for life is in the blood.” And this leads to the messianic idea of Jesus’ redemption as a sacrificial lamb in the New Testament. Through his Kappara, everyone who accepts this with faith is redeemed before God.

Israelis for forgiveness (Slichot) at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, early in the morning of September 21, 2023, ahead of the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, the most important day in the Jewish calendar. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90

But even in war, people sacrifice their lives for others. In war, blood is shed like on the altar, and 50 years ago in the Yom Kippur War, 2,656 Israelis had to sacrifice their lives to save the young state. These wars and this bloodshed unite people. Who knows, perhaps bloodshed on a similar scale is the only way out of our current situation.

Normalization with Saudi Arabia is desired by everyone, but experience shows that this does not bring internal reconciliation, but rather the opposite. Reconciliation with neighbors perhaps, but what is reconciliation with strangers worth if reconciliation within the family remains distant? In this context, I return to the words of religious cabinet minister Orit Stroock: “I don’t know if our prime minister will return with an agreement with Saudi Arabia, but I do know one thing: That we have an agreement with God over this land and it has been in place for a long time. An agreement that cannot be terminated and has overcome all challenges and returned us to the country. We must acknowledge our agreement with God.” She is right, even if she is not my choice and not my type.

Jews pray on Tel Aviv beach as part of Tashlich, a Jewish custom that takes place on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Pieces of bread or stones are thrown into a large, natural body of water to rid oneself of the sins of the past year and become a better person in the year to come. Photo: Miriam Alster/Flash90

Everyone wants real reconciliation among the people, but no one can take the first step toward the other, neither the coalition to the opposition, nor vice versa. Yom Kippur begins with sunset on Sunday, when we all seek reconciliation with God. This often seems to me to be easier to “maintain” than reconciliation among ourselves, be it in the family or the nation. Just as God took the first step toward us, we must learn to do the same with one another. I know this isn’t easy.


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