This has been an eventful and traumatic week for Israel and the Jewish people. The United Nations heard from President Obama, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the leaders of Turkey and Iran on the topic of Israel, her borders and her status within the community of nations. It is not lost on many of us that these historic conversations are taking place just days before the worldwide Jewish community begins the High Holiday season, beginning with the first night of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) on Wednesday night. Admittedly, this was not planned, as the General Assembly schedule is set well ahead of time – but still, the timing is notable!
The High Holidays, outlined in the Bible in Leviticus 23, have a privileged position in Jewish tradition and life… especially the New Year and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). The ten days between the two great festivals have also grown in importance in Jewish tradition and are called The Days of Awe or Ten Days of Repentance. This comes from the notion that God opens the books of life and death in heaven on Rosh Hashanah and closes them at the last moment of the Day of Atonement. Jewish people use these ten days to make all things right with their neighbor and particularly to apologize to those they may have offended during the previous year.
The result would then be a sweet and fruitful year, symbolized by our sharing plates of apples and honey with one another! In other words, our sins require repentance and only when this is done can a Jewish person have peace with God, their fellow-man or woman and with themselves.
I love this tradition because it encourages humility and vulnerability and promotes the healing of broken relationships. If only believers in Jesus the Messiah had a special season of the year when they knew the Lord was especially looking into their hearts to make sure that they were seeking the forgiveness of others and were ready to forgive any who had offended them. As our Messiah said,
Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt. 5:23 -24)
I believe that an annual week of repentance would transform relationships within the Body of Messiah and bring renewal and refreshment to our souls!
However, there is also a way to misuse the Jewish High Holidays – and there are lessons to learn from these instances as well. For example, in 1973 the Jewish people were getting ready to observe the Day of Atonement. Israeli society stops completely on this holy day. It was at that very time that hostile Arab nations attacked Israel, as the nation was observing the Day of Atonement and was unprepared for these terrible events. The enemies of Israel chose this day knowing that Israel would have trouble deploying her primarily volunteer army and put warplanes into the air. However, seven days later the Jewish nation was victorious. But – without some help from the U.S. in particular – this could have been the “end of Israel”!
The themes of the High Holidays could also be misused for the detriment of Israel as described in an excellent article that appeared online in the New Republic a few days ago. Yossi Klein Halevi* of the Hartman Institute in Israel wrote,
If only Israel had apologized to Turkey for killing nine of its nationals on last year’s Gaza flotilla, so the argument goes, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodgan would not be threatening now to send warships against the Israeli coast. If only Israel had apologized to Egypt for the accidental killing of six of their soldiers when Israeli helicopters entered Egyptian territory in pursuit of terrorists last August, an Egyptian mob wouldn’t have ransacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo, as Egyptian leaders refused to take calls from desperate Israeli leaders. And if only Israel had stopped building in settlements and offered the Palestinians a fair solution, they would not now be turning to the U.N. to substitute an imposed solution for the negotiating process.
This convergence of blame comes at a time of spiritual vulnerability for Jews. This is, after all, our season of contrition. As we approach Rosh Hashanah, the process of self-examination intensifies. And as Jewish tradition emphasizes, the basis for penitence is apology. Before seeking forgiveness from God, we are to seek forgiveness from those we have hurt, even inadvertently.
Klein Halevi’s reminder that the sins we confess before the Holy One and before our fellow-man are for both intentional and unintentional sins is profound. This theme grows out of chapter 16 of Leviticus, where it is clear that although the Israelites were supposed to sacrifice regularly at the Temple for their sins, it was understood that some sins and opportunities to seek forgiveness would be be missed. The Day (as the holiday is often called in Jewish literature) makes certain that at least once a year these forgotten sins could be handled (through the blood sacrifice of an offering in the ancient Temple) and forgiven.
Certainly, in the midst of a tense situation like war, sins are committed that require forgiveness and this is undeniable. However, it is a low blow when an alleged offended party attempts to recast their offenses as the other party’s responsibility and demand repentance for an offense they actually caused or committed. We each have plenty of hidden sins we commit for which we need forgiveness; we do not need the additional pressure of others trying to manipulate us for our supposed spiritual benefit – especially when we are at our most sensitive and at the apex of our spiritual vulnerability. It is reprehensible for any person or nation to take advantage of another’s desire to please God in order to serve their own selfish purposes.
I appreciate how Klein Halevi clarifies this issue:
But in the present atmosphere Jews should resist the temptation for self-blame. Apology is intended to heal. Yet those demanding apologies of Israel aren’t seeking reconciliation, but the opposite—to criminalize the Jewish state and rescind its right to defend itself.
Klein Halevi concludes,
This Rosh Hashanah I will ask forgiveness for my own sins and for the collective sins of Israel, as the liturgy insists. But I will withhold my political apologies for a time when those confessions won’t be manipulated against me. There is no religious obligation to collaborate in my own demonization. I will not be seeking forgiveness from those who deny my right to be.
I agree with Klein Halevi and believe that during the Ten Days of Awe, all parties engaged in the Israel-Palestinian conflict should examine themselves and repent, seek forgiveness and change the way they treat one another. We cannot take responsibility for the sins of others – we have enough of our own!
One further thought: as a Messianic Jew – a Jewish follower of Yeshua (Jesus) – I believe that He is the One who is our ultimate sacrifice and that through His sacrifice we can be forgiven of our sins. You can read more about this at www.Isaiah53.com.
His forgiveness gives us the power to forgive others. As Yeshua said to His disciples,
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt. 6:14-15)
I realize that this is not the complete solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, but is is a good place to start and something to consider this Rosh Hashanah.
*Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor to The New Republic and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. (http://www.tnr.com/article/world/95020/un-palestine-israel-security-council-statehood?id=XSXeLNjlOhnXFgs1YTT71kQRmn2lUDfkoW7wSaad/fgUcW6fgf0yUqOtjBHROMqt)