November 11, 2019

A New American Holy Day

Photo by NYX

My grandkids don’t want to read the newspaper. They say it’s too depressing. Candidates for the highest office in the country belittle one another, calling one another liars. Headlines about mass shootings, followed by weeks of follow-up reporting on the deadly events. Reports about Congress at angry loggerheads. Ugly accusations, both on the front page and the editorial pages, that our leaders are racists; or disloyal; or bought by foreign powers or special interests or campaign donors; that our economic system is corrupt and racist; that immigrants are rapists and freeloaders; that some Republicans are fascists; that some Democrats and the Republican president are anti-Semites. Depressing identity politics — made more unbearable by the sheer number of identities that define themselves as oppressed — is the order of the day.

The grandkids aren’t wrong. This seemingly unlimited negativity poisons the soul. Suicides are up; families and friendships are destroyed; people can’t talk to one another. Joy is drained from all of us.

We Jews are now about halfway between Tisha b’Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement at the start of the new year. The first addresses our society; the second addresses ourselves. Together, they suggest a road map for a different America. 

It was the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., then the Romans in 70 C.E., who destroyed the Temples. But the focus of Tisha b’Av is not on what they did to us, but on what we did to us. What happened to our society that resulted in this destruction? The Book of Lamentations (Eikhah), read on Tisha b’Av, is unyielding in its assignment of blame: We, as a society, are “aggrieved for our abundant transgressions”; we have “suffered because of [our] iniquities.” We read dirges (kinnot) on Tisha b’Av as well, in which we’re told that we have been destroyed because our society has been defined by “purposeless hatred”; we have “exchanged our dignity for degradation.” 

While on Tisha b’Av we say that God has abandoned us because of these collective failures, resulting in the destruction, you don’t have to be a theist to get the point. 

“Perhaps we might institute a national day of reflection … to reflect on our individual and collective errors.”

By Yom Kippur, the focus has narrowed. There is still a sense of collective responsibility, but the emphasis now is on personal flaws. While we are obligated throughout the year personally to seek forgiveness from those we have hurt, in the days before Yom Kippur, it is considered vital. We ask for forgiveness, face-to-face if possible. We enumerate our personal errors at the very start of the Yom Kippur service, immediately before the well-known Kol Nidre, including, among others, “gossip, lies, derision, talebearing, bickering, shaming people, cursing people, glorifying myself. …” And in a confession that we repeat throughout Yom Kippur, while we list our faults in the plural “we,” we are admonished to think in the singular “I.” All of this is intended not to burden us with guilt, but to free us to do better in the future.

This is a model from which we, as Americans, have much to learn. Perhaps we might institute a national day of reflection — not a day to go the beach or have barbecues, but to reflect on our individual and collective errors. On such a day this year, perhaps all of our presidential candidates might say only decent things about their opponents. Our political leaders might focus on our country’s many strengths. Each of us could ask for forgiveness and renewed closeness with those from whom we have become alienated. In our churches, synagogues and mosques, in all of our places of prayer or introspection, and in our homes, we could spend some time reflecting on what we have done, by our words and our conduct, to sow division and generate negativity.

A pipe dream? Yes. But maybe my grandkids, for at least one day, could read the newspaper.

Gregory R. Smith is a retired appellate attorney living in Los Angeles.