About a month ago, I found myself sitting in a small village in northern Rwanda. I was there with a group of Jewish community professionals from around the world, who are taking part in the year-long OLAM Impact Fellowship. The fellowship is designed to find ways for us to embed global Jewish service and international development into our organizations.
Sitting across from me at this village in Rwanda, were 30 men, women, and children, who were there to share with us their personal stories from the horrible Genocide that took place here just 24 years ago. And no, these were not stories only of victims and survivors. In this little village, living side by side, are families who survived the Genocide and families of those who perpetrated the Genocide. Yes yes, victims and attackers living in the same village, who decided to go through a unique reconciliation program and chose to build this village together, return to living side by side, share a water tank, work tools, and in fact, return to being a community, like they once were before the Genocide.
Just to emphasize, 24 years ago there was a mass murder in which around 800,000 people were killed in 100 days – bringing total social and political destruction.
I sat across from them and listened. I remember that it seemed so surreal to me on one hand – how can you reconcile with the person who murdered your family? How can you forgive? How do you not fall into a pit of despair? How do you move on? And choose to live together? There is something “unnatural” about that, it doesn’t make sense. On the other hand, I had a deep and honest appreciation for them and their strong will to carry out this self reflection, to rehabilitate themselves from the destruction, to stop the cycle of violence and hate. To continue to live and create for themselves and future generations a world worth living in. It was inspiring; not only the self-reflection, but the repairing, and creating a better world and just society.
One woman from the village surprised me with her question to us: “I read in the Bible that you, the Jews, are the Chosen People. So what are you doing with that responsibility?”
Great question. The truth is that throughout the entire conversation with them, I did not stop thinking about us. About the society we had built, about the State that was established against all odds, about what we are doing to correct the injustices that were created here, about what we are doing to justify the title we received, and about what our responsibility is towards ourselves and the world. I didn’t have an answer. And maybe that’s the whole point – not to rush to find an answer, but to remain with this excellent question – what are we doing to be good and to make this place better?
A.D. Gordon wrote about this in his passing thoughts about Yom Kippur:
“The People had a special day for repentance with themselves as a People… A special day to critique the account of life, to be totally immersed in the supreme demands of the human spirit. The individual, as an individual, can self-critique himself every day, or on the days which he finds fitting. Here – like in any national undertaking – the power is what matters, that the personal is intensified by the unity of strengths.”
Yom Kippur is not only a day for personal self-reflection, it is a day in which the many strengths, the fact that everyone is called to awaken, to atone, to correct, changes the rules of the game. Yom Kippur, in my eyes, is a powerful gift that we received from Jewish tradition. Not just the day itself, but as a practice in life – stop everything, conduct true self-reflection, become better than you were, improve what needs to be improved, seek out injustice and change it, fix what needs to be fixed, and most importantly – do it together.
Prophet Isaiah said it simply in the Yom Kippur Haftorah:
״הֲכָזֶה ,ה׳ צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ–יוֹם עַנּוֹת אָדָם, נַפְשׁוֹ; הֲלָכֹף כְּאַגְמֹן רֹאשׁוֹ, וְשַׂק וָאֵפֶר יַצִּיעַ–הֲלָזֶה תִּקְרָא-צוֹם, וְיוֹם רָצוֹן לַה׳ הֲלוֹא זֶה, צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ–פַּתֵּח חַרְצֻבּוֹת רֶשַׁע, הַתֵּר אֲגֻדּוֹת מוֹטָה; וְשַׁלַּח רְצוּצִים חָפְשִׁים, וְכָל-מוֹטָה תְּנַתֵּקוּ. הֲלוֹא פָרֹס לָרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ, וַעֲנִיִּים מְרוּדִים תָּבִיא בָיִת: כִּי-תִרְאֶה עָרֹם וְכִסִּיתוֹ, וּמִבְּשָׂרְךָ לֹא תִתְעַלָּם״ – ישעיה נ״ח
“Is such the fast that I have chosen? The day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to God?
Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?
Isn’t it to distribute your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you not hide yourself from your own flesh?” –Isaiah 58: 5-7
In other words? Yom Kippur is not for the sake of fasting and mourning about the current status of society. Don’t cry one day a year and ask for forgiveness and do nothing to improve the situation the rest of the year.
Wake up from the passivity! Make Yom Kippur a day of social justice, of caring for the vulnerable, of doing good, of Tikkun Olam!
It would be such a social loss to give up Yom Kippur, or just make it a day that you “have to get through,” in which whoever can connect to it gets to connect and whoever does not “must respect it.” The best way to “respect” Yom Kippur would be for each Jewish home to observe it – not necessary through fasting or praying, not necessarily at a synagogue, but by not giving up the internalization, the self-reflection, the aspiration for Tikkun all year round. This is the ideal of Yom Kippur that the Jewish tradition seeks – not to fast once a year, but to act all year for a more just society, and not to despair. An ideal that is limitless.
“If you believe that it can be ruined, believe that it can be repaired” – Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
Rwanda taught me about the incredible ability of a whole nation that decides to reconcile, that decides to put an end to the deterioration and to make immense efforts to take a new path. I learned about the community’s strength and about its ability to bring about an overall change, in welfare, health, education, and agriculture. I learned about the great importance that we have, as part of Jewish communities worldwide, to recognize the various challenges in the world and respond to them. I learned that Tikkun Olam does not have limits, and that it is possible to unify around hope and peace; it is attainable.
May we all have a meaningful Yom Kippur and a wonderful year of Tikkun Olam!