Maker of Peace,
Source of Hope,
Giver of strength and wisdom,
We need to talk.
Or, once again, I need you to listen.
I am already exhausted, and Yom Kippur has just started. There is too much happening all at once.
Two days ago was the anniversary of 9/11. When I spoke to my congregation on Kol Nidre night in 2001, I said, “We are still numb and in pain. Recent events have touched us all – and shocked and awakened people all over the world.”
Little did I know then that 12 years later, I would feel that the only way to express myself on Erev Yom Kippur would again be through prayer – or, maybe I should call it a conversation with You on which my congregation can eavesdrop.
In 12 years, we have seen two wars in which American troops were fighting on the ground, - and we mourn those who have died. In both countries, the leadership struggles to maintain stability and opposition to the government remains significant.
We have seen uprisings in the nations around Israel change the already complex equation of Middle East politics and diplomacy.
We have seen leaders in certain countries in that region come and go, with their exit not necessarily leading to greater freedom, almost as if to render prophetic the words, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” We are left uncertain whether or not we can truly say that we won’t get fooled again.
Our lives have drastically changed. The price of freedom is emptying our pockets, removing our belts and shoes, and having a security worker look at a momentary electronic portrait of us to be sure we will be a cooperative and peaceful traveler. I never minded that on trips to Israel…..I guess I don’t mind it now, but it’s a change. And the awareness we now have of the privacy we have given up so that someone else’s suspicious conversation can be caught before a disaster occurs may cause some of us consternation, whether we sympathize with the whistleblower or not.
And then there is Syria – what to do to assure that a chemical weapon attack doesn’t happen again, and how to approach either the punishment or resolution…or both. Rabbis have been all abuzz about whether or not to change an already written sermon for the High Holy Days to speak about the Syrian situation. Well, I said a couple of weeks ago that I wouldn’t – and I kept my word. But, the moment is here….or, at least, it seems to be.
Before I talk about war, or conscience, which is what I will still discuss tonight, I need to mark yet another anniversary or two, one that occurred today on the Jewish calendar and one on the secular calendar. It is 40 years since the Yom Kippur War, which was a challenging time for the State of Israel and the world Jewish community. We mourn those who died during those difficult days. It was twenty years ago today that a leader of a Middle Eastern nation spoke these words, “Let me say to you…We are destined to live together on the same soil, in the same land. We, the soldiers who have returned from battle stained with blood, we who have seen our relatives and friends killed before our eyes, we who have attended their funerals and cannot look into the eyes of their parents, we who have come from a land where parents bury their children, we who have fought against you….We say to you today in a loud and a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough. We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred towards you. We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free people. We are today giving peace a chance, and saying again to you: Enough. Let us pray that a day will come when we all will say: Farewell to the arms. We wish to open a new chapter in the sad book of our lives together, a chapter of mutual recognition, of good neighborliness, of mutual respect, of understanding. We hope to embark on a new era in the history of the Middle East. Today…we will begin a new reckoning in relations between peoples, between parents tired of war, between children who will not know war.”
Source of Peace, it must have been You who inspired Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to make that bold declaration on the White House lawn. Even more courageous was Rabin’s handshake with Yassir Arafat. I know that there are many, many naysayers worldwide who would decry that moment as a major mistake. Even though the Oslo process did not lead to the desired outcome, peace between Israelis and Palestinians, it did shape a foundation for possibilities. We don’t know what is happening today, behind the scenes, in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. We do know that because of the Oslo accords, the leaders now sitting across the table from each other in bi-lateral meetings have a history of dialogue. Even if those discussions have been frustrating and often fruitless, the fact that opposing leaders have been able to sit at a table, even if only to shout at each other, is, in and of itself, an ongoing miracle. We continue to mourn the death of Prime Minister Rabin, a consequence of his attempt at peace making. We thank You, Eternal One, for the opportunity to glimpse at least a few moments of rapprochement 20 years ago. We know that animosities remain, and that hatreds persist – but we also recognize that peace may yet have its day.
What was it that led Yitzhak Rabin to stand on the White House lawn that day? It was likely much more than an attempt to help members of his government who initiated the Oslo process save face before their international dialogue facilitators. Even if Prime Minister Rabin didn’t trust the adversary with whom he shook hands on September 13, 1993, something made him take steps towards negotiation even though he knew that they might fail.
I believe that it was Rabin’s conscience that moved him to make that unexpected decision, based on a sincere desire to end a state of virtual war.
I asked the children at Temple Beth-El how they would define “conscience.” They said that “conscience” is a “voice that tells you what to do and when to do it,” “judgment,” “something in your mind or a natural feeling that tells you what is right and what is wrong.” “Conscience” may tell you that “what you did was wrong and you shouldn’t do it again.” It is a “combination of self-control, empathy and forethought.” We closely monitor our behavior, taking into account not only our own feelings but also those of others before we act. We might carefully think about the results of each possible course of action we could take, and then decide which will create an outcome that is the most positive or, perhaps, the least negative.
As we pray to You on this Yom Kippur, Source of forgiveness, we know that the words we use to characterize our relationship with You relates to “conscience.” Some commentators have suggested that “conscience” is expressed in the Hebrew term YIR’AT ADONAI, reverence for You – or fear of You.” I wonder, do You want to be feared – or revered? It’s like asking a parent – or perhaps a leader of a business, an organization, or a nation – would you rather have people respect you or be afraid of you? I almost always say that YIR’AH means reverence, but the word AWE may help us understand as well what YIR’AH truly means. Making a moral decision can be taxing and overwhelming, and the inspiration that leads us to our final choice may feel like it came from somewhere else. It is, at least in part, from inside of us, but some people believe that “conscience” is where heaven and earth touch, maybe even embrace. Reaching that concluding ethical insight can be, for some of us, a moment of awe and amazement, because human life is so emotionally challenging.
Guidance for our moral decisions comes from inside of us – and from outside as well. Eternal Wellspring of Wisdom, You know better than I do what Sigmund Freud had to say about that. Judaism would recast “superego” with the word Torah in its broadest sense, encompassing biblical and rabbinic teachings and all of their later interpretations. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber noted, Eternal One, that when it came to choosing between You and the Bible – or any other text – we should choose You. Better put, we should choose to be like You in applying justice balanced with a heavy dose of compassion.
When it comes to war, we know that every life is precious, but we know that our heritage has given us standards that can help us determine when to wage war and when to choose peaceful negotiation. These are some of the questions that Judaism requires us to address:
Was our nation or an ally attacked directly?
Is there a moral imperative that would justify the use of force?
Will a military action achieve the moral goals for which it is being used?
Should any nation take such an action alone?
Could an attack in response to a violation of international rules result in loss of life?
Will any type of diplomatic approach through negotiation uphold the moral imperative and accomplish the goal of preventing a future violation?
After any action that is taken – military or not – will there be a possibility for future cooperation or, at least, an end to hostilities?
These are the questions that I hope are on the minds of at least some of the people in the United States and in other nations attempting to determine how to deal with the Syrian government. Eternal One, we have faith that your Oneness pervades all creation. But there are those who refuse to recognize the interconnection in our world and in the universe. They see only their own position and power as important. They lack genuine concern for the people living in the nation they rule, or that they hope to rule. They are unable to balance their own interests with a moral approach that could win them even greater support and respect. Their focus on their own survival eclipses any regard for the lives of civilians. Once they have determined that their enemies or opponents are no longer human, there is nothing to stop them from using an arsenal of chemical weapons – or for that matter, any weapon – to cause even more death and destruction.
The entire force of Jewish tradition teaches that war should be a last resort – that it is an aberration in human life that results all too often from fear or from broken relationships between neighboring or even distant nations. Even one limited military act to make a moral point should not be taken lightly. Nor should parties to a conflict enter diplomatic discussions and negotiations with the hope or assumption that they will fail.
Eternal God, You have taught us to seek peace and pursue it, to be grateful for the gift of life, and to hope that we can “repair the world” as a place where people understand that they are members of one human family. If we see Your image in every human being, then we should always first choose to offer peace and assume that even an enemy doesn’t really want war.
In his book SAYING NO AND LETTING GO, Rabbi Edwin Goldberg wrote of an incident during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. On October 22 of that year, President John F. Kennedy had announced a blockade against Cuba and had threatened to attack if Soviet nuclear missiles that had been placed on that island country were not removed. Several days later, President Kennedy received two separate messages from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The first was a message to stop the drift to bloodshed, with an offer to remove the missiles if Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba. The second message contained hostile language that would have forced President Kennedy to declare war. The President didn’t know which message reflected Khrushchev’s actual perspective. But the President’s brother Bobby Kennedy suggested that the United States ignore the second message and focus on the first that offered a compromise. That was a moment of decision, but it was, especially, a choice that was made based on conscience. In that case, we know that what was wrong and unwise was taking the world to the brink of nuclear war. What was right and wise for both nations – and the world - was compromise.
So, Gracious Giver of Wisdom, who forgives our failings on this Day of Atonement, this Yom Kippur, there are paths being forged for the future by leaders of our country and other nations. We cannot make their decisions for them. We cannot ignore when your children deny the humanity of others and seek to deprive them of their lives with impunity. Perhaps any solution that will clearly hold Bashar al Assad accountable for his regime’s actions might bring some broader resolution to the strife in Syria, much of it due to Assad’s attempt to hold on to power at all costs. You know, Eternal One, what is in his heart, and in the heart of Russian President Vladimir Putin. You know, as well, what is in our hearts – a hope for an end to conflicts that have affected so many innocent people, and a desire to see that there is some level of morality left in this world.
Eternal One, I prayed the following words 12 year ago, and I repeat them now: “I believe that You are here with us to help us face the evil that we human beings perpetrate on one another. You are here to help us make the right choices – to cry divine tears when we don’t choose wisely – and to help us steer ourselves back onto the right road when we are ready.”
So help us, O God, to stir the conscience of humanity to forge a new path to cooperation and compromise and to guide our leaders in their deliberations by turning their hearts one to the other. Inscribe us, O God of mercy, for a year of lives preserved, ever-increasing blessing, and abundant peace. And let us say Amen.