This is the holiest time in the Jewish calendar. Just two days ago, we celebrated Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a day which is dedicated to repentance, prayer and fasting. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord; you shall do no work throughout that day For it is a Day of Atonement on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23:26-28).
I think it is amazing, when you think about it, that a commandment that was given to the Nation of Israel by Moses more than 3,000 years ago, is still observed fastidiously by the Jewish people, the modern-day Nation of Israel, today, wherever they may reside. Jews all over the world ate a festive meal on Friday afternoon, finishing before sundown, then went to the synagogue for the traditional Kol Nidre prayer. This is a short prayer that ushers in the Yom Kippur service and is fraught with its own meaning and significance. It is literally a prayer that enables us to repent and cancel any vows we may have made during the year that we regret making. The prayer actually dates back to the 6th century but gained additional meaning in 15th century Spain.
In 1492, at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, the Jews of Spain were expelled from that country, which until that time had been home to the largest Jewish community in the world. Many Jews, though, believed that the expulsion would be a short-lived episode and, therefore, decided to convert to Christianity in order to escape the terrible decree. However, their conversion was meant as a life-saving ruse and, in secret, these Jews maintained their Jewish identity and their faith. If caught, they were subject to the fullest horrors of the auto-da-fe.
These Jews, known derogatively by Spanish Christians as Marranos (pigs) but more accurately by the term Conversos, would gather in the basements of Jewish homes for prayer and Sabbath and holiday meals. They did their best to observe Yom Kippur as well. And when they opened their prayer service with the Kol Nidre prayer, the request to God to cancel their vows spoke volumes to them. In this way, they expressed their honest commitment to Judaism and their revocation of any vows they would have made under duress to the Church.
Today, with the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews are able to pray and observe their faith freely. There is still anti-Semitism in many countries, but every Jew is able to return home, to settle in our own land and pray to the God of Israel. And we dare not take this miracle for granted. And we must hope and pray that Jews all over the world will recognize this miracle and come home to enjoy it.
As I prayed in my own synagogue this week, I was moved, as always, by the sense of community and fellowship that each and every member of our synagogue feels for one another. As I looked around the room, I recognized friends and neighbors, some of whom I have known for more than three decades. Some, like myself, have come to Israel from the US or from other free countries, such as Australia, England, Ireland, Brazil and Argentina. Some fled oppressive regimes such as the former Soviet Union. There are still a few Holocaust survivors among us and their children and grandchildren are part of our community, born in Israel and representing the hope that Israel is all about. The various prayer leaders (cantors) represented every age, from a young man in his 20’s newly married with one tiny baby, to men in their fifties and sixties.
At the end of the day, as the sun set and the prayers came to an end, we declared together, in one strong voice, that the Lord, God of Israel is our God. We recited the Shema, which declares that there is only one God. And then someone blew the shofar, signaling the end of the holy day and the acceptance of our prayers. We burst out in the traditional song “Next Year in a Rebuilt Jerusalem” and the men began to dance around the synagogue while the women in the balcony sang and wiped the tears from their eyes. Another Yom Kippur had passed. Another day of fasting and prayer. And we look forward to the new year, with a prayer and a hope that we will be healthy, that there will be peace in the land and that our own individual prayers will be answered.
My people have gone through so much since the commandment for this holiday was first given to Moses. We suffered the destruction of two temples in Jerusalem and the exile of our people. We suffered Crusades, Inquisition and Holocaust. We suffered pogroms, banishment and persecution. But the Yom Kippur service remains largely unchanged throughout the ages. For despite what happened to us at any given time, we remained determined to preserve our identity as the people of Israel, devoted to the one God of Israel.
Today, in the State of Israel, we have so much to be thankful for. But we also know that the process is not yet complete. As we sing and dance to the words “Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem” we know that unlike our ancestors, we are able to go to a beautifully rebuilt Jerusalem whenever we want. And despite the expressions of “concern” that emanate from the White House whenever we do build in Jerusalem, we know that we will continue building the one and only eternal capital of Israel. But we also know that there is more to come. Complete redemption will mean no more wars and a universal recognition of the God of Israel and the truth of His word. May that final day come soon!
Director, Israel Office