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Bringing ourselves to the water on Yom Kippur
As we come upon Yom Kippur, we are required to be self-reflective. We ask ourselves hard questions: how have we failed others? How have we failed ourselves? How have we been insufficient in repairing the world?
These are all questions I will ask myself during these Days of Awe, and I am grateful to be part of a religion that asks me to do so. I will also be reflecting on the example of Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Jewish sages.
Living during the height of the Roman Empire, when Rabbi Akiva began to learn Torah he was not a young man. According to tradition he did not begin to learn until he was 40 years old, and the origins of his brilliant rabbinic career which spanned the first and second century were decidedly modest.
Legend has it that Akiva was standing by a well, witnessing how the water had shaped the rock, and asked himself if his mind had become more rigid than stone. Where, he wondered, where was the source of water that could help shape him? He resolved at that moment to study Judaism and took himself with all due humility to sit in a child’s classroom and begin to learn as a novice.
It’s both a comic and moving image: an adult man seated among young children learning the alphabet. But there was no superiority in Akiva. Although biologically he could have been the father of the children who surrounded him, he sat and learned with them. He approached his learning with modesty and curiosity and, it is said, studied for 40 years before he was rewarded by going on a journey which would lead to him being one of the greatest thinkers to shape Jewish learning for millennia.
I began my Jewish life at 60 when I began to light Shabbat candles at the urging of my wife, the artist Jan Aronson. That small gesture led me to seriously study Jewish texts for the first time, and it is a pursuit I still delight in over 20 years later.
I always knew I was Jewish, of course, and proudly so. But when I began to learn Jewish texts and revel in the depth and wisdom of my religion, I was well past the age where most people would think it could impact me so deeply. But impact me it did. I was impressed and inspired by the treasures of Judaism I encountered, and proud to be part of a faith that had considered the moral and ethical life so deeply. While the tradition had always been mine, I never thought it was for me.
I am not someone who approaches Judaism with conventional belief. I have always leaned towards the rebellious. I did not, and do not, blindly accept the status quo.
As a young man when I witnessed prayers recited by rote, or people who followed tradition without understanding what it meant, I was alienated. I questioned the traditional notion of God in Judaism and what I saw as the oppressive nature of some religious practice. Yet, despite my questioning, when I began to engage in Jewish life I found a faith strong enough to accommodate my doubt. As long as I stayed humble, and approached my study with a sincere curiosity, it never failed to engage me or deepen my understanding of the world, even if I was not reverent to a deity.
As we mark the beginning of 5772 and the Day of Atonement, Israel faces great pressures both internally and externally. As American Jews, and as part of the Jewish people, we must remember that asking Israel to be humble, and not arrogant, is not an act of disloyalty.
Not questioning the hubris of Israel’s current policies out of misguided “loyalty” will only deepen its isolation in the world. Being humble, admitting to mistakes and trying to learn how to improve Israel is ultimately the most loving Jewish act we can commit: it is trying to repair the world around us. While complications abound, we must strive to learn and correct what is not working. We ask that of ourselves as individual Jews, and to protect the people that reside in Israel we must approach the Jewish homeland–which I deeply love and care for–with equal rigor.
As we wait to be written in the book of life for another year, I am inspired again by Akiva. It is easy to think we have become hardened like rock, and that we are past the point of change. But that cynicism is arrogant. There is always something to learn, a new way of looking at an old problem. We are reminded every Yom Kippur that change is always possible. We must only bring ourselves to the water.
Edgar M. Bronfman is the president of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation which seeks to inspire a renaissance of Jewish life. He is the former CEO of the Seagram Company Ltd, and is currently at work on a book about Jewish peoplehood with the journalist Ruth Andrew Ellenson.