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A Free Syrian Army fighter mourns at the grave of his father, who was killed by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)
I know as an Orthodox rabbi I shouldn’t struggle with prayer, especially since atrocities occur throughout the world each day, but this year feels different.
Unetaneh Tokef, the central prayer on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that focuses on life and death, always tears upon my soul in the most profound way. This year it was particularly so, because I couldn’t get the people of Syria out of my mind, especially the gassing of children.At times, I found myself trembling and sweating and simply couldn’t focus on either the joyous or the solemn sections of the prayer liturgy. What if it were me, my wife, and baby fleeing for our lives? What if those body bags were full of my friends and family? What if I might find sarin in my next drink? As I struggled to pray, I asked myself “What’s the point of prayer at all?”
I don’t know how I will rise again with my congregation on Yom Kippur later this week and recite the pinnacle prayer of Unetaneh Tofek once again: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will pass and who will be created, who will live and who will die, who in his time and who before his time.” I’m afraid that this Yom Kippur I will hear G-d’s intense question of where I’ve been on the Syria issue.
Is there a way to aid the civilians in Syria without encouraging further military escalation and atrocities? I will leave this question to policy-makers. But this Yom Kippur, I will entreat G-d and speak out on behalf of innocent Syrians–though I am not a Syrian. I know this is not the conventional prayer or intention for Yom Kippur. I understand and forgive those among my fellow Jews who find such prayers inappropriate.
However, there is a teaching of Abraham Joshua Heschel that I’ve never been able to forget at times like these: “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”
Rabbi Heschel acted on these beliefs when he marched nonviolently with the Rev. Martin Luther King for civil rights, at a time when standing up for civil rights meant risking your life. I hope that I will have the courage to embrace subversive prayer this Yom Kippur, prayer that spurs me to fight for human dignity.
Many told me that these aren’t “my people” and even that “these people hate my people.” But Rosh Hashanah marks the creation of the world and more specifically day six of creation — the birth of all humanity. On this day, there is no such thing as “my people.” We are all brothers and sisters, and the suffering of any one of us, whether in New York or Damascus, is a cause for grief.
We need humility when dealing with such complicated matters. There are a great many actors in Syria and around the world who might respond unfavorably to any American action in Syria. There are a great many potential ramifications for the United States even for a very limited intervention. But we also dare not stand idly by. I have an aversion to war but an even greater disdain for genocide. We know today what President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew in the early 1940s and what he could have done. How dare we say “never again” while it continues to happen time and time again?
Since violence has escalated, I have read every article I could. I have made calls. I have started a petition and got the top rabbinic leadership from Reform to Orthodox to sign on to support a U.S. intervention to protect civilians. I prayed. But nothing feels sufficient. And time is running out.
I am tempted to feel anger toward heaven when extreme suffering or tragedy like this occurs. But this cannot be an excuse for inaction. I’m reminded of the famous quote: “Sometimes I want to ask G-d why G-d allows poverty, famine, and injustice in the world when He could do something about it, but I’m afraid He might just ask me the same question.”
How can I recite Unetaneh Tokef again this Yom Kippur as I know how many are dying each day in Syria, now totaling 110,000 over the past two years? This year, I feel a touch of hypocrisy asking G-d to seal my soul in the Book of Life, when I myself have not done enough to avert deaths and atrocities in Syria. How can I ask G-d to save me unless I devote every fiber of my being to saving others who walk in the Valley of Death?
Martin Niemoller, the prominent Protestant pastor who was transformed from an unthinking supporter to an outspoken critic of the Nazis due to his observation of years of atrocities, ended up in concentration camps, and later wrote:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
This Yom Kippur I will pray that this coming year be one of life, in which we cease to be spectators while so many innocent human beings are murdered. I will know if my prayer works if it leads me to stronger and more effective action.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (the Orthodox Social Justice movement)
and the author of three
books on Jewish ethics
. Newsweek named
Rabbi Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America