Other People’s Sins

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published September 09, 2009, issue of September 18, 2009.
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This is the season of repentance. This is the time of year that we pause to look around, inside and out, and reset our compasses.

Tradition teaches that in the month of Elul, which began August 21, each of us is called to reflect on our actions in the past year and seek to make amends for the times we fell short. On the first of the month of Tishri, on the evening of September 18, we gather to welcome a new year and prepare for the tests it will bring. For nine days, Days of Awe, we reach within, searching for our place in the universe and striving to make peace with it. On the 10th day, the Day of Atonement, we gather in solemn assembly, confess our misdeeds and pray for another chance.

It’s not our individual sins that concern us on that day. We’ve had 40 days to work on them. On Yom Kippur, we speak as a community of the sins we have committed together. We, the community, have incurred guilt; we have acted treacherously, dealt dishonestly, voiced slander. Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi. We confess: We are a community of conscience that has transgressed, and each of us, its members, has been complicit.

We are sorry for the wrong we’ve done, al chet shechatanu, whether willingly or because we had to, unwittingly or in hardness of heart.

Well, that’s what we do in theory. In reality, don’t hold your breath. The reality is that our talent for communal soul-searching is a tad rusty these days. Why, the very idea of community wrongdoing offends us, at least when it’s our community that’s in the dock. Our relationship to wrongdoing has become, as they say, a trifle one-sided: always the offended, never the offender.

And when we do talk of collective Jewish wrongdoing, we usually mean the Jews we don’t agree with. The left. The settlers. The self-haters. The fundamentalists. The naïve universalists. The blind particularists. Take your pick, choose your side. What’s important is not what you do, but which side you’re on.

There was a time when this sort of one-dimensional, my-team/your-team response to conflict was an appropriate defense mechanism. For many centuries, Jews lived their lives locked in ghettos, tormented for what they believed and who they were, powerless to defend themselves — much less to harm their neighbors. Under the circumstances, there wasn’t much point in trying to understand the tormentors’ precise motives. Once Jews announced who they were, their tormentors were ready to strike, and it didn’t matter what the Jews did or said. Not in Granada in 1492, not in Krakow in 1943.

But that’s not the world we live in today. Jews are no longer powerless to affect their own fate. It’s become a cliché, but it’s true. Jews today have the capacity, acting as a group, to change outcomes. As David Ben-Gurion said, it matters what the Jews do. We Jews, both Israeli and American, have the freedom to act and the tools to shape our surroundings in ways our ancestors could not imagine.

Most of us understand that part. What we often overlook is the complex nature of power. There is the power to defend against danger, and then there is the power to shape the environment in ways that affect others. And when you do things that affect your neighbor, intentionally or not, the neighbor is likely to react, sometimes in the most alarming ways. You might not have intended the neighbor’s response. But you probably could have predicted it.

Having power changes who you are in the world. You become responsible for your actions — and for their consequences. You have choices.

Having power means that your actions will affect the way others think of you, for good or ill. Yes, you might still be hated for what you are. It’s also possible that your neighbor is looking at you cross-eyed because of something you did last week or last year. It’s important to know the difference.

The problems between Jews today, most of them, begin with a misunderstanding of this new age of power and choice that we live in. Some of us still think we’re hated only because of who we are, and that trying to act as though we can change things will only make them worse. Some of us think those days are gone, that our troubles result entirely from our own deeds and that acting differently will solve everything. That sort of either-or thinking is a mistake.

What’s worse, though, is our tendency to believe the other side actually intends to bring about the troubles that our own side foresees in their choices — to believe that doves actually want to weaken us by moderating our behavior, that hawks actually want to humiliate our neighbors by building high walls around ourselves. By our arrogance, our misplaced certainty in our own thinking, we turn our disagreements with one another into hatred.

That’s why we have Yom Kippur — to remind ourselves of our fallibility. That’s why the prayer concludes the way it does: Al chet shechatanu be-kashiut oref… rechilut… sinat chinam. For the sin of stubbornness, of rushing off half-cocked, of gossip, false certainty, false hatred, of mistrust, of confusing one thing for another.

In this new world we have both enemies and friends. Sometimes, as the sages teach, you can turn an enemy into a friend. Sometimes you can’t. You need to start by understanding what’s driving your neighbor. If it’s something you did, you might need to do something different. If it’s only because you’re you, maybe you just need to build a tall fence.

Just be careful not to build it in his yard.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and read his blog at blogs.forward.com/jj-goldberg

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