Shanah Tovah for those celebrating the High Holy Day season that begins with Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, and culminates ten days later with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement! For non-Jews, I hope this will be an opportunity to learn something about what this time of year means to the American Jewish community, and how the meaning of this season informs the Jewish response to the issues facing our country today.
We are in a time of great turmoil in our country today, politically and socially. The High Holy Day season overlaps with an election season that is more fraught and intense than any other election in recent memory. I believe we can gain strength and inspiration from the spiritual underpinnings of Rosh HaShanah that will help to carry us through this historical time in which we find ourselves.
Rosh Hashanah, literally the Head of the Year, celebrates the wonder and miracle of God’s creation. It is both a time of joy and a time of solemnity. Joy in the gift of the beauty of this world and solemnity as the holiday begins the Ten Days of Repentance, a time of self-reflection, repentance and forgiveness.
The joy is palpable, as we pray and sing of God’s forgiving power and of our trust in God’s love and compassion, as we eat apples and honey to symbolize the sweetness of creation and as our hearts are stirred by the sounding of the shofar. But we also are reminded that creation is not yet complete. For Judaism teaches us we are all partners with God in the ongoing work of creation, and that it is our responsibility to engage in acts of tikkun olam, the repair of the world, or what we call today social justice. Without social justice, all the prayers in the world are of no avail. Prayer, fasting, ritual, must be accompanied by care for the widow, the orphan, the hungry, the homeless, and the stranger in our midst.
The solemnity increases as Rosh HaShanah draws to a close and we begin ten days of self-examination, considering what acts of the past year make us proud, that we hope to continue in the coming year, and what acts made us sorry, that we vow not to repeat in the coming year. It is a time when we go to each of the people in our lives and ask forgiveness for any hurt, whether knowing or unknowing, that we may have caused them in the past year. For we know that there can be no forgiveness for sins between ourselves and the Divine until we have first sought forgiveness from our fellow human beings. We are each of us accountable for our actions and must make amends before we can be forgiven.
Today our country is in a period of soul-searching and of struggling to call some of our leaders to account, to make amends and repair the brokenness of our system of democracy and repent for assaults on our freedoms. Those who have tried to undermine democracy through voter suppression, partisan gerrymandering, and outright attempts to subvert a legally held election must be held accountable before there can be tikkun, repair, to our democracy and the rule of law.
Voting is a core value in the Jewish community all the way back to the Torah. God talks about the importance of people having a say in who their leadership is. The Talmud talks about what makes for a good leader and what we should look for in our leaders: someone who is honest and cares about the community, who puts the needs of the community above their own. When people try to restrict who can vote, as Jews were often forbidden to vote in the early years of our democracy, this value is broken.
One symptom of the degradation of our democratic systems is the recent Supreme Court decision that overturned 50 years of precedent and took away the right for people to control their own reproductive destinies. This unprecedented move to take away a right we have all come to count upon is not only an assault on my rights as a woman and a human being, it also is a violation of my Constitutional right of free exercise of my religion. As I often say, Judaism is not pro-choice. For the Talmud says, in Mishnah Oholot 7.6, if a woman is in hard labor and she’s about to die, the midwife must dismember the fetus in the womb in order to save the woman’s life. It isn’t a matter of choice. We must prioritize the life of the pregnant person over the life of the fetus. A fetus is potential life and as such is sacred and is to be preserved as much as possible, but it is not on the same level as the life of the person in front of you. That actual life has got to take precedence.
It is easy in these difficult days to become overwhelmed, to lose hope, and to feel helpless to make a difference in repairing the world. But I have spent the last 35 years working for justice alongside people of all faiths and of no faith, and I know that together, we have the power to change the world. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikh, Unitarians, Wiccans, Quaker, and Baha’I, people who are spiritual and people who are atheist, we have all banded together time after time, had each other’s backs, and worked together for a more just, equitable and compassionate society. I know we will continue to do so as we move forward.
Let us all vow to face the year ahead, whether the Jewish year 5783 or the secular 2023, in solidarity, to build the beloved community we all wish to see.
L’Shanah tovah tikatevu,
Rabbi Bonnie Margulis (she/her)
Chair, Wisconsin Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice