This has been an incredibly difficult time for us all. We have gone through shock, sadness, anger, grief, calls for revenge, and attacks against Americans with Middle Eastern looks and Muslims both young and old. After the President’s speech to the nation earlier tonight, there emerged a clear sense of our collective resolve to do whatever must be done for as long as it takes to lead the world in asserting the necessary primacy of freedom over religious intolerance and fundamentalist holy wars.
We are still raw from the tragedy of nine days ago and as a country and part of the free world, committed to giving expression to our moral certainty of the rightness of our society’s values and the principles upon which America was founded.
It was somehow comforting to hear the president stating clearly and unambiguously for the entire world to hear that we believe that good will triumph over evil in the end. So many of us have grown up in morally ambiguous times, learning the rhetoric of “situational ethics,” and “moral relativity.” Yet these are the times in which the attack against the fundamental values of our society have brought us together across the political spectrum in a way that hasn’t happened since half a century ago when our collective enemy was the Nazi menace threatening to take over the entire civilized world.
Perhaps the result of this tragedy will be to galvanize a national or even international unification of peoples of all backgrounds and religious traditions to align with an agreed upon series of fundamental values. Like the six pillars of ethical behavior that form the basis of the nation-wide “Character Counts” movement, the outcome of this horrendous attack on America may be a coalescing of our values as well.
As our nation is filled with the stirrings of war and the challenge of retaining our values of openness and tolerance so that all Americans regardless of race, national origin, or religion can feel safe and valued, it is appropriate that tomorrow on the Jewish calendar marks the sacred time called, “Shabbat Shuvah” – The Shabbat of Return.
The “return” referred to as the theme of “Shabbat Shuvah” is obviously about “return” to God. Shabbat Shuvah comes each year on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is the time when repentance for our past transgressions and the recognition of our need to seek forgiveness from God and those against whom we have transgressed can’t help but be uppermost in our minds.
“Return, O Israel to the Eternal your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity,” says the prophet Hosea in this week’s Haftarah portion. It represents the acknowledgment of Jewish tradition that all of us transgress, all of us sin, all of us go astray from our intended desires and self-proclaimed values.
We need to be reminded of our own failings in a way that encourages us to change. The most powerful implication of Shabbat Shuvah may simply be the expectation of Jewish tradition that change is possible. The triumph of Jewish theology over pessimism and self-doubt is the certainty of our ancestors that every one of us has the power within to become better, to let go of past transgressions, and negative, hurtful behavior and change.
This season and this Shabbat are powerful statements of faith – faith in the human spirit to overcome adversity, faith in the human heart to have the courage to learn, and grow, and change for the better at any moment. This is perhaps the grandest of Jewish ideas which every one of us has a choice to make not only every day, but every moment with every action we take.
Sometimes I think when Moses turns to Joshua in this week’s Torah portion as he is handing off the mantle of leadership and authority, and says, Hazak v’amatz, “Be strong and of good courage,” it is a recognition from Moses of how much strength it takes to be a good leader. It takes strength to turn away from bribery and the seduction of all who come seeking your favors. It takes strength and courage to learn from the mistakes of our past and admit we are wrong.
This is the season when we are called upon to be honest with ourselves about our own failings and shortcomings. Indeed, the mark of a true leader is the willingness to continually grow and be open to the wisdom of others. Perhaps each of us can take the time this year to remind ourselves of the most important values in our lives. If we use this sacred season to return to that which is most authentically “us,” we will have done honor to the goal of Shabbat Shuvah, and experienced the satisfaction and fulfillment that comes with living our lives in harmony with the values we cherish most.