Rabbi Joseph M. Forman
The Yom Kippur of Anger
September 27, 2001
Traditionally, the High Holy Days are a time when we look forward to the newness of the year, a time when we get a clean slate, and start over, unencumbered by the baggage of the previous year. We read and hear words from our liturgy like “forgive”, “pardon”, “wipe out our transgressions”.
But this year is terribly different. This new year we do not begin with a clean slate, but one bloodied with the recent violence of terrorism here in America. And rather than relying on our liturgy to awaken us from our usual complacency, we have been jolted from it, making it all the more difficult to start this year in a mood of contrition. Instead, we are filled with horror, fear and uncertainty, and perhaps most of all, anger. And now, the holiest day of the Jewish year is here, calling us to forgive. But this Yom Kippur I am not in a mood to be forgiving. We are not in a frame of mind to forgive. Forgiveness seems impossible this year.
The Talmud teaches us and our prayerbook reminds us that: “For transgressions against God the day of atonement atones, but for transgressions of one human being against another, the day of atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” (Yoma 8:9) For forgiveness to occur we must make peace with one another. Our tradition is clear: We who have wronged others must seek forgiveness. And we are urged to forgive people who genuinely seek our pardon. Yet the individuals who have carried out these evil acts of terrorism in our nation are not in the least remorseful. They seek no forgiveness. And so we cannot forgive them. We cannot forgive them for their unpardonable atrocities, their sins of genocide.
This New Year is turned inside out. Typically this is a time when the process of Teshuvah, of repentance and forgiveness, begins. But instead, the senseless acts of destruction upon our nation have marked an end of our forgiving this year. Just as the clouds of dark smoke still smolder in Washington and New York, so does a rage smolder in me, perhaps in each of us. The traditional white robes we wear today, symbols of purity and goodness, contrast with these dark times. We are only now beginning to have a full sense of this nightmare on our nation. The images of September 11th linger before our eyes. The unimaginable scenes from television, the shocking photographs, and the heart-and-gut-wrenching stories in the paper – let alone from people we know – or even our own experiences, cannot be erased from our minds. How unfathomable is our sense of horror at the tragic loss of the lives of thousands of people! We grieve with their families and friends. And just as we saw the World Trade Center crumble before us, so in that moment we also witnessed the end of an era of innocence. We grieve as well over the magnitude of this loss. So much anguish consumes our attention. But we are angry as well. We rage with a fury no less potent than the hate that brought these events about.
You may hope that soon the fires within us will cool; that soon our lives will, as President Bush has said, return to “almost normal.” Perhaps you even hoped that my words today would comfort you. But because these past two weeks have brought unexpected events and inconceivable emotions, this year I encourage you to do what seems so contrary to the spirit of Yom Kippur: I urge you now to remain angry. Remain angry, because our anger, our fury can ignite a passion within us to redeem our world from the hate that now consumes it. So don’t let go of the images from this month. Allow them and your passion for goodness, for freedom, to inspire you to change our world. Don’t go back to normal or even “almost normal.” Don’t lose those feelings about what is most important to you. Let our anger be the source of strength that rebuilds our nation.
It is not often in Jewish history that we have openly expressed our rage at those people who have sought to destroy us. But not only have we been the recipients of hatred and anger; there have been times in our history when we Jews have been angered to the point of hate. We have been so angry and so outraged that we have openly railed against our enemies.
As you know from the story of Passover, after 430 years of Egyptian bondage the Hebrews were freed. In the unfolding drama of the Exodus, the angry god of Israel hardens Pharaoh’s heart, so that Pharaoh will suffer the full wrath of a vengeful God’s punishment. Pharaoh and all the Egyptians are awed by the extraordinary power of our God enabling the Hebrew slaves to make their way safely through the Sea of Reeds. But on their way to Sinai the Israelites met a new enemy, the Amalakites. “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey,” the Book of Deuteronomy recalls. “How undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down the stragglers on your rear.” (Deut 25:17-19)
The authors of our Torah were so outraged at this act of injustice and cruelty, this terror upon the innocent, the weak, the frail, upon the aged, upon young women and children, that they prescribed in the Torah: “When the Lord God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget. Lo Tishkach!”
Amalek has been linked in Jewish literature to Haman, to Rome, to Hitler and Hussein, to every villain we have endured. And now, Osama bin Laden. The lesson of Amalek is that there are events in our history so terrible we must never forget them. Lo Tishkach! Do not forget!
And so we remember. We remember Amalek every year -- not once, but twice, on the Shabbat when this portion appears in the Torah, and again on Purim. But why remember? We remember because recalling the injustices we suffered at the hands of our oppressors re-ignites our outrage, our righteous indignation, it fans the flames of an anger burning within us. Our hope is that we will transform this anger into strength and commitment that we will enable our people to change the world for good that we might all live in safety. Lo Tishkach, our Jewish tradition demands. We cannot forget.
But remembering the evils of Amalek was not the only time we recalled the tragedies of our people. And it was not the only time our fury has raged so viciously.
Twenty-six centuries ago, in the year 586 B.C.E., the ancient Babylonians conquered Israel. As part of their campaign through Jerusalem, they destroyed our sacred Temple, the holiest site in all of Jewish history. With the sanctuary of our God laying in ruin, our people were exiled to Babylonia. The Israelites struggled to comprehend the magnitude of this tragedy. As an expression of their grief, they wrote the book of Lamentations. “Eicha! Yash’va va’dad ha’ir ra’ba’ti am ha’yita k’al’mana . . . Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people! How she has become like a widow.” Giving voice to the great agony that swept the Israelites’ now decimated community, the Book of Lamentations is a litany of sorrow and tears. It is read each year on Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, the date on which we commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The ancient Biblical writers of Lamentations understood, however, that just as loss and sorrow are part of our humanity, so, too, is anger. Lamentations has several brief verses that express our peoples’ outrage at this cataclysmic destruction. And so, too, do many chapters in the Book of Psalms contain disturbing imagery flowing from our people’s anger at Babylonia:
Fair Babylon you predator, a blessing on him who repays you in kind what you have inflicted upon us. A blessing on him who seizes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.
Give them, O Lord, their due, according to their deeds. Give them anguish of heart; Your curse be upon them. (Lamentations 3:64-65)
Many centuries later, during the Crusades, our rabbis added more sharp words to our sacred holiday rituals. For the rabbis, the relentless terrors of the Crusades were too much to bear unanswered. The anger, the fury, emanating from both fear and a sense of helplessness moved them to add the harshest words of Lamentations and Psalms to our Haggadah. For not only did they wish to have every Jewish family openly express their anger at the Easter-time atrocities of the Crusades, but once again, they saw purpose in reciting the angry words of our tradition during the sacred moments of our religious lives.
Pour out your fury on the nations that do not know you, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke your name. For they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home.
Pursue them in wrath and destroy them from under the heaven of the Lord!
Pour out your wrath upon them; may your blazing anger overtake them.
Jewish life was not easy following the Crusades. The Spanish Inquisition and expulsion after expulsion tossed our people about. But no one could have imagined the atrocities of Hitler and the Nazis. It was only half a century ago that we began to emerge from the smoke and ashes of that long night of terror. The anger we feel from the devastation of the Holocaust has not even begun to fade from memory. But lest from all the suffering we learn nothing, lest we commit the sin of all “good” people: looking away from evil, we Jews have taken an oath to remember our anger. We have established a new sacred day on our calendar, Yom HaShoah, a day of remembrance for all the victims of the Holocaust. And again this Yom Kippur afternoon, this very day, we will retell the history of these martyrs, again invoking our anger, again struggling to give meaning and purpose to the rage of injustice that still – even to this very day – burns within us.
How familiar the words describing the events from a generation now lost to us seem. They are eerily resonant of the events of two weeks ago:
Even now the air we breathe is thick with the dust of our martyrs. Do men and women know that they breathe it still? And how can they not feel the earth trembling beneath their feet as they walk upon ground under which so many were thrust without mercy?
Throughout our long history, from Pharaoh and Amalek, to the Babylonians and the Crusaders, even to the Holocaust, we have turned to the artists of language to help us give voice to the rage within us. Prophets, rabbis, and poets -- those who have endured through each generation of hate – have added new layers to our sacred tradition to help us express our anger toward those who wished to destroy us. The billowing dust of destruction – still burning our eyes, still choking our voices -- does not settle. Through it all we still cry out for justice. Our vision, our hope is not yet dimmed.
So now, at this New Year, on this day of change, let the words of our ancestors help transform our anger, so that we may rid our world of tyrants, and fulfill the words of the Psalmist: “. . .that [evildoers] may be erased from the Book of Life and not inscribed with the righteous.” (Ps. 69: 29)
In that Book of Life, our liturgy declares: “On Rosh Hashana it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be. Who shall live and who shall die. Who shall be secure and who shall be driven. Who shall be humbled and who exalted.”
These divinely recorded decrees are ascribed to a god hidden from our sight, one beyond our understanding. But our Reform Judaism sees the work of God carried out in partnership with us. We understand that God is made real by our actions and our deeds. Our future is not yet written, it is not sealed, even after this day has ended. If we seek a world free from the horrors of terror and destruction, then we must rage with a passion for righteousness no less furious than our ancestors’.
Our expressions of rage today should not come as indiscriminate hatred, even more loss of innocent lives, nor violence toward other people simply because they may share in the heritage and the faith of our attackers. We must remain committed to the diversity of the faces of America, and not allow an unbridled anger to destroy the very liberties our nation was founded upon.
The sacred moments of our religious life, from the revelry of Purim to the solemnity of these High Holy Days are rife with expressions of anger. And today, in light of the events that have shaken our nation, we have as much reason as our ancestors to rage, to burn with anger and perhaps even hate. But we must not allow our anger to fashion a world created in the image of hate. Our passion must always burn for righteousness. Then, with our anger transformed, can we begin to rebuild our world. And then, and only then, will we inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life and Blessing, of Righteousness and of Peace.