The Two-Way Street for Yom Kippur | “Seeing Each Other Where We Are”

Rabbi Jacob J. Staub
on September 25, 2020

On Yom Kippur morning, we will recite the Unetanneh Tokef for the last time this year. The prayer concludes with:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.
.But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree

How do we avert the evil decree of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when each of the parties have mutually contradictory narratives and claims? How do we move from the intractability of the current conflict to a world in which a two-state solution is imaginable?

The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah provides guidance. Cast out into the wilderness by Sarah and Abraham, Hagar leaves Ishmael to die for lack of water. God hears him “where he is.” (Genesis 21:17)

כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֧ע אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶל־ק֥וֹל הַנַּ֖עַר בַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר הוּא־שָֽׁם
.For God has heard the voice of the boy where he is

We are charged with acting in the image of God, which means here that we must listen to the other where they are and be listened to by the other where we are.

It is difficult to listen to a narrative that challenges the foundation of your own narrative, but that is our responsibility. Listening is not agreeing. Listening is taking in the narrative viewpoint of the other without needing to refute it. Listening requires us to acknowledge that we do not have exclusive possession of the truth. In her wonderful book From Enemy to Friend, Rabbi Amy Eilberg guides us through this process of peace building.

On Yom Kippur afternoon, we chant the entire Book of Jonah. The book concludes with God saying to Jonah:

Should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?

Nineveh has been the epitome of wickedness, but once its people do teshuvah, God loves and cares for its children and beasts. Jonah wants them punished anyway. We understand his sense of injury, his demand for justice, but let us stand with God. Let us avert the evil decree by seeing the other where they are and extending our hand.

Rabbi Jacob J. Staub is the editor of Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations. He is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.