A few short weeks ago, on August 23rd, 2010, I attended and filmed a fantastic conference organized by CIJR (Canadian Institute for Jewish Research) in Montreal.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center gave the lunchtime address. He started by commenting that in the face of intellectual giants who were presenting during the day such as Professor Wistrich of Hebrew University and Professor Small of Yale University, he did not feel compelled to exert himself on the intellectual plane. And so he shared three incidents which resonated powerfully with me, one of which I will share with you today, as it feels particularly apt on the eve of our annual Yom Kippur observation.
Rabbi Cooper shared that he has travelled extensively internationally, meeting with government officials, the Pope, and the public on issues of concern to the Jewish people. For instance, he went to Japan to educate on the dissemination of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and to shut down its publication.
After one of these talks to a group of a Japanese businessman, the Rabbi respectfully asked, “Are there any questions?” As Japanese audiences are known for their polite reticence, he was stunned as one CEO stood up and said, ‘Yes, Rabbi, I have a question. Rabbi Cooper, we understand now that Jews don’t get together to plot world conspiracies and financial domination in their synagogue, but can you tell us what Jews do in a synagogue? Do Jews pray?” This question stopped him in his tracks, and it stopped me in my tracks as well. I think of it, especially now as we Jews begin our twenty-five-hour annual stint of fasting and prayer. How do we explain what happened there?
How do you share a five thousand year tradition while standing on one leg?
For now, I will refer you to the following website of Beliefnet: for a hands-on explanation of the key elements of Yom Kippur as well as a description of the actual service. On a deeper level, how does one share five thousand years of practise that has evolved with each generation continuing to maintain its loyalty to the past and the future?
On September 10th, 2009, I participated in a webinar with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg on the prayer service of Yom Kippur. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and Rabbi Kimmelman share how the Yom Kippur prayer service ritual is connected not only to the individual Jew but also to the community and all nations. He shows us how the prayers are carefully crafted to pray for peace not just for the individual but for all countries and all people in the Universe and to be realized under the rule of law, truth, and justice. And these are not mere empty words but also a prescription for achieving it.
The fantastic thing about our tradition is that it has been evolving for five thousand years with loyalty to the past, the present, and hopes for the future.
The main refrain on Yom Kippur is “Tshuva, tefillah and tzedaka, maavirin et roah hagzera.” I say this in Hebrew transliteration because each word is multilayered, powerful, and significant and challenging to translate, but I will attempt it. Tshuva, (return to our sources) tefillah (prayer) and tzedaka (doing just acts) can have the power to mollify evil outcomes.
To be continued gmar tov: traditional greeting at the end of Yom Kippur – May our prayers be fulfilled for good in the next year and within our lifetimes.
May we all pray together this Yom Kippur for the tshuva (improved behaviour) of every Jew, every human being, every government, and all peoples in the Universe. Even a slight improvement in each individual’s awareness and behaviour can have a significant impact on all of us.
Shana tova oometukah.
Wishing you a kind and sweet year during this coming year.