By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
Personally, I feel energized by the High Holy Days, restored by the spiritual journey that they take me on. This season fills with gratitude for the many blessings in my life, though I do also feel sadness and pain. There’s sadness for the passing of time, and for the distance that lies between me and my loved ones; and deep pain for the loss of family and friends who are no longer with us.
There’s regret for what we haven’t yet accomplished, but also new strength to redress and repair the wrongs in our life. And yes, there is guilt, but along with guilt there is also the prospect of reconciliation.
To be sure, there is fear, too. We don’t know what the new year will bring with it, and the unknown fills us with dread. But then we’re restored, for right there, right next to fear, are also hope, faith, and trust.
The High Holy Days do give us a choice, but this choice is anything but shallow or simple.
Yom Kippur opens with Kol Nidrei, an ancient and moving prayer that absolves us of vows, obligations, and promises. However, it actually has even greater power and a more exalted mission: Kol Nidrei liberates us. It frees us from all obligations. Kol Nidrei gives us permission to examine every word we’ve given, every pledge we’ve made. It isn’t only in the court of Heaven that our ethics and morals are scrutinized. It’s down here. We get to define what we believe in, and we get to decide how best to show our commitment to our ideals. It’s our free choice.
Kol Nidrei calls on us to look at all of our ideals and principles, both those that are very personal and those that bind us together as a community, as Jews and as Americans. And tonight, I would like us to consider a value we hold high above others. Patriotism. The question that we have been asking ourselves for several days now is, What does it mean to respect the flag of the United States and our national anthem.
There is no greater symbol of the greatness of America, its ideals and its contributions to humanity and the world, than this banner and this powerful anthem. On the Fourth of July, to kick off a sports event, and certainly when American athletes win gold at the Olympics, hearing our national anthem never fails to bring a lump to the throat. We feel pride and awe as we join in and reach for those impossibly high notes on “The rockets’ red glare.” They are hard to sing, but how better to symbolize the high and lofty goals and purposes of our country: Liberty, equality and justice for all.
The debate we are engaged in now is about how best to pay homage to these symbols. How does it feel for us to watch athletes—the very personification of our ideals of strength and endurance—when they take the knee or fail to stand at moments when reverence and respect are called for? These days, we are asked—and we ask ourselves: Do these gestures show disrespect to the flag, and thus to America? Or do they perhaps express the shame, the humiliation and even the dangers that people of color and other minorities face on an almost daily basis in the United States?
There’s a cultural battle being waged in America today. Some say that it’s simply an extension of the racial struggle that has always divided our country. But without a doubt these past few days and weeks, the rhetoric and violence have seen a sharp rise in volume and pitch. There is tension and division between those who say that America’s flag and national anthem must be respected regardless of personal views and opinions, and those who feel that the best way to show them respect is to safely and judiciously use the freedoms of speech and expression that these symbols stand for.
The real question here is, when a player takes the knee during the National Anthem, is that a sign of rejection, or is it an affirmation of what the flag really stands for—the constitutional right to protest a social wrong.
After all, taking the knee is nowhere near what we see in countries that view America as the enemy. There, the American flag is trampled on, torn, and burned. There, when good people, American soldiers or civilians, are killed, people rejoice, dance in the streets and pass out candies and sweets. No, as I see it, the symbolic gesture of taking a knee is not in itself an act of violence, nor incitement to hatred. Rather, it’s a respectful call to stop business as usual, a declaration that there’s a serious problem, a rift in our nation that requires dialogue and conversation to resolve.
On the other hand, what I do find disrespectful is the use of profanity to describe the protesters. Many of them overcame tremendous challenges to earn the admiration of their fans, and for millions of children who live in culturally and economically deprived areas, these athletes are a source of pride, kindling dreams of triumph in a harsh reality where opportunities for success and advancement are few and far between. To use insulting language against these individuals is to insult and humiliate the many who look up to them as legitimate heroes.
America was founded on noble ideals. More than a million men and women have given their lives in battle so that this country can thrive and live up to its noble expectations and ideals. Taking a knee does not diss their memory or bring shame to their ultimate sacrifice. What does bring shame to our Country and Flag is a political and social system that preserves racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia and misogyny; that shames people who do not fit stereotype images; that cynically, cruelly and divisively, uses fear to enrich itself and augment its own powerbase. What does bring shame to us all is the use of foul language—in, of all places, the White House—to denigrate people who are an integral part of the fabric of the America, and who have given disproportionately of their strength and soul to build and defend it.
Do America’s flag and national anthem deserve to be honored and revered? Yes. Absolutely. They represent the highest ideals and goals upon which this country was founded and for which it stands.
Are sports and other public events the proper venue to protest and demonstrate? Here is where some of us may disagree. But my opinion is this: 70% of the players on the NFL are African Americans. For them, this is the only venue where they are recognized by all Americans for who and what they are. It is precisely at these arenas that they need to, are able to, and are free to say what needs to be said—that America’s ideals are not equally shared, that some of us are still considered less worthy citizens than others, and that racism is both immoral and an injustice.
In ancient days, Yom Kippur was an occasion when we asked God to judge us not only in righteousness, but also with compassion. Today, it is an opportunity for us to judge ourselves, as individuals and as a society. Today, Yom Kippur is so much more than only about guilt and fear. On this day we are given permission either to reject our ideals, or to affirm them. There is great freedom in that, but also great responsibility, for our choice can determine the future course of life and events.
What this Yom Kippur demands of us, today, is not only to examine the faults or merits of our own, private lives, but also to engage in wider, public discussion about the kind of nation we are. Unlike other countries, the United States isn’t made up of only one nationality, one language or one religion. Our society is compound and complex. Our strength, however, is in our unity, and our Union depends as much on our own personal integrity as on our ability to listen to one another, to hear what others are trying to tell us about their lives, about their fears and about their needs.
This is the gift of Kol Nidrei: The freedom to choose. This day empowers us. It teaches us that we may—indeed we must—let go of empty words, vain gestures and hollow vows. But instead of turning to chaos and anarchy, Kol Nidrei calls upon us to live our lives in such a way that our pledges and oaths once again become valid and meaningful. The choice is ours.
Tonight I pray that this year we might see America united by love and mutual respect again; that this year we be blessed with reconciliation and peace; that hunger, ignorance and poverty be eradicated from our midst; and that all people, all over the world, be granted the blessings and opportunities they need and deserve for healing, repair and renewal.
G’mar chatima tova, may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet New Year. Ken y’hi ratzon.