Ends and beginnings
As we come to the end of the High Holy Days, we set ourselves on paths of new beginnings. On Simchat Torah, we mark both a beginning and an end. The cycle of Torah reading ends and then immediately begins again. It is said that we read the same passages of the Torah every week, every year, but the meanings change because we are different people year after year, experiencing life and the world with different eyes and, hopefully, with increased wisdom.
The Days of Awe are a time of critical introspection. This period of teshuvah invites us to recognize our shortcomings and commit to improvement. This mission is both individual and collective. As a people, we are obligated to repair the world, and this year calls on us with no shortage of issues to collectively confront: inequality and suffering, environmental degradation, inhumane treatment of animals, the pursuit of justice.
On the latter front, our cousins in the United States are absorbed in a drama around the appointment of the next justice of the Supreme Court and things that he may have done many years ago. The senators considering his nomination heard two irreconcilable narratives last week from the accuser and the accused. The testimony from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford echoes the testimonies of so many people, mostly women but also men, who have felt empowered, motivated or obligated to share their most personal experiences in what has become known as the “#MeToo era.”
Yet the senators’ motivations hinge on more than determining who is telling the truth. Political considerations – advancing President Donald Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee to the bench before the November midterm elections – seem to be the factor front of mind for some elected officials, regardless of Blasey Ford’s testimony. It seems clear that politics may trump justice in this case.
Politics in Canada is not as brash as that in the United States, but populist and exclusionary ideas may be finding a voice here that they did not have before. A new federal political party seems prepared to amplify views that, until recently, were more limited to online discussions and whispered conversations. Meanwhile, the party that won Monday’s provincial election in Québec mooted during the election campaign the idea of throwing out newcomers who do not gain an adequate grasp of the French language within three years of arrival. Unconstitutional as such a policy may be, even voicing such ideas brings us to a new chapter in Canadian public life.
Immigration and refugees are a perennial issue, with the nature of a society at the heart of the discussion. The groups of people at the centre of the discussion – immigrants and refugees – change generation by generation. In this era, Jewish Canadians have an opportunity to bring hard-learned wisdoms to the debate. The federal government is set to formally apologize next month for a most egregious historical example of exclusion: the rejection of the passengers on the SS St. Louis. Indeed, this memory should inform our reaction to the current discussion and the realities for the millions of displaced people and refugees fleeing conflict around the world.
Personal experiences inform our political ideologies. And, through our personal actions, we can affect political affairs. This can be in obvious ways – like showing up to vote in the municipal elections on Oct. 20 or in advance polls – or in more subtle but profound ways, like educating the next generation, modeling the values we hope to advance and creating ripples of goodness across our circles of influence.
In matters of public policy and in the more private ways we behave in our lives, the holy days remind us to take stock of our own role in advancing justice and a better world.
We may feel insignificant in the grand scheme. How can we affect the powers in the White House or in Ottawa or around the world? But Jewish tradition is clear. “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either,” said the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Tarfon.
Inward reflection is the first and easiest step we can take as individuals to address faults in our world. Based on this reflection, we may choose to move to action. Where it will end, we cannot always tell at the beginning. But it is our job to get the ball rolling.