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Of Politics And Prayer

Of Politics And Prayer

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

On first blush, there seems to be little connection between the two seasons foremost on our minds these days: the presidential campaign and the High Holy Days.

Indeed, one seems driven by aggression and cynicism, forsaking openness and honesty for twisting the facts in a way to make one’s opponent seem wrongheaded at best, evil at worst. And the other appears to be about inner reflection, stepping away from the everyday world to reconsider our actions in light of our deepest values and faith.

But in truth, politics — and especially this campaign — and the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, are about change.

It’s a word that seemed to launch and represent Barack Obama’s unlikely quest for the
presidency. To him, change was the panacea to our nation’s troubles, from the longstanding war in Iraq to an economic crisis that grows more frightening each day. Obama’s message: Be rid of the eight years of the Bush administration/Republicans and respond to our domestic problems and the international community in a new spirit of engagement.

John McCain, widely respected for his wartime heroism and many years in the Senate, has interpreted change in his own way, distancing himself from this most unpopular president, and calling for a new spirit of bipartisan cooperation in Washington that he says only he has the experience to lead.

But along the way, one senses that political handlers have convinced the candidates that the only way to win the presidency is to “go negative” and to shed their most appealing qualities — for Obama, an analytical approach to problems, and for McCain a reliance on his own instincts.

We are told that Obama is too cold and McCain too hot in tone and style, and that what America wants to see is a leader who is thoughtful and confident, charismatic and compassionate.

As we move toward the final days of the presidential campaign in a nation increasingly divided between Red and Blue, between opposing visions of how America should deal with its growing problems, domestic and foreign, what, if anything, do the High Holy Days teach us?

It’s an age-old challenge for religion, to link our soul-searching to our daily concerns. But in truth the theme of these Days of Awe, like that of this political season, is all about the need for and capacity to change — in this case, the challenge to take stock of our thoughts and actions and turn inward, not to escape reality but to better ourselves in responding to the trials of everyday life.

Judaism is about the here and now. Our sages spent little time postulating on the afterlife, focusing instead on mitzvot whose overarching purpose is summed up by Hillel’s famous axiom: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others.”

When we are commanded to emulate God and be a holy people, it does not mean to live a life removed from society but rather to engage with others in ways that make them, and us, more human, in the best sense of the word.

The High Holy Days are not so much a stepping out of time to think holy thoughts we don’t have time for all year, but a period of honest assessment of our behavior and values, and a rededication to engage in actions we know to be more purposeful and productive.

The quiet moments of prayer help us cut through the layers of protection and self-defense, to humble ourselves so that we may indeed achieve teshuvah, or repentance, in our relationships with those around us and with God.

It is that ability to alter our direction and priorities that cleanses and renews us each year and sets us on the path we know we should strive for, whether or not we complete the journey.

Through prayer and reflection and the comfort of familiar liturgy, we come to see that change need not be dramatic. It can be a quiet affirmation or a nuanced shift within us that feels right. And it may help us take a fresh look at the world around us, including a political scene we’ve grown numb to, opening us up to an assessment of the issues and candidates that goes deeper than the political spin that confronts us daily.

Entering a new year we always feel we are encountering the unknown, and 5769 seems destined to be a pivotal year — for our country, under new leadership; for a financial climate whose excesses have given way to our deepest fears of insecurity; and for Israel, with new leadership facing daily crises and the prospect of a nuclear threat to its existence.

Who shall live and who shall die, we recite on Yom Kippur, confronting our deepest fears. But also on our minds: who shall lead and who shall stumble? Who will prosper and who will be laid low? Who shall achieve a meaningful life, and who shall drown in shallowness?

Despite its solemnity, Yom Kippur ultimately is a day of optimism, ending with the hope and prayer that we be sealed in the Book of Life, and reminding us that for all of our yearning for change, the key to authentic transformation resides within each of us.

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