Just short of a decade ago, at a leadership seminar I attended for incoming synagogue presidents, a rabbi said that his favorite part of the High Holy Day liturgy was the moment we get to say “xenophobia.” He was joking.
Back then, to most of us in our congregational cocoons, “xenophobia” was little more than a go-to word for a sin that started with the uncommon letter X. Today, of course, while the letter remains uncommon, the word “xenophobia” has become all too common in our national discourse, as fear of strangers has reared its ugly head in a dramatic fashion.
The rabbi at the seminar was referring to the Gates of Prayer’s interpretive translation of the Vidui, in which the prayer book poetically proclaims that “Our sins are an alphabet of woe.” On the High Holy Days, we confess to offenses ranging from A for “arrogance” to Z for “zeal for bad causes.” The message is clear: We make mistakes beginning with every letter of the alphabet.
Don’t remember this liturgical acrostic? Check it out during Yom Kippur services, when we read in unison passages to this effect: “Who among us is righteous enough to say: ‘I have not sinned’? We are arrogant, brutal, careless, destructive, egocentric, false, greedy, heartless, insolent and joyless.” And so on. The conclusion is inescapable: our wrongdoings are an alphabet of woe.
This year, however, the ABCs of transgressions should bring to mind not only our personal misdeeds but, more distressingly, vast societal failures of the body politic. With these heavy thoughts weighing on us as we enter our sanctuaries, we must contemplate a current version of the alphabet of woe—a catalogue that challenges us to turn intolerance to tolerance, injustice to justice, inhumanity to humanity.
At synagogues across the country, we will be yearning for forgiveness for not doing more to express outrage and fight for change on numerous fronts, including: the Access Hollywood video, birtherism, climate change, demagoguery, education policies, freedom of the press, gun control, healthcare legislation, immigration, judicial independence, the Ku Klux Klan, LGBTQ discrimination, mockery of the disabled, national security, the opioid epidemic, poverty, qualified scientists in government, Russian interference in our elections, secret tax returns, tweets, uncivil discourse, voter ID laws, wall along the Mexican border, xenophobia, young children beset by bad examples and zeal for false statements.
But from my vantage point as a past president of a large Reform Jewish congregation, I believe that we are also an alphabet of wow—notice what a tremendous difference just one character makes!
In the past several months that have felt more like years, people of all backgrounds have responded to today’s alphabet of woe with an alphabet of wow. We must take pride in all manner of civil efforts that concerned citizens—including countless congregants from synagogues nationwide—have mounted in opposition and in hope: advocacy, boycotts, community involvement, donations to nonprofit organizations, environmental activism, formation of local groups, gerrymandering reform, history lessons, interfaith coalitions, Jewish values brought to bear on social justice issues, kind acts, letters to the editor, marches and other peaceful protests, newsletter emails and text alerts, opposition to gun violence, petitions, qualified candidates, resistance research, social justice committees, town hall attendance, United States Capitol contacts, volunteer service, welcome projects for refugees, rejection of extremism (that pesky letter X again), youth assistance programs and zero tolerance for bullying.
Rather than feeling down as we usher in 5778, take heart! Join in these many inspiring ways that people across the nation are responding. Be encouraged by the creativity, caring, concern and courage in congregations and communities all around us.
In the coming year, may each character in our A to Z ritual of repentance cause each of us to find the character necessary to repair our world. Shanah tovah!
Jan Zauzmer, a graduate of Princeton University and Stanford Law School, is a past president of a large and vibrant Reform Jewish congregation and an internal communications specialist.