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Confronting the Oppression of Our Hands: A Social Justice Reflection for Yom Kippur

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It is dusk on Yom Kippur. As the holiest day of the Jewish year comes to a close, the Neilah service arrives. Neilah means closing, and the Jewish tradition understands that this fifth and final prayer service occurs when the gates of prayer begin to shut. In the liturgy, we begin with the familiar formula that we've recited four times already on Yom Kippur:

‎ותיתן לנו ה' אלוהינו באהבה, את יום הכיפורים הזה
God, our Lord, you have given us this Yom Kippur with love...

But suddenly, it shifts. A brand new, never before seen variation on the theme that we've recited so many times appears at Neilah:

‎קץ ומחילה וסליחה על כל עונותינו, למען נחדל מעושק ידינו,
An end and forgiveness for all our sins, in order that we refrain from using our hands to oppress...

In order that we refrain from using our hands to oppress? There are so many questions we can ask about this strange prayer.

  Shouldn't it be a given that we are not supposed to be oppressors? Given the hundreds of commandments that structure a just society and require just actions, the Jewish story of a nation born in slavery, the Jewish historical reality over the last few thousand years, it seems pretty clear that one should not oppress.   Another question we could ask: Why is this seemingly self-controlled category -- the use of our own hands -- framed as a request from God? We normally ask God for things out of our control -- health, safety, divine inspiration. What does God have to do with using our own hands for oppression? The desire to not oppress others would seem to lend itself better to personal resolutions: I will not abuse my workers this year, I pledge to curb my bigotry, etc.   And finally, why do we say this prayer in the communal? Most of us would look around at the families, friends and communities gathered and think, "They may have some faults, but these are good people. They are certainly not oppressors!" Yet, suddenly our collective hands are oppressing others?   The painful truth? Your hands, my hands and the hands of everyone else we know are tools of oppression. They directly and indirectly cause suffering in the lives of God's creation -- human, animal and more. This is the reality of today's globalized world. We may not personally enslave children, but the money that we exchange for a shirt does support a system that enslaves children in Thailand who made that shirt. We may not personally exploit workers, but the tomato sauce we eat is very possibly made by someone who was cheated out of his/her wages, or was grown using chemicals that poisoned a local water supply, or was subsidized by a government at a rate that put the farmers in another country out of work. But even deeper than the realities of today's global economy, this has always been the reality of human existence. As much as we don't want to see it, the choices we make to secure our communities almost always exclude and harm others. The food that we eat comes at the expense of the animals we eat or exploit. The traps and poisons we set to rid ourselves of pests kill and maim millions of God's creatures. And of course, the words we utter have the potential to inflict tremendous suffering and pain. Who among us does not harm loved ones, friends or strangers regularly through speech? Or the hurt and pain we cause our selves?   The Neilah prayer leaves us with no middle ground. On Yom Kippur we must confront this reality. Oppression does not exist only in the hearts of serial killers and slave drivers; it exists in your hands and mine. We are the oppressors we've been looking for.   Now, reflecting on this Neilah prayer in this way might lead one to feel defensive, guilty, apathetic or hopeless. But it does not have to. Once we realize this basic fact of our existence, new options become possible.  
  • If we open ourselves to the oppression of our hands, we can learn how we are complicit in systems that exploit and oppress others.
  • Once we are aware of the oppression we take part in, we can make wise judgements, discerning where we have opportunities to make change and where we sadly cannot. Without reflection and awareness this is impossible.
  • Based on newfound awareness and discernment, we begin to act.
 

In the immortal words of the sage Rabbi Tarfon, "the work is not yours to finish, but neither are you free to desist from it."
 
Nor must you work at it alone. The spiritual community gathers to express a collective desire for a different reality through prayer, then to learn how to move toward that reality, and then to act. We are in this together. And finally, the fight against our oppressive hands is not fought alone. We pray for change via God. Through partnership with God the liberator, the giver of life, lover of justice and righteousness with no need to exploit or oppress, we can begin to break free from our prison of of exploitation and narrow self interest.

May it be God's will that this year our hands continue transforming from the closed fists of oppression -- whether acknowledged or unaware, distant or direct, intentional or accidental -- into the wide open embrace of life, love and justice. Amen.

For more social justice reflections on the High Holidays, visit here.

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