Yom Kippur 5774: Having pride in our identity
In a message published ahead of Yom Kippur, the Chief Rabbi considers what Jacob wished to convey when he blessed his grandchildren, and the significance of Jonah’s declaration of pride in his identity.
“In my Installation sermon last week, I highlighted the importance of building communities and providing quality Jewish education for all in order to strengthen Jewish identity and increase Jewish pride.
Our Patriarch Jacob saw pride in family, faith and tradition as a crucial ingredient in the preservation of the Jewish People. Just before he passed away, he summoned his two grandchildren, Ephraim and Menashe, born to Joseph and Osnat in Egypt. As they sat before their saintly grandfather, he searched, at this poignant moment, for appropriate words with which to bless them; words that would inspire them and all future generations to retain their Jewish identity against all odds.
This is what Jacob said: “May they multiply like fish in the midst of the land.” What supremely important message did he wish to convey through this blessing?
The classic explanation is that fish multiply rapidly and are thus a symbol of guaranteed continuity. Although fishermen seek continuously to catch them, fish have the remarkable capacity to maintain their numbers, if not increase them.
The Midrash gives a very different explanation. While animals have two signs of kashrut, cloven hooves and chewing of the cud, fish also have two signs, fins and scales. One of the kosher signs of animals is revealed and one is hidden. Both kosher signs of fish, however, are visible. Jacob wanted his grandchildren and all subsequent generations to know that if they were to successfully contend with the challenges that each successive era would bring, they would need, like fish, to reveal their full identity with pride.
This is a major lesson of Yom Kippur, on which we read the Book of Jonah in synagogue. While fleeing from his sacred prophetic mission, Jonah was confronted on board the boat by the sailors, whose lots had determined that he was responsible for the cataclysmic storm they were experiencing. Desperate to discover the identity of this enigmatic stranger, they posed four questions to him: “What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” Jonah replied with one simple statement: “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of Heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jonah 1:8,9)
As far as Jonah was concerned, everything about his life and his identity; his comings and goings, his occupation and his identity was encapsulated in one single fact: “I am a Hebrew and I’m proud of it.”
The Talmud tells us that in ancient times the citizens of Jerusalem kept a fascinating custom during the festival of Sukkot. Wherever people went, lulavo beyado – they took their lulav, their palm branch, with them. (Sukkah 41b)
On Pesach there was no such custom to carry a piece of matza, on Rosh Hashana the inhabitants of Jerusalem did not carry a Shofar and on Purim they did not carry a megilla. So, why this practice on Sukkot?
While a shofar, a megilla and matza can be hidden from the view of others, a lulav cannot be concealed. It is an emblem of pride for the Jew. Indeed, the lulav stands erect, representing the upright spinal cord, which is a symbol of confidence. Consequently, our resolutions on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, are followed immediately by Sukkot, on which we celebrate the practices of our faith with confidence, enthusiasm, joy and pride.
In addition to the lulav which cannot easily be hidden, the sukkah that we dwell in during the festival of Succot is only kosher if it is exposed. By definition, if a sukkah is totally concealed it would not be kosher.
During Sukkot, satellite photos of the neighbourhoods in which we live can now reveal how many hundreds of families go out of their way to construct a sukkah – a temporary dwelling for the festival – often in trying circumstances during inclement weather. The sukkot we build enable us to connect spiritually with our Creator and also serve as a powerful symbol of our Jewish pride.
My experience is that, as a rule, others hold us in high regard when we are true to our faith and adhere to the values and customs of our tradition. The more we try to emulate the norms and practices of other cultures the less we are respected.
On Yom Kippur we will recall Jonah’s weakness of spirit which led him to flee from his important mission to positively shape the lives of others. Let us also remember the strength of his identity. Even in his darkest hour, when he knew he was about to be cast overboard, he never lost confidence or pride in who he really was. Like Jonah, let us declare: “We are Jewish and we are proud of it!” ”
G’mar Chatimah Tova
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis