It’s still a little early for Yom Kippur, but today I was thinking about the Al Chet confessional that we recite then. Specifically the part that says:
עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָֽאנוּ לְפָנֶֽיךָ
For the sin we committed before You
with haughty eyes.
So here’s the thing: In 1973, I boarded an airplane for the first time in my life. And not just for a short flight, but I was travelling to Israel, the first time I had been outside of the United States. As we passed over the Atlantic, my mind was also flying. “Wait, the world is round”, “Oh, I’m not in America anymore”, “English isn’t the major language where I’m going (or in most of the world)”. It was an eye-opener for a 17-year old kid, who grew up thinking that the entire civilized world was the United States of America.
After spending that trip and the year that followed studying in Israel, my perspective was never the same. The realizations were that: there is civilization in other places, there is science and research throughout the world, people my age were going to universities everywhere, folks worked at deli counters like my dad and at law offices like my cousins not only in the U.S. And let’s be honest, we weren’t even building the best or coolest cars in the U.S.
And I realized that we Americans weren’t just proud of our country (a good thing), but we were flat-out arrogant about our country (not a good thing). Despite growing up seeing racism and poverty, I was taught that America was just the best country imaginable. Despite watching elected officials who took bribes, turned off the microphones of opponents at goverment meetings and knowing how serious voter fraud was in 1970’s Chicago, I learned that American democracy was just the perfect form of government. Despite knowing that our family didn’t have the money to send me to college, I heard over and over how any kid could get anywhere and accomplish anything in America. The lessons were inspiring. And not as true as I was led to believe.
Along came 2020 and the truth came out: All protestations aside, we didn’t have the “best testing”, or the “best research” or even consistent policies to combat a pandemic. The racism that we middle class white folks thought had magically disappeared with the civil rights movement was alive and well. The antisemitism that was just a childhood memory in which Jews couldn’t move to Kenilworth or join certain country clubs, ended its historic downward trend with a strong upsurge and with actual mass killings in synagogues. And many Americans shut their eyes to it all, preferring lies to truthful bad news.
Humility is a tough practice. Like many kids, my parents overpraised me and my abilities. And my rabbinic training gave me a hightened sense of importance. Humility has to be acheived through hard work, every day. But the only way we can ever achieve personal improvement is the recognition that “we are but dust”, balanced by the Talmudic affirmation that “for my sake was the world created”.
We can go into the High Holiday season as Jews (or whatever season for any human) in one of two ways: We can choose to continue to affirm personal, group, religious, racial, or national superiority. Or we can choose to recognize that the same blood pulses through the bodies of every human being. We can boast about being the best and continually compete with everyone else. Or we can accept the reality that we’re on this journey together, that nobody has all the answers, and that we and our countries need to learn to collaborate and cooperate.
So let’s examine ourselves, our society, our countries, our world. during this season. The great leader Moses is praised not because of his giving of the law, certainly his greatest acheivement, but because he was the most humble human being. And that humility gave him the opportunity to be good and to be great.
And let’s make a choice, to be humble so that we can all improve, personally and societally. And work to make our world both good and great.