A lovely piyyut sung during the Yom Kippur evening service beseeches the Creator to “look to the brit (covenant) and not to the yetzer (evil inclination).” That is, we ask that God direct His gaze toward the good and not the bad when He judges us.
In the same way, I ask of all of us, dear fellow Jews, that during these holy days—but also, ideally, throughout the year—we look to the basic covenant that we have entered into, and not solely at what is divisive and polarizing, impulse-driven and evil.
Israeli life is difficult, harsh and caustic enough in normal times. During election seasons—which have more or less become Israel’s new normal—everything gets louder, the overt and covert campaigns assail us and life becomes even more turbulent and incendiary. It seems as though we no longer agree on anything. Everything is subject to bitter disputes between the “blocs” and the parties “within the blocs” that fight tooth and nail over each and every vote.
The Passover festival, the Israeli national holidays and memorial days and the holidays of the month of Tishrei—Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah—are periods that tend to be more conciliatory, even in the normally red-hot atmosphere of Israeli public life. The media takes on a festive air. Israelis grow more preoccupied with the holiday gifts they are going to buy for family members than with political disputes. Those seeking solace can experience a shared national-Jewish exaltation of spirit.
This spiritual uplift is also clearly perceptible in the public realm and polling data. On Yom Kippur, the vast majority of roads are empty. During Sukkot, festive booths can be readily seen on balconies and in the streets. Surveys from recent years show that Israelis celebrate the holidays in traditional fashion. An overwhelming majority (more than 80%) participate in a Passover seder and, more surprisingly, 60% of Israelis, including many who self-define as secular, fast on Yom Kippur.
By a quirk of the political clock, this year’s Tishrei holidays fall during an election season. Amid the celebratory mood, the contentious drumbeat pulses within us as the parties and candidates try to prove beyond all doubt that our current reality is especially bad and they are our only hope. They fire away at all those who aren’t “on our side,” hoping that, by means of reciprocal incitement, they can get us to believe that “the other,” whoever that is, is our calamity.
In everyday life, and certainly during an election season marked by toxic campaigning, the natural tendency of many Israelis, especially those who are politically active or post “talkback” comments on websites and news outlets, is to attack others with venomous force. Social media algorithms will reward them with “likes” and their echo chambers will applaud them for their effectiveness at striking out at others. This naturally erodes—to the point of disintegration—those elements that promote unity and cohesion.
This year as in other years—despite the upcoming elections—the Tishrei holidays offer us another option for the holiday period and in general. They enable us to remember that there is a shared religious and cultural basis for Israeli-Jewish existence. A basis that, even if it isn’t celebrated in the same way by all Israelis, is nevertheless observed according to the same calendar, the same national ethos and similar customs. The holiday atmosphere also offers those who don’t celebrate the holidays via cultural and religious practices the opportunity to share in the holiday spirit and, in that way, participate.
Israeli reality is hard, but that’s not the whole story. It’s complicated. Life here has its aggravating aspects, but there is also potential for closeness, partnership and brit. Don’t miss these days. Both now and, hopefully, throughout the year, we will all direct our gaze to the covenant we’ve made in our shared life in the State of Israel.
Dr. Shuki Friedman is vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer of law at the Peres Academic Center.