The centerpiece of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy is the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer: “Let us tell how utterly holy this day is.” It is a poetic rendering of the Day of Judgment when humanity stands before its Creator to hear its fate. It tells us that “on Rosh Hashanah, their destiny is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.” The fate of each individual—“who shall live and who shall die”—is enumerated as we are reminded not only of the fragility of mortal existence, but that no amount of wealth or power can allow any of us to evade Divine justice.
This stirring call for introspection and accountability during the period known as the Days of Awe (“Yamim Noraim”) is not merely meant to frighten us, but to also inspire hope. The Divine Judge’s purpose is not merely retribution for our sins but to grant mercy to those, who, as the passage concludes, engage in the “repentance, prayer and acts of lovingkindness that may avert the stern decree.”
But it also should cause us to think of our collective as well as personal responsibilities. While we contemplate the coming year with thoughts of our own mortality—and the ephemeral nature of success and failure, safety and peril—it also ought to cause us to think of more than our own predicament. If we believe, either literally or figuratively, that we are being sealed for good or bad in the proverbial book of Life at this time, then the fates of communities are also at stake.
Which is why we would do well to give more than a passing thought to an impending massacre that may be starting to unfold while we are observing Rosh Hashanah.
As the international news media reported on Sept. 4, Russian and Syrian warplanes began a bombing campaign against Idlib Province in Syria. The strikes are part of what is likely to be an all-out effort by the barbarous Assad regime, with the help of its Russian and Iranian allies, to wipe out the last strongholds of Syrian rebels. Given their past record, the Russians and Syrians will make no effort to limit civilian casualties. Their goal throughout the last several years of civil war is to maximize the carnage so as to strike fear into the hearts of all who would resist.
But though the world is aware about what is about to happen, there appears to be very little chance that anyone will do something to stop it. U.S. President Donald Trump issued a tweet warning the Russians, Syrians and Iranians to stop. And it’s possible that if given sufficient provocation from the Syrians in the form of a chemical-weapons attack, the administration might, as it did last year, launch its own retaliatory strike that would attack to restrain Syrian President Bashar Assad from further atrocities.
It’s also clear that the Russians appear to be unimpressed with America’s resolve on this issue. They still believe that Trump is as soft on Syria as President Barack Obama, whose catastrophic abandonment of his “red line” threat against Syria in 2013 set this chain of tragic events in motion.
After the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and several million who were made refugees, Russian President Vladimir Putin can’t be blamed for thinking that he, Assad and their Iranian friends will continue to get away with murder.
That realization should sit heavily on the world’s conscience this week. But it also brings into focus a separate controversy that occurred in Israel after a statement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
While commemorating the legacy of the late Shimon Peres at the opening of a Nuclear Research Center named in his honor, Netanyahu noted that though Peres was an advocate for peace, his work in helping create Israel’s nuclear program illustrated his understanding of the importance of strength. Netanyahu said: “The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive. The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end peace is made with the strong.”
But when that excerpt from his speech was shared on Twitter, Netanyahu was blasted for his alleged insensitivity and even compared to Adolf Hitler.
Taken out of context, this line can be read as saying that might makes right, that it’s an excuse for atrocities. The desire of anti-Semites to justify their hate by demonizing Jews and Israel explains part of that reaction. Yet it also illustrates an unwillingness to think seriously about why terrible things often happen.
What Netanyahu was saying was that those who cannot defend themselves or who rely on the world’s goodwill to ensure their safety are effectively doomed. The mass murder in Syria for the last several years while the entire world was watching—without anyone lifting a finger to stop the killing—demonstrates the clarity of Netanyahu’s point. Were the Jews of Israel as defenseless as the civilians of Idlib, the result would likely be another Holocaust. That’s why it is his duty to ensure that Israel never lowers its guard as long as the region is one where terrorists and thugs hold sway.
As we ask for forgiveness and think about what judgment will fall upon us in 5779, those of us in Israel and the United States can do so largely without the fear that the forces of an intolerant butcher and his foreign helpers will be able to act in a manner that leaves our families numbered among the slain. While those of us who are persons of faith must put our trust in God and also look inward to ponder our own individual faults, that doesn’t exempt us from understanding the collective lessons of history.
What is happening in Syria should remind us not only to be more generous to those in need of aid and shelter. It should also cause us to remember that those who put themselves at the mercy of murderers have no future.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.