On Yom Kippur, praying mightily for Syria

A Free Syrian Army fighter mourns at the grave of his father, who was killed by what activists said was … Continued

A Free Syrian Army fighter mourns at the grave of his father, who was killed by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

I know as an Orthodox rabbi I shouldn’t struggle with prayer, especially since atrocities occur throughout the world each day, but this year feels different.

Unetaneh Tokef, the central prayer on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that focuses on life and death, always tears upon my soul in the most profound way. This year it was particularly so, because I couldn’t get the people of Syria out of my mind, especially the gassing of children.At times, I found myself trembling and sweating and simply couldn’t focus on either the joyous or the solemn sections of the prayer liturgy. What if it were me, my wife, and baby fleeing for our lives? What if those body bags were full of my friends and family? What if I might find sarin in my next drink? As I struggled to pray, I asked myself “What’s the point of prayer at all?”

I don’t know how I will rise again with my congregation on Yom Kippur later this week and recite the pinnacle prayer of Unetaneh Tofek once again: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will pass and who will be created, who will live and who will die, who in his time and who before his time.” I’m afraid that this Yom Kippur I will hear G-d’s intense question of where I’ve been on the Syria issue.

Is there a way to aid the civilians in Syria without encouraging further military escalation and atrocities? I will leave this question to policy-makers. But this Yom Kippur, I will entreat G-d and speak out on behalf of innocent Syrians–though I am not a Syrian. I know this is not the conventional prayer or intention for Yom Kippur. I understand and forgive those among my fellow Jews who find such prayers inappropriate.

However, there is a teaching of Abraham Joshua Heschel that I’ve never been able to forget at times like these: “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”

Rabbi Heschel acted on these beliefs when he marched nonviolently with the Rev. Martin Luther King for civil rights, at a time when standing up for civil rights meant risking your life. I hope that I will have the courage to embrace subversive prayer this Yom Kippur, prayer that spurs me to fight for human dignity.

Many told me that these aren’t “my people” and even that “these people hate my people.” But Rosh Hashanah marks the creation of the world and more specifically day six of creation — the birth of all humanity. On this day, there is no such thing as “my people.” We are all brothers and sisters, and the suffering of any one of us, whether in New York or Damascus, is a cause for grief.

We need humility when dealing with such complicated matters. There are a great many actors in Syria and around the world who might respond unfavorably to any American action in Syria. There are a great many potential ramifications for the United States even for a very limited intervention. But we also dare not stand idly by. I have an aversion to war but an even greater disdain for genocide. We know today what President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew in the early 1940s and what he could have done. How dare we say “never again” while it continues to happen time and time again?

Since violence has escalated, I have read every article I could. I have made calls. I have started a petition and got the top rabbinic leadership from Reform to Orthodox to sign on to support a U.S. intervention to protect civilians. I prayed. But nothing feels sufficient. And time is running out.

I am tempted to feel anger toward heaven when extreme suffering or tragedy like this occurs. But this cannot be an excuse for inaction. I’m reminded of the famous quote: “Sometimes I want to ask G-d why G-d allows poverty, famine, and injustice in the world when He could do something about it, but I’m afraid He might just ask me the same question.”

How can I recite Unetaneh Tokef again this Yom Kippur as I know how many are dying each day in Syria, now totaling 110,000 over the past two years? This year, I feel a touch of hypocrisy asking G-d to seal my soul in the Book of Life, when I myself have not done enough to avert deaths and atrocities in Syria. How can I ask G-d to save me unless I devote every fiber of my being to saving others who walk in the Valley of Death?

Martin Niemoller, the prominent Protestant pastor who was transformed from an unthinking supporter to an outspoken critic of the Nazis due to his observation of years of atrocities, ended up in concentration camps, and later wrote:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak outBecause I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak outBecause I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

This Yom Kippur I will pray that this coming year be one of life, in which we cease to be spectators while so many innocent human beings are murdered. I will know if my prayer works if it leads me to stronger and more effective action.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (the Orthodox Social Justice movement)
and the author of three
books on Jewish ethics
. Newsweek named
Rabbi Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America

Shmuly Yanklowitz
Written by

  • Shlomo Bolts

    Thank you Rabbi Yanklowitz for your work and your passion. Here is an excerpt of the petition referenced in the article for readers’ information. The full petition is viewable here:

    Dear Congressional Leaders,

    We write you as descendants of Holocaust survivors and refugees, whose ancestors were gassed to death in concentration camps. We write you as a people who have faced persecution for many centuries, and are glad to have found a safe refuge where we can thrive in the United States. We write as a people proud of our religious and historical tradition of helping the needy and defending the weak.

    The recent chemical weapons attacks on the Damascus suburbs constitute a serious crime against humanity. These attacks killed upwards of 1400 people, the majority of them innocent women and children. As a people who themselves once faced the horrors of genocide and survived, we had hoped that we would never again open our newspapers to images of mass graves filled with suffocated young children. Now that we have seen such images coming from Syria, we call upon you to act.

    Intelligence assessments from the U.S., U.K. France, Israel, Turkey, the Arab League, and many other allies all show conclusively that the Assad regime was responsible for the horrific chemical attacks of August 21st. We fear that if this attack passes without a decisive response, we might open our newspapers to more images of mass graves from Syria – and elsewhere — in the near future. We have learned from our own history that inaction and silence are the greatest enablers of human atrocity.

  • Alan Ross

    Thank you Rabbi Yanklowitz. You have expressed the best of what it means to be human and to be Jewish.

  • Maria Ashot

    A thoughtful and vital exhortation for us all to do more, and to speak out against the cynicism and indifference that scoffs at the possibility of positive change. Many of us are upset to witness or hear of cruelty to animals. How can we walk by the screams of a child being raped, or watching its parents raped, or seeing its siblings incinerated, gassed, crushed by rubble? Or simply sitting, hungry, in a refugee tent, waiting for the inevitable cholera to end its wretched existence? G-d does not create tyrants. We enable tyrants. We are far too polite about the occasional sociopath in power. Stop being so polite. G-d gave us brains, means, authorities, intelligence, courage, and above all: great numbers of friends, to maintain at least a modicum of tolerable order in our society. (Have you heard about the cannibal pedophile that was arrested in Worcester, MA? He was only discovered because someone bothered to search… G-d will always help you and bless your endeavors if you just Begin That Journey to Do the Right Thing, to protect the powerless, the voiceless, the ones who are even driven through suffering to regret ever having been born although they had no say whatsoever in it… There should be no hell on earth. No, we cannot ourselves make it a Paradise. But we can certainly make it passably decent.



  • Hydro9268

    The reason G-d (since you are afraid to use his name I will: Yahweh [the divine name in Hebrew] or Jehovah [the divine name translated in English]) hasn’t acted yet is because this system is condemned. It is not under his influence. It is under the influence of his Yahweh’s chief enemy Satan the Devil. Satan is basically an angel who rebelled against Yahweh, turned other angels against God, and turned most of humanity against God as well. Very soon God is going to end Satan’s reign and the system he’s built. The new system is going exist. It will be filled with people from Abel until our time who live in harmony with God on an unspoiled earth.

    It is commendable that people want to pray for people in the world that are suffering but remember it is the god of this system of things, Satan, who is ultimately responsible for the pain and suffering that happens.