Channeling the Yom Kippur ethos: The need for a national period of reckoning

Channeling the Yom Kippur ethos: The need for a national period of reckoning
© Getty Images

During the period between the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), Jewish communities around the world are engaged in a process of personal and interpersonal reckoning.

During this time Jews are commanded to reflect on their actions over the past year and ask themselves: What damage have I caused whether knowingly or by accident? Who have I hurt? How have I been dishonest? Leading up to Yom Kippur it is incumbent upon each member of the community to own up to their mistakes and request forgiveness of those that they have harmed. This period of reckoning is a painful and uncomfortable one, it requires people to look themselves in the mirror and engage honestly with their blemishes. It is a process that requires deep vulnerability.

Following the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001 and in the wake of a failed war in Afghanistan, it is time for a national period of reckoning, for the United States to channel the ethos of Yom Kippur. Historically, in periods of existential angst when the foundations of the nation were shaken, ambitious national civic initiatives have been introduced. In the early 1960s, at the height of the cold war as the U.S. and the USSR jockeyed for global influence, the American government established the Peace Corps, sending droves of young Americans across the world to serve as goodwill ambassadors. In the early 1990s, 30 years later, as the Soviet Union fell and the U.S. government could finally turn its gaze inward, Americorps was founded, hoping to cultivate a new generation of domestically oriented civil servants.


Now, three decades later, with America’s global standing in question, the time has come for the nation to once again focus its energy and resources on meeting the moment.

Here Yom Kippur offers profound contemporaneous wisdom. Too often the American response to a crisis involves a rush to action and the pursuit of quick fixes. Today’s political climate incentivizes leaders to defer blame and protect one’s name at all costs. On the other hand, the Jewish tradition insists that meaningful change must first come from within.

Furthermore, the Yom Kippur liturgy requires every individual to take responsibility for the wrongdoings of the entire community, regardless of their respective actions. The process of atonement on Yom Kippur begins with introspection which leads to interpersonal dialogue and culminates with communal transformation.

At the close of a 20-year war — as a nation mourns the lives lost, worries about the dollars wasted and prepares for an influx of refugees — the United States can follow the Yom Kippur blueprint of introspection, dialogue, and transformation. 

The introspective process is one that must occur amongst the American people. A divided nation must take time to pause and engage with the questions that spin across its collective consciousness. At the outset of a new year school year, educational institutions across the country should dedicate this year to reflecting upon and examining the past two decades, stretching from the Sept. 11 attacks, to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, up until today. Students of all ages should grapple with the mistakes that were made, make sense of today’s chaotic geopolitical reality, and debate the best pathways forward. 

Parallel to an internal process of reckoning, and in the shadow of a disastrous America-first approach, the time has come for deep and vulnerable dialogue with our friends and foes across the world. As the chasms between the United States and its neighbors grow wider, there is a need for a dramatic re-envisioning of American diplomacy.

In the post-Afghanistan era, we must invest in and maximize touch-points between American citizens and those most directly affected by our actions. Rather than looking for answers amongst the individuals and institutions that brought us to this point, let us pass the torch to the next generation of young leaders. The next iteration of PeaceCorps/AmeriCorps must run counter to our national urge to build, scale and pursue immediately evident results. Rather, we must launch a DialogueCorps focused on connecting young Americans to their peers across the globe. This time, however, the Americans' role will not be to solve the issues of their peers, but rather to listen and learn. 

A combination of profound introspection and honest dialogue can help move the American people from a place of isolation towards a place of shared responsibility.  As the pandemic has underscored, whether we like it or not, our lives are collectively entangled. Either we find a path towards national redemption or risk falling into the abyss of social, political and economic decay.

According to the Jewish tradition, those who complete the process of atonement during the period around Yom Kippur are granted with an inscription in the book of life for the coming year. In this year, as America’s fate in the world hangs in the balance, I pray that this country can fulfill its calling to reckon with its past and look toward a future inscribed in the global book of life.

Jonah Fisher is the director of the Millennium Leadership Program at the Atlantic Council.