Tipping the Scales
What is Yom Kippur? The Torah tells us, in Leviticus chapter 16, verses 29 and 30, which we read from the Torah scroll earlier this morning:
כט וְהָיְתָה לָכֶם, לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם: בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, וְכָל-מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ--הָאֶזְרָח, וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם. ל כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם, לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם: מִכֹּל, חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, תִּטְהָרוּ.
(29) “This shall be for you a law for all time: in the seventh month on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial, and you shall do no manner of creative labor, neither the citizen nor the stranger in your midst. (30) For on this day, he (i.e., the Kohen Gadol or High Priest) shall make atonement for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Eternal.”
The ancient purification rituals conducted by the Kohen Gadol, of which the Torah speaks, were in use during the periods when the first and second Temples stood in Jerusalem. We still recount these rituals in the dramatic Avodah service on Yom Kippur afternoon.
However, since the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E. by the forces of the Roman Empire – and up to our own time --- those centralized, sacrificial, priest-centered rituals were replaced in Judaism by a more democratic approach, with each of us called upon to serve God through our own acts of repentance, prayer and social justice, or to express those concepts in Hebrew ---- teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah.
The scope of the term “avodah” [עבודה] - which literally means “service” - evolved so that it could refer not just to the service of the kohen gadol in the Bet HaMikdash in Jerusalem, but also to “Avodat Halev”/ “The service of the heart” --- “Avodat Halev” being a traditional poetic reference to the act of prayer. In our own Avodat Halev – throughout the year but especially on Yom Kippur --- we turn inward and judge ourselves --- so that we may find new energy to turn outward and repair the world. We engage in cheshbon-ha-nefesh, taking stock of one’s own soul. We seek during this season of repentance to bridge the gap between our actions and our ideals.
We do this with seriousness of purpose: This is Yom Din, a day of judgment, a day on which our ancestors imagined that our fate for the coming year is being sealed in a cosmic Book of Life (a book that may not be so cheery and friendly as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)
For with regard to the Book of Life, we are taught that the entries in it are written in our own handwriting, by our own freely-willed acts and omissions.
In this sacred season, teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah go together: Our inner work of teshuvah finds emotional expression in our tefillah --- and finds concrete effect in our acts of tzedakah.
In the penitential prayers of our synagogue services, we phrase our confessions in the plural, reminding us that whether we attend synagogue regularly or not, whether we call ourselves Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform or none of the above, whether we live in the State of Israel or in the Diaspora, whether we are Jews by birth or by choice ---- we are all one people --- all sharing one fate --- all responsible for one another----- and all called to the pursuit of justice throughout the world and to the pursuit of peace among all people.
Here at Temple Israel, the local practice has been to read the traditional Yom Kippur morning Torah reading from Parashat Acharei Mot in the Book of Leviticus, which spells out the details of the purification rituals carried out by the High Priest. Many Reform and Reconstructionist congregations, however, instead read from Parshat Nitzavim in the Book of Deuteronomy because of its inclusive ethos. That Torah portion opens with these stirring words:
אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם: רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם, זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם, כֹּל, אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל. טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶם--וְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶיךָ: מֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ, עַד שֹׁאֵב מֵימֶיךָ. לְעָבְרְךָ, בִּבְרִית יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ--וּבְאָלָתוֹ: אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כֹּרֵת עִמְּךָ הַיּוֹם
(9) You stand today - all of you - before Adonai your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officials, every man, (10) woman and child of Israel, the stranger in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, (11) that you may enter into the sworn covenant of Adonai your God which Adonai your God is confirming with you this very day…. (Deut. 29: 9-11)
It’s striking that, even in the patriarchal context that generally pervades the Torah, this passage calls for the inclusion of every person in the camp – not just community leaders, but the masses as well; not just male heads of households, but women and children as well; not just Israelites but fellow travelers as well.
Each one’s participation is important in this renewal of the covenant between God and the Jewish People.
This theme of covenant renewal has a special resonance on Yom Kippur, for rabbinic tradition teaches that it was on the 10th of Tishri – Yom Kippur – that Moses returned with the second set of tablets, proof positive that God had forgiven the people for the sin of the Golden Calf. (See Rashi on Ex. 33:11).
In our general society, Election Day each November can be thought of as our secular version of covenant renewal. Our public officials hold office neither through assertions of divine right, nor through military conquest, but rather through the covenant that we enter with them by means of the voting booth.
And just as in Parshat Nitzavim, so here in our secular context of democratic elections, it’s critical that participation in the process of voting be as maximized as it can be. Unfortunately, our country doesn’t have such a great record with respect to voter participation. According to George Mason University’s “United States Election Project” the percentage of eligible voters who voted in federal elections between 1948 and 2008 consisted of only between half and two-thirds of the eligible voting population.[i] According to the same study, Minnesota’s eligible voter participation rates have generally been better than the national rate: In 2008, it was 77.8%, well above the national rate of 61.6% that year. In 2004, it was 78.4%, compared to national rate of 60.1%. And in that “hanging-chads” election of 2000, Minnesota’s eligible voter participation rate was 69.5%, compared to the national rate of 54.2%.
Overall, not great – It would be great if close to 100% of eligible voters were voting. But still, not too bad.
There has been no significant incidence of voter fraud in Minnesota.
As the non-partisan organization League of Women Voters Minnesota reports ---
"Allegations of voter fraud usually get big headlines. What does not get headlines is the fact that nearly all allegations of voter fraud turn out to be clerical errors, data matching mistakes, or misunderstandings. In reality, voter fraud is extremely rare. In the 2008 U.S. Senate election recount, lawyers for both candidates [i.e., the lawyers for both Norm Coleman and Al Franken] looked for fraud in the election. They found none.
"Our election system has many checks and balances in the system that ensure the integrity of our elections. Checks and balances that take place before and after the election look at everyone who signed the roster to make sure that voter was legitimate. If there are questions, they are forwarded to county attorneys for further investigation and possible prosecution. Because most of the flagged records are data -entry errors or the result of a misunderstanding, charges are rare. The most frequent type of charge is felons who vote before their civil rights have been restored. These could not be prevented by photo ID; felony status is not noted on a driver's license.
“Our current laws have proven sufficient to deter voter fraud. The penalty can be steep - up to a $10,000 fine and one year in jail.
“When we look at the few ballots that are wrongly cast in an election, there are virtually none that would have been prevented had those voters been required to show photo ID. A photo ID can only prevent voter impersonation. There are no cases of voter impersonation on the record in Minnesota elections. Election experts are nearly unanimous in their agreement that voter impersonation is not a factor in our elections, due in no small part to the fact that in-person voter fraud presents a high risk of being caught and offers small pay-off.”[ii]
Nevertheless, the Minnesota legislature has passed a Constitutional amendment proposal that will appear on our election ballot this November. The question to which we are asked to respond is this: "Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to require all voters to present valid photo identification to vote and to require the state to provide free identification to eligible voters, effective July 1, 2013? [iii]
As most of you probably know, Temple Israel is an active member of CHUM, the interfaith coalition which describes itself as “people of faith working together to provide basic necessities, foster stable lives, and organize for a just and compassionate community”.
Elizabeth Olson, CHUM’s congregational outreach director, had this to say in a memorandum on the topic that she recently sent to me and other local clergy. She writes:
“At CHUM we serve those who are homeless, or teetering on the brink of homelessness. Many live their daily lives on the margins of society, away from the center stage of public politics. Yet, the people served at CHUM are often the ones most affected by the decisions made in the public arena. As people of faith we are troubled by policies, like the proposed amendment, that seek to restrict the circle of participation in our democracy. For these reasons, and many others, CHUM is working to defeat the Voter Photo ID amendment. The individuals served by CHUM should not be pushed any further away from the decision making process by placing unnecessary barriers on their path to voting.
"CHUM would feel the impact of the voter ID amendment in the following ways:
During 2011, 424 individuals sought assistance from CHUM to acquire an ID. Many not only needed the ID, but the supporting documents required to obtain a photo ID. The total cost used by CHUM to obtain IDs and supporting documents was $7,903. These IDs are necessary for individuals to find housing, employment and reach stability in their lives. If the voter ID amendment passes, many more individuals would look to CHUM for help in obtaining an ID (including supporting documents). These documents are not always easy to track down, the process can take a long time, and often the costs are not just for the IDs, but for other supporting documents.
"Election Day Registration as we know it will end. Voters would be able to register at the polls but will have to cast provisional ballots. These will be counted later only if a voters’ identity and eligibility can be verified. Additionally vouching would end. Vouching done by registered CHUM staff and the same day registration are the primary ways those staying in emergency shelter are able to vote. Without same day registration and vouching, most individuals staying in emergency shelter would be unable to vote.”
It seems to me that the arguments presented by CHUM, the League of Women Voters, and other organizations that have come out against the Voter ID amendment are compelling and well-considered. Why on earth would we want to impose additional burdens on those who face so many existing burdens in their day to day lives when the stated goal of those additional burdens is to address a problem that doesn’t even exist? Why on earth would we want to place the extra expense of administering these unnecessary provisions on county and state budgets that are financially strained to begin with?
Positive arguments can be made for the proposition that the integrity of the election process is a fundamental value, and that requiring ID at the polls would promote that value of integrity. However, when dealing with such a fundamental right as the right to vote, we should be wary of proposals like the voter ID amendment that don’t appear to take into account the actual facts on the ground: First, the fact that voter fraud has not been an actual problem. Second, the fact that the proposed solution to the non-existent problem of voter fraud would have the effect of denying many on the fringes of society from being able to vote.
Maimonides (also known as Rambam) teaches in his restatement of the Laws of Teshuvah:
Throughout the entire year, one should always look at oneself as
equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally
balanced between merit and sin. If one performs one sin, one tips the
balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings
destruction upon oneself. [On the other hand,] if one performs one
mitzvah, one tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side
of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to oneself and others.
This is implied by (Proverbs 10:25) ‘A righteous person is the
foundation of the world,’ i.e., one who acted righteously, tipped the
balance of the entire world to merit and saved it. (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4)
Elections can be close calls too. Rambam says a single sin or a single mitzvah can tip the scales of the world. Similarly, it’s important that we not suppress voter participation because a single vote can tip the scales of an election, and can indeed make all the difference. Rather, let us be able to say that we still live in a society where we can be “Nitzavim” - all standing together -- as we renew our covenant of living in a democratic republic.
Gmar chatimah tovah/ May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year of health and happiness – and may the same be true for our State, our nation and our world.
(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5773/2012