Unclaimed Baggage

In early August, the New York Sun published an editorial about the apparent anti-Israel bias of the group Human Rights Watch (HRW). Among other things, the group’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, accused the Jewish state, for its actions in Lebanon, of engaging in the same sort of “extremist interpretations of religious doctrine” that animate her Islamist enemies.

A number of Jewish organizational spokespeople were cited in the Sun editorial as critical of HRW for such statements. I was among them, and was accurately quoted as labeling Mr. Roth’s equation of Israel and her sworn enemies a “loathsome” stance.

Several weeks later, a HRW board member penned an op-ed for the Washington Post decrying the broad criticism to which it has been subjected. Amid the “real vitriol” she cited was my having called “[Mr.] Roth ‘loathsome’.”

I had, of course, done nothing of the sort. As I subsequently informed the Post’s readers in a letter to the editor, I do not speak of people that way.

What I had characterized as abhorrent was Mr. Roth’s comparison of Israel’s actions in defense of her citizens with Arab acts of terror – not Mr. Roth, whom I have never met.

“While I am indeed repulsed by some things that Mr. Roth has said and written,” my letter continued, “I hold out the hope that, as a thinking, caring person, he will come to reconsider them.

“Until then, though, I condemn his words and actions, not him.”

The distinction is as important as it is –- or should be -– obvious. If anything is sorely needed these days in public and private discourse alike, it is the ability to disagree, even strongly, without being disagreeable, to argue ideas without berating the bearers of other points of view.

To be sure, certain core beliefs or acts may become inseparable from some people’s identities as individuals. Osama bin Laden, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Jeffrey Dahmer are at least arguably loathsome. But opinions -– certainly on political and personal matters –- are not usually so self-defining or immutable. We humans are something more than our opinions, than our words, even than our actions.

It’s a thought many Jews dwell upon this time of year.

During the Days of Repentance, the week between Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and the fast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we are enjoined to weigh our actions of the year past. A major part of that introspection concerns our relationships with others. It is common in the days before and after Rosh Hashana for observant Jews to ask one another to forgive them for personal offenses of word or deed.

In so doing, the offender is in effect saying that what transpired shouldn’t have, that the negative feelings that engendered what was said or done were foreign accumulations, now recognized as excess baggage.

In truth, the fact that we are not necessarily one with our emotional backpacks is central to the very idea of repentance.

For what is repentance if not the distancing of ourselves from what we have come to realize was extraneous to us, things we may have thought or done but now desperately wish to disown? It is not an easy process, to be sure. It entails embracing the realization that we have harmed our own souls, and sincerely resolving to be better.

But by so doing, we are declaring –- and hoping that G-d accepts the declaration –- that our past actions and thoughts are abandoned baggage, not essential parts of ourselves. As the Talmud quotes B’ruriah, Rabbi Meir’s wife: We are to pray for the end of sins, not sinners.

When the central Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, one of Yom Kippur’s most riveting ceremonies involved sending one of a pair of goats into the desert, where it was led off a steep cliff, dying unceremoniously before it even reached the valley below. The Torah seems to describe the goat as somehow carrying away the sins of the people.

Although there are always unfathomable reasons for the rituals prescribed by the Torah, on a straightforward level, Maimonides held that the imagery is meant to spur the people to repentance. Perhaps what he meant is that it conveys the idea of our sins as things apart from us, burdens that, through force of will, can be loaded, so to speak, onto a beast destined for oblivion – leaving us with only our now unsullied souls.

How misdeeds can easily multiply is another timely topic this Jewish season. It was bad enough to have my words misrepresented in a major newspaper. But the Human Rights Watch representative’s Washington Post op-ed now resides on dozens of websites. The proverbial pillow whose feathers are irretrievably scattered pales as a metaphor in our world of telecommunications, where the electronic wind does an even more efficient job.

But there is yet another vital aspect of this time of Jewish year. Just as offenders are charged with regret and apology, so are those offended instructed to be forgiving. And so, as I do every year just before Yom Kippur, I will endeavor to wholeheartedly forgive all who might have wronged me over the prior months, and this year that will include the op-ed writer. What I will contemplate is that her misrepresentation of my words and her support of what, to me, is an indefensible political position are, in the end, only her baggage, not her.

And in that merit, I hope that G-d will judge me favorably, and accept my riddance of my own unwanted load.


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