Yom Kippur

On Saturday, Jews across the world celebrated the high holiday of Yom Kippur. Known in English as the Day of Atonement, Jews fast and pray on Yom Kippur as an atonement — or penance — for the previous year’s sins and misdeeds.

Football fans among you may have noticed that West Ham’s Jewish manager, Avram Grant, was absent from the game on Saturday. Yom Kippur is too holy, even for football.

For historians, the words Yom Kippur are forever associated with the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1973, and taking advantage of Israel’s observance of Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. The conflict lasted less than a month, but by threatening to suck the United States and the Soviet Union into the fray, it focussed international attention on finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. That was in 1973.

I am loathe to associate war with Yom Kippur as it perpetuates the notion that Judaism — and indeed, Islam — are hopelessly wedded to conflict and suffering. This is certainly not the case, Judaism being a religion that has sacralised joy and rejoicing. Nevertheless, with Israel and the Palestinians currently engaged in a new round of talks, it is worth seeing if we can learn anything from this seemingly intractable conflict.

I lived for a time in Israel in 2004. It was at the back end of the last Palestinian uprising or intifada and tensions were high. A bomb went off at a bus stop during my stay and the cafeteria at the university at which I was studying had been bombed just two years earlier. One morning, my street was evacuated as a remote-controlled robot was sent to inspect a suspicious bag. Such is life in Israel. Even McDonalds has a metal detector at the door.

It is easy to see the grievances on both side. Israelis want to live without fear of their children being blown up at Pizza Hut and without rockets landing on their playgrounds. Palestinians want an end to the Israeli occupation and a state of their own. The solution — compromise — seems obvious but depressingly elusive.

From Israel 2004

In a bid to prevent suicide bombers from entering into Israel, the Israeli government has constructed a massive 8m-high security wall around its border with the Palestinian West Bank. The Israeli rationale is obvious: keep out suicide bombers. The Palestinian response is equally obvious: Israel has made us prisoners in our own country. In the face of such an intractable problem, it is easy to become weary and apathetic. After all, how are we to bring about peace in the Middle East?

One example from Israel shows how we do have the power to bring about change. A group of Israeli grandmothers were concerned about the treatment of some Palestinians as they queued to cross the border through the wall into Israel. They knew they could not do anything about the wall itself, but inspired by a passage in the Bible, they saw no reason why Palestinians should be mistreated. The verses are from Leviticus (19: 33-34): “The alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were alien in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” The grandmothers decided they would simply go to the checkpoints and watch, their presence encouraging the young Israeli soldiers to act kindly. Where they have been active, and drawing upon Jewish respect for one’s elders, it has had some success.

At Yom Kippur we remember our sins. Let us not commit the sin of believing that we do not have the power to make peace in our own small worlds.

A Jewish prayer (from Isaiah 2:3-4):

Come let us go up the mountain of
the Lord, that we may walk the
paths of the Most High.
And we shall beat our swords into ploughshares,
and our spears into pruning hooks.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation–
neither shall they learn war any more.
And none shall be afraid, for the mouth of the
Lord of Hosts has spoken.


An assembly given at LGS, 21.ix.10.


  1. What a lovely idea. I lived in Israel for a while, and we had members of our branch who lived in Bethlehem who would sometimes be denied access at the checkpoint when they went to church. We heard all kinds of stories about sneaking through holes in old fences (before the wall was completed) and running from soldiers just to get to church on Saturday.
    The Jewish grandmothers’ idea sounds wonderful. It’s interesting to me how small groups of older women have been able to do such great things and bring attention to causes by their simple determination and devotion to their cause. They seem to have a moral authority that commands more respect than simple violence or angry protests ever would. It reminds me of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

  2. Ronan I very much appreciated your thoughts here and loved the idea of making peace in our own small worlds. Moreover, I agree that it is a sin to not believe that we can.

  3. Good stuff, Ronan.

  4. For those of us who were paying attention, it was Sandy Koufax’s refusal to pitch game one of the 1965 World Series that taught us about Yom Kippur.

    After Don Drysdale, who pitched instead, got shelled by the Twins, some reporter commented to Walter Alston in the post-game press conference: “I bet you wish Drysdale was Jewish too.”

    Koufax lost game 2, but came back to win game 5 and then game 7 (on two days rest). Both wins were complete game shutouts!

  5. Excellent post Ronan. This is the best kind of post. Thank you.

  6. Julie M. Smith says:

    Grandmothers. Gotta love em.

  7. Amy, mothers do have a special kind of moral authority, and grandmothers in particular.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    The grandmother brigade–I like it. Thanks for these reflections.

  9. Sharon LDS in Tenn says:

    Good thoughts, ideas for Zion everywhere,
    Israel is so special to God and the Lord…and we are blessed here for the peace we STILL enjoy.
    On grandmothers: only trouble is here in USA grandparents are good for only a few things like presents and babysitting…, as result of age prejudice…..I started getting ignored or “attitude” looking down sort of thing around 59-60!
    Yes, at R.S. social.
    I’ve been thinking about starting a personal blog, on just what Kevin Barney said….a Grandmother Brigade…..
    long on adages, wisdom thing-ies, advice to the young (haha) and anyone who might realize that someone who has lived over 60 years…..might, perhaps, possibly…have some good ideas for the younger set?
    Fads and trends do rotate back, eventually.
    Thanks for info on Yom Kippur and lovely prayer as well.

  10. This was a great post. I remember hearing a report on NPR discussing Palestinians passing through checkpoints, and I remember being stunned that an older Palestinian woman was in tears and her husband shaking with anger after they’d passed through. It’s just a checkpoint — an inconvenience like airport security. I mean, I’m aware of what the restriction of movement has done, but why all the fuss right then?

    When queried by the reporter, the Palestinian couple didn’t want to discuss it. The man simply said they were treated like animals and that a real man wouldn’t let his wife be treated that way before pushing past.

    That’s why I find the grandmother brigade so uplifting. It’s one thing to feel hated by policy-makers, but it’s a whole lot more personal to be abused to your face. Those grandmothers may end up doing a lot of good if they can stick with it. God bless them.

  11. Thanks for this post. I think today is international peace day, as well. A lot of peace making to be thought about.

  12. Marjorie Conder says:

    To Sharon–if I’m being ignored or looked down on, because of age, I’m oblivious to the fact, and I’m pushing 70. I would love to be a part of a grandmothers’ brigade, for a cause I believe in.

  13. Latter-day Guy says:

    Wonderful stuff. What an assembly!

  14. Yom Kippur holds a special place for me. While serving as a bishop years ago, I met with a couple in the final interview after a long (and successful) repentance process. The husband observed that it was Yom Kippur that day, and so our final meeting was fortuitous.

    After the meeting, I was driving home and thought about my relationship with my own son, from whom I was somewhat estranged because of choices he was making in his life. I had written him a self-righteous letter about the atonement two years earlier. I got home, found a copy of that letter and realized my own sin in writing it as I had.

    I wrote him a new letter, this time begging his forgiveness, not only for that letter but for other wrongs I had committed over the years in the name of being a “good” father.

    What began that day between us was a remarkable healing. One which i gratefully ponder each Yom Kippur. One which could not have come without my having been taught about the atonement.

    Thanks for this wonderful post, Ronan.

  15. Excellent, RJH. Thank you.

    (BTW, I watched that West Ham game last week. It was on ESPN2 here in the USA. I also noticed that Everton is down in the standings.)

  16. Ronan, I needed this today. Thank you. The image of grandmothers demanding better behavior, is one I’ll keep for a long time.

  17. Thank you Ronan for your thoughtful post. I attended one of several services at our local Reform Jewish synagogue. In that particular session, the congregation repented for the sins of Israel; concerning the treatment of the Palestinians. Despite the Rabbi and the congregations obvious pro-Israeli feelings, they acknowledged the often mistreatment of the Palestinians.

  18. Such a delightful post. Thank you.

  19. Sharon LDS in Tenn says:

    To Marjorie Conder…..GREAT, let’s discuss…
    I understand it does NO good just to gripe, we have to
    not only speak out and up, but DO constructive things
    teaching / leading / serving as better examples..with unconditional love and a desire to LIFT our fellow beings.