Sundown tonight marks the start of the Jewish New Year that begins with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. The ten days from the start of this holiday until the end of Yom Kippur next week are known in Judaism as the Days of Awe. During this time, Jews are asked to reflect on their deeds in the past year and seek to account for them to their Creator as well as their fellow human beings. This period of introspection should cause all of us to think about what we have done or not done and to contemplate how we can do better. Indeed, as Americans take in the debate over intervention in Syria as well as other divisive questions, it is an apt moment to look at issues facing the nation in a sober and honest manner.
Though I refer to Jewish tradition, the notion of accountability also speaks directly to any democracy based on the concept that the public must judge leaders. While politicians and pundits fill up the 24/7 news cycle with endless debate every day, the real question is whether it is possible to give our political culture the unsparing assessment it requires if we are to preserve our republic and its institutions in a manner befitting the ideals upon which it was founded. That is why appeals to fear as well as mindless defenses of the status quo are the antipathy of the heshbon nefesh—or accounting of the soul that Rosh Hashanah asks us to perform each year.
One of the keynotes of our political life in the last year, as well as those that preceded it, is the never-ending attempt of our parties and ideological factions to demonize their political opponents. But the dawn of the New Year represents an opportunity to step back and realize that efforts to brand leaders, parties and movements as being beyond the pale has done much to undermine any hope for a resolution of our national problems. We must seek to restrain the efforts of the government to trespass on our rights without paranoia about legitimate efforts to protect our national security or mindless and partisan cynicism that would paralyze democracy.
Abroad, Americans must also perform an accounting, but should do so honestly without a reflexive desire to appease those who hate or allow the understandable desire to avoid conflict to cause us to abdicate our responsibility to confront problems or threats. Currently, the United States is struggling with the decision over whether to treat the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a “red line” across which no nation may cross. In the coming 12 months, another threat to the world, the specter of a nuclear Iran, will become even greater. It is vital that Americans not let the growing and strident voices of isolationism cause them to shrink from the obligation to halt the ayatollahs’ march to nuclear capability. Nor should we allow those who continue to seek to delegitimize Israel or its supporters to go unanswered.
The passage of the calendar also reminds us at COMMENTARY of the urgency of our four-fold task to speak up in defense of Zionism and Israel; to bear witness against the scourge of anti-Semitism; and to support the United States as well as the best of Western civilization. Our work is, as our editor John Podhoretz wrote back in February 2009, an act of faith in the power of ideas as well as in our own nation, and as we take inventory of our personal lives we also seek to rededicate ourselves to the causes to which our magazine is devoted.
Jewish liturgy tells us that the fate of all humanity is decided during these Days of Awe, but it also says that teshuva (repentance), tefilla (prayer), and tzedaka (acts of justice and charity) may avert the severe decree. In that spirit of reflection and dedication to carrying on our task of informing and educating our readers in the coming year, we at COMMENTARY wish you all a happy, healthy, and peaceful New Year. We’ll be back next week after the holiday.