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A prayer for Yom Kippur?

(10/11/00 9:00am)

We stand in the midst of a period of the Jewish calendar known as the Days of Awe, or the High Holidays. Beginning an entire month before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the Jewish nation begins reciting extra prayers in preparation for the coming year. This most solemn of periods culminates in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Throughout the period, we are introspective and mindful of the impending Judgment, with the hope that God will bless us upon the new year. This year, we have but one prayer. On the eve of this Rosh Hashanah, a friend of mine was traveling with friends from his seminary in Israel to the Western Wall. He wanted to pray there before the impending holiday. It was while he was on his way to pray that his cab was stopped by stoning assailants. The driver stopped the car, and my friend and his two peers were dragged from the vehicle and beaten. Tuvia Grossman, who lives but a half-block from my house, was beaten and stabbed repeatedly simply for being a Jew. It did not matter that he was wielding no weapon and wouldn't know what to do with one anyway. It did not matter that he was just going to pray at a holy site before his holiday. Tuvi was beaten senselessly and without cause. But one prayer... Since then, the violence in Israel has blown out of control, with over 2,000 injuries and almost 90 deaths. A 12-year-old Palestinian child was mistaken among a group of rioters and gunned down. People are living in utter terror, and the violence intensifies by the moment. Panic and trepidation have taken a firm grip upon worldwide Jewry and Penn's Hillel community. How can we respond? What do we do? We know only one response. This past week, our daily prayer services on campus have been intensified and expanded in light of the recent events. Additionally, a special prayer session was called on the eve of Yom Kippur. In a time so dreadful, resembling events we know only from our history books and that preceded our lives, we respond in unison with just one cry. We cry out loud and clear; we ask only for peace. This is no simple matter. It's unrealistic to ask two sides so bitterly at odds to put down their weapons and share a mutual trust. There are weighty issues at stake, including religion, liberty and history. These things clearly demand attention, but random violence and victimization will not bring about a satisfactory resolution. No innocent students should be beaten mercilessly, and no innocent children should be callously killed. How have we come to this? In truth, that almost doesn't matter. The point is, it needs to end. There must be another alternative. Funerals must be followed by prayer or vigils -- anything constructive. To march from the funerals to violent demonstrations, characterized by the tossing of Molotov cocktails and stones, is utter madness. What good will be brought about when anger is kindled and more blood is spilled? Tuvi's story doesn't end with his week-long stay in the hospital. His plight was brought to the fore when The New York Times published his photo, depicting him bent over with blood streaming down his cheek. The Times errantly named him the same nationality as his assailants and implied he was the victim of Israeli brutality. This most tragic mistake only added insult to injury, as troubled family members expressed their frustrations to the unwitting newspaper. What ensued was nothing short of remarkable. Jews across the globe got wind of Tuvi's misfortune and flooded the Grossman home with e-mails and phone calls. There were no counterattacks or calls to violence, just brotherly support. Tuvi's sister sent out an e-mail this last Friday expressing the Grossmans' gratitude for the outpouring of love. She closed with one wish, in her words "may this coming year bring the end of this violence and may we merit to [see] the end of all violence speedily in our days." The family doesn't ask for vengeance, just peace. Let there be no more finger pointing. Let's have no more retaliations. Innocent blood is being spilled, and it has to stop. Enough flag burning, enough violent protests in Israel and in unaffiliated neighboring countries. On this Yom Kippur, we ask for only one thing. We want peace.

Hillel members find meaning in Psalms

(11/24/99 10:00am)

A group of Jewish students met Monday night to mark Thanksgiving with a religious twist, examining and reciting chapters from the Book of Psalms. The program, entitled "Tehillim Across the University," featured a discussion with University Chaplain William Gipson and Shalom Holtz, a graduate student in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and concluded with a communal reading of the Psalms. According to Hillel Religious Life Committee Co-chairperson Joshua Wilkenfeld, a College junior, people tend to think of Thanksgiving only in terms of family gatherings and turkey dinners. "The holiday is often treated as a secular vehicle, while we were trying to emphasize that Thanksgiving can be celebrated in a Jewish way," he said. One such way, he noted, is through the recitation of Psalms, which mean "tehillim" in Hebrew. At the program, Gipson and Holtz pointed out the many functions of Psalms in both Christianity and Judaism. According to Gipson, Psalms in Christianity "allow for the devout to [engage] a lived experience." Holtz, who also delivers a weekly Bible lecture through Hillel, described the Psalms in Judaism as providing a language for prayer, both as text of the prayer order and as reference for much of the rabbinic-formulated prayers. Holtz also stressed the merits of the Psalms as a literary work, complete with poetic tools like metaphor and occasional meter and acrostics. They also serve functions beyond prayer, he said. The group discussion addressed the diverse theological and literary elements of the Psalms with a specific focus on Psalms 23 and 88. Holtz selected those two as representatives of "ends of the spectrum" of the Psalms. Psalm 23, known for the phrase "God is my shepherd/I shall not want," is an example of praise. Psalm 88, conversely, is a strong "complaint." In a lively discussion, students characterized Psalm 23 as exuding a feeling of extreme confidence in God. The narrator, a metaphoric sheep in the Psalm's opening, expresses the utmost trust that God's "staff and rod will comfort" him, even in the narrow straits of the valley of the shadow of death. Frequently recited at both Jewish and Christian funerals as well as the third meal of every Jewish Sabbath, the Psalm expresses confidence in the face of adversity. Psalm 88, however, was used last night as an example of an extremely desperate plea of suffering, in which the narrator prays to God to no longer isolate or ignore him. Holtz noted that while the Psalm is not recited at fixed times in contemporary religious observance, its introductory verse indicates that it was indeed sung in Biblical times. Gipson mentioned a personal experience in which he witnessed a Vanderbilt University professor direct a distraught student to seek comfort in the recital of such "complaint" Psalms.