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October 3, 2014 3:42 pm

Penitence and the Bigger Picture

avatar by Ruthie Blum

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The crowd gathering at the Kotel the night before Yom Kippur.

Every year at this time, the Israeli public is treated to tips on how to get through Yom Kippur with minimal suffering. Pointers include the best methods for avoiding feeling faint from hunger and thirst, and the most effective ways to cope with caffeine withdrawal.

In addition, as soon as Rosh Hashanah ends, it is customary during the period leading up to the holiest of the Days of Awe for passers-by to wish one another an “easy fast.”

This social convention is puzzling. After all, the whole purpose of fasting is to put one’s body in a particular state of physical discomfort, in order to create the optimal conditions for undertaking a tough spiritual task. Atoning for sins against God and man is a serious endeavor, especially since doing it with genuine intent is supposed to seal one’s fate in the Book of Life.

Theoretically, then, the process of abstinence is not meant to be easy; it is geared toward maximizing the effect of prayer and confession. In practice, however, it often becomes like the proverbial forest that can’t be seen for the trees.

Indeed, no sooner does Yom Kippur end than people who spent days apologizing to their friends and family members for any wrongdoing they may have committed — and hours upon hours in synagogue beating their breasts before God — promptly return to their old habits without so much as a blink of an eye. Just try maneuvering the traffic following what in Israel is a full day of empty roads: It is business as usual among disgruntled drivers and inconsiderate pedestrians. The following morning, no vestige of atonement or forgiveness is visible. And everybody is too busy hammering away at the Sukkot they are building even to remember why they had starved themselves the day before.

Jews aren’t the only people who miss the big picture while focusing on the more controllable minutiae, however. Indeed, it is a general human tendency that has the benefit of providing a manageable universe, like a chess match played by someone who knows the function of each piece, without grasping the grand strategy or anticipating the moves of his opponent.

This is the key to understanding how and why the worst elements of history repeat themselves so seamlessly, especially when the enemies of civilized society have their eye on a long-term end game and a hefty supply of pawns at their disposal.

Take the events of the past two weeks in New York and Washington as a classic example.

While desperately trying to forge a diplomatic deal with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, U.S. President Barack Obama nevertheless finally came to realize the dangers emanating from the Islamic State terrorists taking over swaths of Syria and Iraq. He even appealed to the U.N. General Assembly to acknowledge the threat of global jihad and America’s role in confronting it, albeit with a hefty international coalition.

When drone strikes were reported to have resulted in civilian casualties in Syria, the White House suddenly altered its previous policy about collateral damage.

What it did not rush to do — or do at all, for that matter — was apologize to Israel for accosting it over civilian deaths in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge.

On the contrary, during and after a brief meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Oval Office on Wednesday (on the heels of his own speech at the U.N. General Assembly on Monday), Obama let the Israeli leader have it, big-time.

First came a harsh condemnation from White House press secretary Josh Earnest over the announcement that old tenders for construction of 2,600 apartments in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Hamatos had finally been approved. A scathing attack from State Department Jen Psaki soon followed.

“This development will only draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from even its closest allies; poison the atmosphere not only with the Palestinians, but also with the very Arab governments with which Prime Minister Netanyahu said he wanted to build relations; and call into question Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians,” she said. “This step is contrary to Israel’s stated goal of negotiating a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians, and it would send a very troubling message if they proceed with tenders or construction.”

So here we have it.

The entire militant Islamist world is openly calling for, and carrying out, a plan of “death to all infidels.” The end game is global domination by an Islamic caliphate. Israel is on the front lines of the war to destroy the West. The Palestinian leadership (and, according to polls, a majority of the population, as well) makes no bones about its being a part of this crusade, though the “moderates” among them reserve their admission for Arabic-speaking audiences.

Yet Obama and his flunkies continue to view additional housing units in Israel not only as relevant to this bigger picture, but crucial to its resolution.

Meanwhile, the chess players in Tehran are moving their knights and rooks across the board with little resistance from opponents who are barely competing at all, let alone against the clock.

It is for this lack of willingness to see the deeper, larger issues at stake that not only Jews should be paying penitence these days. Nor is any amount of “easy fasting” the way to go about it.

Ruthie Blum is the author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.'” This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

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