By Charlotte Cobb, René Cassin intern
As we approach the Chagim or High Holy Days, the Jewish month of Elul comes to a close. From the Torah, Rabbis understand that Moses spent Elul repenting to G-d for the sin of the Golden Calf until he obtained G-d’s full forgiveness. In the lead up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Elul provides Jewish people with an opportunity to look at our reflection in the mirror, analyse our behaviour over the last year, and consider whether we are pleased with who is staring back.
Elul often coincides with the Gregorian months of August and September, in which some of the most tragic events in recent history have occurred. World War One began in August 1914, while World War Two began in September 1939. Six years later, the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 6th and 9th of August. Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and in September 2001 the tragic attack on the twin towers took place. This trend became so noticeable by the end of the 20th Century that in 1993, New York Times editor Bruce Handy asserted that “so many bad things happen in August because peoples’ guards are down”. Arguably, Handy’s theory was proven again this summer, when Parliament was recalled as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. The crisis has already seen some refugee families resettled and relocated to central cities across the UK.
Throughout Elul, Jewish people are encouraged to say Slichot, a series of poems and prayers with the central theme of forgiveness from G-d. By understanding how one can ask G-d for forgiveness, there is a lesson given on how one may ask for forgiveness from our fellow man. However, as the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. After all, it is only our actions that are reflected in a mirror.
The Afghanistan crisis, whilst absolutely devastating for those who had to flee from their own homes, has provided us, as well as wider British society, with the opportunity to show actions of love and compassion towards those who need it the most this Elul. Amongst harrowing headlines, heart-warming stories and images emerged as communities collected necessary items for incoming Afghan men, women and children. Local residents collected enough donated items for 30,000 refugees at Bushey Synagogue, where volunteers came from miles away to deliver buggies, clothing and books to teach English.
There is no doubt that the upcoming Chagim are related to the human rights issues faced by individuals across the world today. Before Rosh Hashanah, Jewish people consider what we can do to make the upcoming year better than the last, and where we can improve ourselves and our values. The political calendar consistently seems to provide us with tangible opportunities not only to improve ourselves, but improve the lives of others, especially those who are most in need, who may not enjoy the same human rights that we are all entitled to.
As well as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Succot shed some light on some of the key human rights issues of today. Yom Kippur is a fast day, to be observed like angels, but just 25 hours without food is nothing compared to what those who live in poverty endure constantly. Similarly, a Sukkah in the UK is most often cold, damp and crowded, but this element of Sukkot serves as a reminder for us to acknowledge and appreciate the shelter and protection we normally have, because many across the world do not.
René Cassin exists as an organisation to encourage us, the Jewish community, to understand why we have a religious obligation to protect and promote human rights for everyone, everywhere. The upcoming Chagim are a fantastic illustration of how intertwined Judaism and the continued drive for protecting human rights really are.