National Atonement

Hello Rabbi Lapin,

I’ve enjoyed your podcasts and have listened to each one (just to make sure you haven’t already answered this question on one of them). Another host I listen to prompted this question. He has mentioned several times the idea that as a nation, we atoned for slavery with the blood spilt by the Civil War, but we have not yet atoned for the years of racism that followed.

I won’t argue that, as a nation, we are surely guilty of years of racism. But, do you believe that there is such a thing as a ‘national’ sin – or is it the combined sins of thousands of individuals? And can there be a ‘national’ atonement?

Mark H.

Dear Mark,

What a fascinating and complex question you raise. It is worthy of a symposium rather than a short answer, but we will take a stab at providing some direction. One of the dividing lines between those of us who believe in a Higher Authority and those who don’t is the ability to accept that justice can take place outside our own sphere of influence. This isn’t an excuse to be unjust, however, it does provide context for knowing that ultimate justice is in God’s Hands.

Since God is Eternal in time, He administers justice that man, limited to his span of life, cannot. In this sense, the point you are making that there is a difference between individuals and a nation, is applicable.

When God promises the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, we could ask why He didn’t just give it to Abraham. Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that God waited until the sins of the Canaanites had reached a level that they deserved to lose their land. God is the dispenser of ultimate justice, and that justice can be meted out over the course of decades, centuries, and millennia.

In Exodus 34:7 the description of God depicts Him as acting over the course of generations. We, however, are forbidden to do that. We do not punish a son for his father’s transgressions. Neither can we forgive someone who acted wrongly to our father. We can choose our own relationship with the person but forgiving him is not in our hands.

All this is to say that God holds nations accountable, and this accountability can span many lifetimes. We humans cannot give or receive national atonement. We are limited to acting within the confines of the present.

The word racism today has lost any meaning and instead has become a weapon that ends honest discussion. Have specific administrations (national, state, and city), organizations, and individuals acted badly in issues of race? Yes. Have other administrations, organizations, and individuals stood heroically against wrong? Yes. If there is a national accounting needed, God will administer it. All we can do today is to be the best people we can be. We can neither atone for nor reward the actions of those who came before us.

As we said, this is far from a complete answer. We hope that it gives you a starting point for thought and discussion.

Keep thinking,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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