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President Obama’s First Yom Kippur

President Obama isn’t much of a church-goer, having dropped that practice after moving from Chicago, but he does take time to publicly commemorate various religious holidays in the White House. Mr. Obama has koshered the White House kitchen for Hanukkah celebrations and hosts annual Passover seders, complete with gefilte fish and matzo ball soup. He hosts Iftar dinners in the State Room for Ramadan. Naturally, he and the First Lady light the White House Christmas tree and host the Easter Egg Roll.

But as the President slogs through an interminably rough year, his dismal approval ratings the butt of jokes on Saturday Night Live, he might try an innovation and become the first president in American history to observe Yom Kippur in the White House. Sure, the Jewish Day of Atonement – a fast day – would lack the press-friendly “optics” of a multi-course seder or Iftar dinner. On the other hand, Americans who are used to seeing this normally peripatetic president winging from Democratic fundraiser to the golf course and back might be impressed to see him schedule a few hours for quiet contemplation. A Barack Obama Yom Kippur would certainly set the reset button with alienated Jewish voters, and may help Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections. But the president better hurry: Yom Kippur begins at sundown Friday and ends twenty-five hours later.

He wouldn’t have to fast or even attend synagogue. Instead, Mr. Obama could simply turn off all his electronic devices and consider his “year in review.” With the Yom Kippur prayer book as a reference, he could ask himself whether any of the transgressions that Jews cop to on the Day of Atonement are things that he may have committed, either intentionally or unintentionally: sins of arrogance, scoffing, accusing falsely, entrapping a neighbor, showing contempt for teachers and parents, bribery, denial and false promises, haughtiness, baseless hatred, failure to extend a hand, gossip-mongering, and obstinacy. For Jews, the list is much longer, but no need to overwhelm the president during his first Yom Kippur. This rap sheet should be plenty to chew over.

Jews admit to each of these transgressions and dozens more, and we do so in the plural. This is because on Yom Kippur we are judged not only individually but communally, and we share responsibility for one another in this way. Yom Kippur culminates a 40-day period when we are meant to assess our priorities, actions and relationships, and make necessary adjustments. We are meant to ask forgiveness from individuals we may have wronged, and forgiveness from God for the sins that only He can forgive. It is not an easy exercise. It is, however, a very healthy and cathartic one.

Ironically, Yom Kippur is a happy day. Although we thump our breasts with each recitation of a wrong we admit to sotto voce, we are optimistic that God will accept our authentic expressions of regret when we also demonstrate we are taking action to correct the wrong behavior. We are grateful for the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and begin anew. 

President Obama has no problem apologizing. He is often filled with regret, but almost never for the things that require it. Instead, he apologizes over matters with which he has no connection, using his expressions of remorse to demean some aspect of American society. This week at the U.N., with violence and instability raging in the Middle East and Vladimir Putin eating the Ukraine for breakfast, Mr. Obama apologized for the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. After the 2012 attack on the embassy in Benghazi and the murder of Ambassador Stevens and U.S. Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith, he apologized to Muslims over the obscure video his administration outrageously claimed sparked the attacks. It took months after the disastrous Obamacare roll-out for the president to apologize in a begrudging manner for having endlessly repeated his promise that “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.”

Apologies are just empty words unless they are backed up by a change of course. Obama’s misplaced apologies and failure to acknowledge serious errors has been one of his signature weaknesses. He seems almost constitutionally incapable of authentic personal remorse.

Everyone makes mistakes, and misjudges situations. Most people behave badly at times. But Americans are a forgiving people. If they saw Mr. Obama willing to let the engines of Air Force One cool down for a while and instead do the hard work of sitting still and considering the impact of his words and deeds, they would be heartened: A mature adult had finally arrived on the job. He would also demonstrate that humility doesn’t detract from greatness; it is a prime ingredient for greatness.

If the president did this, I for one would celebrate with a bowl of matzo ball soup. 

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