A Time for Moral Accounting

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Part of the American Jewish World Service’s Chag v’Chesed series

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is more than just a marker of the cycle of years and the passage of time. This annual “birthday” of the creation of the world is also an annual day of reckoning. The rabbis of the Talmud imagined God as a judge, examining each of our deeds and choosing whether to inscribe us in the Book of Life for the year ahead.


As we prepare for the High Holidays, however we celebrate or view God in our own lives, the period leading up to Rosh Hashanah can be a time for reflection and for taking an accounting of our character — who we are as individuals and as a society. Jewish tradition calls this process cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the self or the soul that can facilitate change. Once we know what our deficits and strengths are, we can work to become the kind of people and society that we would like to be. Ideally, we are always striving to embody the Jewish imperative to make the world a better place by caring for those who are most vulnerable and most in need of our compassion and our defense.

This commitment to lift up communities in need has helped drive my life of public service as a Jewish American, as an elected official and as a lawmaker.


Right now, around the time of the Jewish Days of Awe, we have an opportunity to take stock of who we are as a nation as well. This is the time my colleagues and I in Congress are debating how the federal government spends precious taxpayer funds. In setting our budget and spending priorities, we are fulfilling the legislative branch’s constitutional responsibility to draft a budget that funds the federal government. This includes important domestic programs, such as aid to survivors of disasters, which is presently on our minds in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. It also accounts for international concerns, such as defense, diplomacy and international development programs that save lives overseas. While foreign assistance is just a small percentage of our budget, it plays a vital role in promoting peace, human rights, public health and prosperity around the globe.

In a sense, we as a country are doing our own cheshbon hanefesh: accounting for how our deepest values are reflected in our federal spending.

Former Vice President Joe Biden once said: “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I will tell you what you value.” As a senator, I see my engagement in the process of budget writing as an opportunity to create a spending plan that reflects both our national interest and our sacred commitments to global justice and human rights.

Unfortunately, we are witnessing this accounting as coming up tragically short. As global challenges like climate change, humanitarian crises and unprecedented levels of migration swell, funding for international affairs and global relief is at risk. Earlier this year, the White House proposed a spending plan that would make dramatic cuts to the State Department and USAID. Some of the proposed reductions are the most stark I have ever seen in my many years as an advocate of foreign assistance. Though the final budget remains a legislative decision that must be finalized by Congress by Dec. 8, some legislators are embracing this budget blueprint as a way to restrict the way the U.S. engages with other nations.

By closing our hands to those in dire need around the world, this plan diminishes the United States’ global leadership standing, and it neglects both the values at the core of our national character and our global responsibilities — values that we cherish as globally minded Jews. That is why I’m calling on the American people and my fellow lawmakers to renew their commitment to the global programs that express our national values.

When we do our accounting this year, we need to create a plan that: supports humanitarian aid; empowers women and children; and protects the planet. Defending and upholding American values to make the world a safer, more stable and more prosperous place should be an integral part of any federal budget.

The administration’s plan leaves the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people out in the cold at a time when they need us to do more, not less, to create a more just and equitable world. As Congress debates the federal budget, I am committed to working across the political spectrum to support thoughtful foreign assistance that promotes human rights and ensures continued U.S. leadership for global justice.

This Rosh Hashanah, please join me and other people of good will as we fight to make the world a better place, end poverty and oppression and live lives that we will be proud to account for in the year to come.

Sen. Ben Cardin is the senior senator for Maryland and a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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