Sometimes, the deck seems stacked before we even begin the game. The events of the world appear larger than life, out of our control. And yet, Rosh Hashanah teaches us, we CAN have an impact on the world around us. We can change the course of destiny with the powerful tools of tefilah, tzedakah, and teshuvah. This works as we look inward at our own lives as well as outward at society writ large.
The Urgent Call to Tefillah, Tzedakah, and Teshuvah
The world is a beautiful and broken place.
Tonight, we commemorate our planet’s birth, announcing our gratitude for its splendor and magnificence. Yet, even as we celebrate the miracle of creation, our tradition hastens to remind us that there is still much to be done. The mission of the Jewish people has always been to bring light to the earth, to help make it—through our teaching and our actions—a better place for all its inhabitants.
The drama of these High Holy Days is a shared journey from brokenness to restoration. Bearing witness to injustice and sin, we commit ourselves to the process of making right what has—before our own eyes—gone terribly wrong. As human beings bearing a divine spark, our unique charge is to heal and repair.
The enormity of the work boggles the mind and threatens to dampen the spirit. The scope of challenges seems endless; and even as we know that it is not our responsibility to complete the task, still it can feel too hard to even know where to begin.
Our tradition asks us to do what seems impossible. But it also gives us the tools we need to make our progress toward success. In particular on this day, we turn for inspiration to Rosh Hashanah’s most iconic prayer: Unetaneh Tokef.
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן.
On Rosh Hashanah this is written; on the Fast of Yom Kippur this is sealed: How many will pass away from this world and how many will be born into it. Who will live and who will die…
Most modern Jews rightly reject the notion that God is in the business of doling out death sentences. But the text still rings true, especially when we consider the words of Ecclesiastes: to everything there is a season: a time to be born and a time to die. We are reminded that there is a natural order to the rhythm of life and death; and perhaps this is the destiny that Unetaneh Tokef invokes, the inescapable cycles whose purposes and causes elude our understanding. The “writing” and the “sealing” of Unetaneh Tokef are symbols, reminding us that we are all subject to forces beyond our control.
And yet, we are not entirely helpless. We wield the creative power to shape the world in which we live. This message is the climax of our prayer:
וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.
As we’ll read tomorrow morning: “But through return to the right path, through prayer and righteous giving, we can transcend the harshness of the decree.” Or, as some of us may remember the phrasing of the red Gates of Repentance: “But repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.”
Somehow, our prayer insists, human beings have the power to affect the cycles of life and death that appear beyond our grasp. This power is directed inward: through repentance, prayer, and charity, we can transform ourselves into a new person with a new fate. And this power can also face outward: these same processes are the tools we need to impact a world that seems at first glance utterly unconcerned with our existence.
These three themes--tefillah, tzedakah, and teshuvah, to list them in the order in which they originally appear in the Talmud—mark the course of our work. They apply when we look inward to the unfolding of our own lives and when we look outward to the cascade of events in the world around us. We turn our attention to both dimensions, first the more modest scale of personal and interpersonal change and then the larger aspect of social action that impacts society writ large.
Let us begin with tefillah, “prayer.”
Our professional and personal lives often demand that we present ourselves as competent and complete. Tefillah is one way we can avoid fooling ourselves into thinking that we are the center of our own universes.
Jewish prayers both elude and exalt. We flinch from their unfamiliarity and—sometimes in the same moment—take comfort in our tradition’s astonishing stability. There is power in these prayers, a power to transport us away from these seats in this room and to connect us with a grander mythic drama that plays out over centuries and millennia instead of mere lifetimes.
Blessed are You, Adonai, Creator of twilight and dusk.
Wellspring of blessing, Power eternal, You are the One who gives and renews all life.
Avinu Malkeinu, inscribe us in the Book of Redemption and Renewal.
What would it mean to live by these prayers? How would our lives be different if we took a bit more seriously the ancient wisdom expressed in these sacred meditations, a wisdom that declares that there is purpose and intention suffusing creation; that every moment of life is precious; that our actions—even those that go unseen--matter not only in our own mind but in the great cosmic unfolding of the universe? To engage in tefillah is to imagine a life grounded in these principles and—if we like what we see—to bring ourselves a little closer to the behaviors they imply.
Through tefillah, we can access the power to genuinely change, to uncover abiding moral truths that can guide us ever closer toward the highest version of our selves.
Next: tzedakah. Sometime translated “charity,” other times “righteousness” or “justice.” Regardless of the interpretation, the concept of tzedakah teaches us that not only can we affect the world around us; we are obligated to do so.
As Jewish schools have taught for generations, tzedakah can be a catchall term for good deeds or helpful donations of any sort. However, the formal category of tzedakah in Jewish law is more narrow, referring strictly to gifts of money for the poor. The purpose of tzedakah is to sustain those who are vulnerable of losing their lives, literally providing for their basic needs.
This form of tzedakah is framed as an interpersonal mitzvah, a small but meaningful intervention that can have a real and lasting impact. Jewish tradition urges us always to respond positively to a person in need, even if all we have at the time is an encouraging word. Everyone can—and must—give tzedakah, even those who are themselves dependent on these donations. In sum, we are not permitted to give up when facing tremendous need; rather, each of us is called to give what we can, to make a difference from one person to another.
If tefillah is about internal growth and tzedakah is about reaching out to those around us, then teshuvah, “repentance,” is a blending of the two.
Teshuvah is essentially composed of both internal and external actions. Internally, we acknowledge what we’ve done wrong and commit ourselves to doing better in the future. And teshuvah also involves reaching out to those we’ve harmed and asking for their pardon, which we earn through demonstrating a truly contrite heart and a commitment to mend our ways. In short, first we feel sorry and then we say it; if we are sincere, then usually we will merit forgiveness.
Teshuvah doesn’t erase the past, and it certainly doesn’t justify or excuse our mistakes. But wonderfully, teshuvah does allow us to become better people and to rebuild damaged relationships. The internal and the external blend in teshuvah, creating new possibilities that could never has existed without it.
Taken together, tefillah, tzedakah, and teshuvah constitute the essence of the High Holy Days and chart a course to wholeness within and connection without. They are the way we avert, even in small ways, the otherwise inevitable consequences of human behavior.
We have looked inward at the effect these forces have on the lives we lead every day. In looking outward as well, we see them as essential ingredients to a meaningful and lasting impact on the world. As we face the seemingly overwhelming tide of injustices that inundate our society, when the issues seem bigger than life—already written and sealed—Judaism insists that we can and must do our part to bring healing.
When we consider this task of repair that lies ahead of us, it is so tempting to focus on the evils of others, to decry and defame the adversaries whose actions we blame for the rottenness of our society. But I defy anyone here to read this book [the machzor] cover to cover—and to scour the even larger volume we’ll use on Yom Kippur—looking for a single passage that focuses on the prayer, charity, or repentance of someone else. No, the High Holidays strive to draw our attention to our own actions, to the ways in which we ourselves have been complicit in the evils we encounter, and to strive to commit to a healthier and more just path in the year ahead.
And so we turn once again to tefillah, tzedakah, and teshuvah. Just as they charted the course toward internal and interpersonal improvement, so are they our guide to moral and sensible social action.
In this dimension, tefillah means more than saying prayers. It means getting in touch with the deepest part of our selves to more fully understand the purpose that animates our lives. As David Ariel, former president of Oxford University’s Jewish Studies center, writes: “The primary purpose of prayer [is] to educate us in the sacred beliefs of Judaism through regular repetition and reinforcement.” In other words, we can think of tefillah as a process of values clarification, discerning for ourselves which vital aspects of moral life speak to us most clearly.
Perhaps, through sincere reflection and study, some of us will raise freedom as a top priority. Others will focus on health, love, or peace. The siddur, the classic book of Jewish prayers, is overflowing with values that we could spend our life promoting. Each of us can find a unique voice in humanity’s moral chorus, bringing our personal dreams and experiences to bear in our project of healing the world.
What is not contained within tefillah is letting someone else instruct us on how to think or identify for us what’s most important. It is exceptionally easy in this age of social media to lose ourselves in the opinions of others, to choose our concerns by what our friends care about, and to cede authority over what’s most urgent to influencers online and on TV. As political scientist Shanto Iynegar has recently demonstrated, the strongest aspect of Americans’ identity today is not religion or ethnicity but rather political party. And since parties come part-and-parcel with ideological platforms, it’s easier today than ever before to outsource our moral compass to the people with whom we feel we have the most in common.
But tefillah challenges this ready-made approach to moralizing. Of course we should open ourselves up to the perspectives of others—Jewish prayer is, by nature, communal. But unless we take responsibility for our own moral stances, they will be as superficial as prayers recited by rote or routine. Introspection and reflection are vital components of tefillah that help us resolve our own most important beliefs.
Flowing from the moral discernment of tefillah is the action and advocacy of tzedakah. To the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, tzedakah meant protecting the poor and the vulnerable and standing up for what’s right even—and especially—when it’s not popular.
In this light, tzedakah is our call to engage in social justice. We promote the causes we care about and bring our advocacy to the places where they matter most. Perhaps we are called to speak up at our workplace or school; perhaps we petition companies and corporations to adopt more just practices; and perhaps we turn to lawmakers and executives to change public policy to better align with our values. Motivated by what we believe in, we lift our voices where they, in harmony with others’, can truly make a difference.
This may, at times, involve advocacy on issues with unlikely partners and allies. It’s easy in today’s hyper-partisan environment to dismiss anyone who identifies with a different political label as wicked, selfish, or, at the very least, stupid. But a commitment to honest tefillah and meaningful tzedakah encourages us to find common ground with people with whom we may often disagree. As Rabbi Michael Latz of Minneapolis has put it, “I’m willing to swallow hard and work with a lot of folks so we can win the policy changes that will impact people’s lives.”
Take as one example a social justice action that Oak Park Temple was proud to join this summer. On the Jewish day of mourning, Tisha B’Av, an interfaith coalition of advocates convened on an immigration detention center in Kankakee, Illinois. There, Christians, atheists, Muslims and Jews of many races and backgrounds joined together to lift our voices for just and compassionate immigration policies in our state.
This was an unlikely coalition, in no small part because it contained both ardent Zionists as well as prominent anti-Zionists. One of the organizers has likened the Zionist dedication to the Land of Israel with the Nazi slogan “blood and soil,” a position that other participants, including Oak Park Temple, forcibly decry. But with a specific purpose in mind, everyone set aside these significant disputes to join in an urgent moment of moral unity.
Tzedakah means getting things done. Whatever fears of association we might have toward a person or group we’d prefer to excommunicate, commitment to the ideals of justice can motivate us to come together for a higher cause.
By asserting that no one is completely “off limits,” we open ourselves to teshuvah in a profound and public way. We don’t have to agree—indeed, respectful disagreement remains vital and necessary. But if personal teshuvah meant making peace in the wake of wrong actions, an outward-facing teshuvah involves openness to changing our minds when confronted with new and compelling ideas.
It can be hard to change one’s course, especially when we spend so much time surrounded by like-minded individuals. So we depend on occasions like the High Holidays to interrupt our daily routines and to remind us to think a different way. Though it may be scary--teshuvah always is—our integrity insists that we keep open the possibility that our opinions can evolve, and we can take this opportunity to seek out new voices that may broaden our understanding.
One great way to engage in this important work is a class that Rabbi Weiss will be teaching twice in the upcoming year. It’s called Machloket Matters, referring to the traditional form of Jewish dispute that affirms as a matter of principle the dignity of one’s opponent. You can find details about this six-week course in your program books, and I highly recommend it for anyone who is looking for tools to engage critically with opposing ideas.
As well, using our laptops and smart phones as gateways, we can all connect at any time with merely a few taps of our fingers to countless hours of thoughtful content from people we might in our normal daily routines prefer to shun. Blogs, news outlets, and social media groups can all expose us to new views at a pace we can control. I myself have taken on a practice of listening to podcasts from diverse political perspectives to develop empathy with people I might not otherwise engage. There are myriad routes we can follow to dynamic discussion from differing viewpoints, not to mention forums and platforms for sharing our own views with openness and respect.
This commitment to flexible thinking opens us up to true teshuvah. Combined with our commitment to tzedakah and a sincere approach to tefillah, we can become ever more reflective and effective. With these processes as our guides, we can select and promote causes that emerge from our sincere beliefs, seek out and engage with allies who share our convictions, and present our case to the powers that be with a humility that says, “I know I might be wrong, but for the purposes of today, I truly believe with all my heart, that I am right.”
This is the recipe our tradition provides for creating an elixir that empowers us to overcome the forces that appear beyond our control, serving as agents of change that each of us—unique on earth— can make in the world.
The great shofar is sounded; the still, small voice is heard.
When the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah, it is as if it is telling us:
Awake, you sleepers from your sleep!
Rouse yourselves from your slumber!
Examine your deeds, and return to God.
Remember your Creator, you who are caught up in the daily routine,
[and do not lose] sight of eternal truth.
This “eternal truth,” is that each of us can affect the moral balance of the universe. We see the earth as “half innocent and half guilty,” such that any one of our actions might tip the scales in the eyes of divine judgment.
Or in other words: “repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.” This is the miracle and the marvel of Rosh Hashanah, the profound empowerment embedded in this period of reflection. We are urged through the liturgy to wield this power responsibly, to engage in sincere tefillah, brave tzedakah, and open-hearted teshuvah.
This is the task that lies before us, not only for the span of these High Holy Days but also for every day between one Rosh Hashanah and the next. Let us accept it with humility as we strive ever to reach closer to the freedom embedded in this most profound and sacred truth.
[Sermon Anthem = “Emet” by Josh Warshawsky]
 Palestinian Talmud Ta‘anit 2:1, 65b.
 Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:2.
 Ibid. 10:5
 BT Gittin 7b, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 258:1.
 What do Jews Believe (Schocken Books, 1995), p. 195.
 Private correspondence.
 Misheh Torah, Repentance 3:4. Translation from Mishkan Hanefesh: Rosh Hashanah, p. 203.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”