At the end of the week, I embark on a weeklong meditation retreat. As the retreat starts, and for its duration, I will not be permitted to check e-mail or use my phone. Though I’ve gone on over a dozen silent meditation retreats, the prospect of a week away from these distractions still frightens me. I will miss seeing what news stories my friends are interested in and sharing on Facebook, and being able to text friends and family to say “hi,” or wish them a Shabbat Shalom. On the other hand, I worry sometimes that all this focus on building up my virtual self—“Liking” and “Sharing” the right things, posting enticing photos on Facebook, and trying to respond to all of my e-mails—prevents me from experiencing the world around me.
With Passover less than a month away, I am thinking about our relationships with the non-stop input of e-mail and social media (made more omnipresent by our smartphones) as a kind of slavery of habit: according to the Wall Street Journal, Americans between the ages of 18-24 check their smart phones 53 times a day. Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) was proposed as an official psychiatric disorder, researchers citing American and European studies showing that up to 8 percent of people have neurologic, psychological, and social dysfunction relating to their overuse of technology. Although about a billion people use Facebook, and about half log in daily, research is only now emerging about the effects of our constant use of Facebook on our well-being.
On the holiday of Passover we celebrate our freedom from slavery with matzah, a special flat bread. We often think of matzah and chametz (the leavened bread we are prohibited from eating during Passover) as opposites. It might surprise us to realize matzah is almost the same as the chametz: chametz is spelled ח,מ,צ, chet, mem, tzaddik. Matzah, the simple bread we eat on Passover, is spelled מ,צ,ה, mem, tzaddik, hei. The only difference between chametz and matzah is the tiny gap in the hei of matzah, versus the closed top of the letter chet. A Hasidic tradition teaches that this narrow opening in the hei is the place we let God in. The closed gap in chet represents being closed off to our Source, and by extension to the vitality and wonder of the world around us.
Every year, on Passover, I take a break from Facebook. The chametz of Facebook causes us to close ourselves to feelings of vulnerability or spiritual discomfort. This may not be such a bad thing every once in a while. Unfortunately, we are not discriminate: our smartphones are often still in our hands during a moment of joy, or of a natural welling up of compassion for the people around us. Through overuse, rather than helping us connect with a sense of wondrous connection with our vitality and its Source, these distractions become chametz. Habit. Slavery.
Why then is it a mitzvah, a sacred obligation, to go back to eating chametz at the end of Passover?
Taking a break from chametz forces us to do something out of the ordinary as we clean our houses, and eat special foods. By doing this, we can better see the habits we are enslaved to, and can return with more mindfulness to our daily actions. Similarly, the silence of my upcoming retreat is a stark contrast from the normal noise of my daily life. I know, even in the midst of this noise, that I will soon be plunged into silence. That—at least theoretically—this silence is available at any moment. I know I will return to the buzz of my hyperconnected life after retreat, the chet of my existence that too often closes me off to the world around me. All it takes is a narrow space in the hei to reconnect with our Source. With this tiny “gap” in the flood of input, I will restore a sense of genuine “connection” to my state of technological “connectivity”—and remember that all this sound is surrounded by a vast silence.
I’ve been looking for meaningful full-time work since crash-landing in Philadelphia in August. After living in Boston for eight years and being known and seen as a resource in the community, I suddenly found myself a stranger again, trying to make it as a rabbi in a new city – one full of other talented rabbis, no less.
I am impatient to move from Point A to Point B: from part time work to full time work, from assistant rabbi to rabbi, from teacher to director of education.
We easily fall victim to the idea that we’ll only be happy when we find ourselves in the perfect situation: the perfect job, the perfect partner, the perfect house. This is what a friend of mine refers to as “the myth of arrival.”
If we stop and pay attention, we notice both the world around us and our sense of what we need and want are in constant flux. No situation will ever be perfect, and if it is, it won’t be. Opposed to our obsession with “making it,” this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, proposes we focus on the journey.
When the Jerusalem Temple existed, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot were each harvest festivals which culminated with people bringing offerings to the Jerusalem Temple. We no longer make a pilgrimage to a place like the Temple, but we do make a sacred journey through time: from the barrenness and desolation of winter to the mucky renewal of spring, and the color and heat of summer. During each of the three agricultural festivals, God instructs, “none shall appear before Me empty handed” (Exodus 23:15).
According to this week’s reading, the pilgrim travels to the Temple on Passover: “for in it you went forth from Egypt”: each year, we start by recognizing that we are journeying from slavery to freedom and to clarity.
What are we to carry with us?
On Sukkot, the pilgrim brings “the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field”; and on Shavuot the pilgrim brings “the results of your work in the field.” As we make the first tentative steps on our journey, we gather the first fruits of our labor, relishing in our small successes: the dissertation proposal, the first performance, the fact we even got up early to write. We then bring the results of our work in from the field.
We pause three times each year to savor our accomplishments.
The Torah also instructs, “They shall not appear before God empty-handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that God has bestowed upon you. (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). During this dark, cold time of year, the Torah asks us to free ourselves from others’ ideas of success by using the gifts we have been given. To recognize if we have been using our gifts we will have something to offer. Our role in this journey is to serve That which is Greater than Us by using our unique gifts – as gardeners, artists, caretakers, healers.
A midrash that connects our verse to the Book of Ruth (a text about Shavuot) says that “every place the people of Israel entered, they did not leave empty-handed.” This commentary suggests that God does not ask us to bring anything in particular, but is simply promising us that if we fully enter our lives, “none [of us] shall appear before Me empty handed.”
For now, as much as I look forward to finding meaningful full time work next year, I am also beginning to remember to cherish my small successes: the moments I sense warm connections forming with my patients and their families in my hospice work; the time I am making to write in the morning; the joy I feel when my teaching lights up my students’ faces with insight.
Perhaps what is most important is to “arrive” by being present to what is in-between Point A and Point B – to the journey of life, itself.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We
hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!”
These words were spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Aug. 28, 1963.
Last month I walked the streets of New York City with thousands of others to protest the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I cannot believe that over fifty years since Dr. King uttered these words, African American men and women still need to fear being stopped by the police, still suffer unfair treatment at the hands of police and other authority figures, and are still judged by the color of their skin.
Racism is deeply entrenched in our society. As a white person, I could easily ignore this fact. However, I am also a woman and a Jew. These two identities compel me to take note of injustice and to speak up.
As a woman, I know how it feels to be judged by my body and not my mind. I know how it feels to hear words spoken to me, words whose surface meaning hold no malice, but are said with a sneer or inflection that clearly communicates a sinister intent. I know how men can communicate their thoughts about you by a look or a gesture. I know how small these incidents make me feel. I can infer from these experiences how African American men and women could feel in similar situations when race is the issue instead of or in addition to gender.
As Jew, while I now hold a place of privilege in American society, I know that this has not always been the case. I read in the Bible about how we were slaves in Egypt. I study the crusades, the pogroms, and the Holocaust. I hear last week’s news of Jews being killed as they shop in a kosher grocery store in Paris. I may be in a privileged position as a white, American, Jew living in New York. But I feel in my bones the precariousness of that privilege.
So, I cannot stay silent. Like Dr. King, I too have a dream. I too dream that all people, regardless ofskin color, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or place of birth should be accorded the same rights as human beings. We are all human. We all feel pain. We all bleed. We all die. Why, oh why, must people make life even harder by hating each other instead of helping each other? This is something I will never understand. As a rabbi, I feel compelled to speak out. I believe that God created each of us in God’s image. We are all equal, and we must treat each other with the care and concern we all deserve.
In remembrance of Dr. King, on this MLK Day, I pledge to keep dreaming. I pledge to keep fighting for all people to be treated with dignity, respect, and accorded equal rights. This dream must become a reality.
“Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
True, things could have been worse for Joseph – but not much worse. First, growing up an orphan – his mother had died when he had been an infant. Yes, Joseph had a father. His Dad Jacob was alive alright, but he was most probably preoccupied with the tensions and jealousies of an extended family composed of his three remaining wives and over ten other children. There was rivalry, resentment and then hate among the brothers, culminating in their ganging up on Joseph and leaving him for dead, having thrown him into an empty well in the middle of nowhere. Fished out of there and sold into Egyptian slavery, he was framed by a sexually starved Egyptian princess, wrongly accused of attempted rape, and condemned to the dungeon. And that same Joseph – at the age of 30 – rises to become the viceroy of Egypt and the savior of the Children of Israel. Is there any connection between the two parts of Joseph’s life?
It really hurts when a seven year old falls off his bicycle and skins his knee. He wails in anguish. As parents it hurts us too, and we wish that it wouldn’t have happened. But we also know that no one every learned to ride a bike without taking a nasty fall at least once or twice.
There is no way in the world to grow, to learn, to advance and progress, without taking risks or being thrust into challenging situations, and stumbling once in a while. No pain, no gain as we say. That is the way that God created the universe, that’s human nature. It is only the possibility of failure, the experience of adversity, which steels us and refines us and pushes us forward. Only when we go way beyond our comfort zones, do we discover unexplored regions without ourselves. Real growth requires pain.
The Hasidic master Rav Mordechai Joseph Leiner of Izbitch, tells us that the deepest source of meaning in life is to be found in the fact that God does not shield us from tribulations and suffering. He watches over us, as it were, by allowing life to take its natural course. Because of His concern for our ultimate growth and success, He refrains from preventing us from falling. We have been placed in a reality that allows us to err, to know grief and heart-ache, to endure pain, for only under such circumstances do we have an opportunity to grow. It is only through the struggle, the turmoil, that we become fully alive to the significance of life. It may be that only he who has suffered may fully live.
Not that suffering guarantees meaning. It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. We may not always take advantage of the opportunity. We may wallow in grief, we may feel sorry for ourselves, we may not find the inner resources to overcome our adversity. Tragedy may break us. But if we do surmount the obstacles, we are far better off than we were to begin with.
When all is good, life is emptied of its transformational power. When you have it all, that is when all may be lost. Only through the lack, only when we are far from having consummated our desires and dreams, only when all is not revealed and clouds still cover the heavens, only them is the deepest meaning available and only then can we access the wealth of potential greatness hidden within our souls.
The very nature of creation is that God cannot simply vouchsafe to us meaning and greatness. It can only be attained though struggle and travail. May we all harness our pain as Joseph did to reach the heights of personal accomplishment and spiritual grandeur.
I wonder if I would have cried out in remonstration or supplication to the god who bid me rise up to Him1 on a flame consuming my own child! I think not. I’d have been in shock. I’d have felt summarily shut out, abandoned by this incomprehensible god who’d issued an impossible directive and then fled to the farthest reaches of an inaccessible kingdom.
I think I’d have sat in stunned silence on that mountaintop, wrestling with what to do and how to be. And it’s in light of my empathy for Abraham’s utter loneliness in the face of this terrible test that I interpret the rest of the story.
By and by, a second godly voice comes to Abraham, not the first imperious voice from On High, but, now, a still, small divine voice that seems to come from inside him, the voice we call “the angel.” This voice suggests he substitute the ram in the thicket, and Abraham offers God a gift more pleasing than blind obedience, he offers thoughtful human response, holy negotiation between creature and creator. With the help of inner divine council, Abraham offers God a loving counter-offer.
Abraham’s god seems to want to draw him near, but rather than raising Abraham to him, God’s ill-conceived invitation opens a chasm between them. Abraham is left staring into that void, terrified, trying to integrate an incomprehensible command. Gradually, as he sits, his stunned silence evolves into a meditative silence and eventually he enters a state of equanimity that allows him to hear past God’s command to the core of God’s yearning to be in relationship.
The angelic voice whispers his name (Avraham… Avraham…) and Abraham reaches out with his own gesture to close the gap between heaven and earth saying something like: “I can’t meet you on the terms you suggest, oh Holy Blessed One, but I, too, wish to be close, so how about this…”
Indeed, our tradition teaches that when God’s words are drawn through a “crucible upon the earth,” they are “purified seven-fold,”2 and that we are the fiery filter through which God’s words can be rendered seven times more precious than they were when God uttered them.3 We interpret God’s commands in our attempt to enact them, refining and enriching what God asks of us by humanizing God’s words so that they can be manifest in earthly, human terms.
What the transcendent god asked was inconceivable to Abraham’s human sensibility, but what Abraham forged by pulling God’s words through the fire of his human heart was a counter-offer that traversed the distance between God and humankind, making continued relationship possible, resuming the two-way flow that delights God.
And God blessed Abraham for offering up joy, tzchok, as in Isaac’s name, Yitzchak.4
The lesson for us is to remember to be “crucibles upon the earth,” drawing Jewish law and custom through our own filters so that we discover how to best carry out God’s Word in our own way and in our own time, refining the possibility divine words contain into do-able actions that raise us up. God’s words are not complete until we enact them, as we are able.5
1 The word for sacrifice in this week’s Torah portion is “olah,” meaning “a raising up” or a vehicle for rising.
2 Psalm 12:7
3Sfat Emet, Parasht Emor, 5634
4 This play on words attributed to Levy Yitzchak of Berdichev
5 S’fat Emet, Ibid.
Recently a woman asked me if it was okay during her prayers to pray to her deceased mother. She said,”the first thing I think of when I start to pray is my mother. My friend told me that I was being a bad Jew because there was something, my mother, between me and God. Rabbi,” she asked, “Is there something wrong with my prayers?”
This brings us directly to the question of Halloween, and what it is that we believe, or not, about ghosts. Years ago, I had a congregant whose son spoke to his beloved but deceased Bubby through a conch shell that she had given him. I once counseled a woman whose phone rang every day precisely at the same time. She was certain that it was her father calling. He had passed away several months before. Do we believe in ghosts? Why not? Religiously speaking, believing in a God you cannot see or hear or touch but still feel in deep relationship with, is even more complicated. So why not ghosts?
The Zohar, Judaism’s primer on mysticism, teaches that when a soul departs, the soul of the departed experiences three things simultaneously: a) The soul enters into the Mystery of the Infinite One. To my mind, it’s something like what happened to Yoda and Obi Wan Kanobi; they became one with the Force. b) The soul remains to comfort those who mourn. c) The soul enters into Gan Eden and experiences the delights that he or she enjoyed while on earth.
What I told the woman who asked me about praying to her mother is the following.
“I believe that your relationship with your mother is foundational in your understanding of the transcendent. I do not believe that you confused your mother with God, but that she is the closest access point you have to loving energy beyond our own realm.”
Do we believe in ghosts?
I’m not sure, nor am I that curious. It doesn’t make someone a “bad Jew” to answer this question with a “yes.” Tevye’s wife certainly believed in ghosts. I’ve performed several weddings where the spirit of late relatives, mothers, fathers, grandparents, were invited, and welcomed by name.
In the end, I am glad that my friend is still comforted by her mother in this different capacity, that a young boy with his conch shell still has an active connection to his deceased grandmother, and that at 3:15 every afternoon, when her phone rings, my former congregant still has her father.
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Every year, I do my best to engage with the process of teshuvah (repentance) during the High Holidays. A few weeks ago, I made resolutions, asked for and received forgiveness, cast away my sins, felt spiritually renewed…and then the craziness of the year began, as it does each year: right now, my partner and I are settling into our new apartment and unpacking boxes. I am starting new jobs while getting acquainted with a new city. Despite my best intentions, I’ve lost sight of the higher self with whom I am trying to align. Like many of us, I am overwhelmed with the business of life at this time of year.
At the end of this week, we enter the month of Marcheshvan, most notable for its lack of holidays. And last week, at the end of Sukkot, Jewish communities around the world began to add the words to the Amidah that we will say until Passover: mashiv ha’ruach u’morid ha’gashem (“the One who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall”).
Why do we say this as we enter Marcheshvan?
According to the 12th century commentator, Rashi (in his comment on Lev 25:21) the ancient Israelites would “sow…in Marcheshvan, and reap in Nisan.” Planting seeds at this time could be precarious: Marcheshvan’s ancient name, Bul, suggests it was capable of bringing both floods, and raindrops (from Mar-). The story of Noah’s flood that we read this week expresses our anxiety that the small and fragile seeds we plant, whether physical or spiritual, will be washed away by disaster. In our own lives, the intentions we sow need a special kind of nourishment.
A Hasidic teaching from the Alter Rebbe explains that water, the essential ingredient for life, is an expression of Divine love. Rain is life-giving, and the slow downpour of water sustains the world – whereas a flood of water overwhelms us and is destructive. After the holiday season and the intimate moments with God it hopefully brought, we ready ourselves for the long period until Hannukah by praying that God hold back the flood, showering us instead with the divine “rain” we need in order to continue to nourish the seeds of the highest intentions that we sowed during the High Holidays.
As we emerge from the aseret y’mei ha’t’shuvah (“the 10 days of repentance”), we pray for the capacity to integrate the insights we received during this time into the everyday. During the onslaught of the ordinary, it is all too easy to succumb to old habits. But as we enter Marcheshvan we are invited to consider how to more mindfully re-enter the day-to-day business of our own lives. This month gives us the space we need to bring the resolutions we made during the “high” of these holidays into our everyday functioning. And during this time, along with our ancestors, we ask for the blessing of steady rains to nourish the seeds we have planted.
Whether it is recommitting to a regular spiritual practice, to deepening our learning, or to nourishing our creativity, only we know what nourishment and love will help the seeds of our intentions break open and take root in the ground of our daily lives. Through careful tending, when the time arrives to stop praying for rain at the beginning of Passover, we will be able to reap the fruits of our labor and truly taste our freedom.
I recently had the privilege of serving on a Beit Din (Rabbinic Court) for an individual who was converting to Judaism. It was, as I have found all prior instances, a powerful and deeply moving experience. Listening to this individual explain his Jewish journey and the reasons he wanted to convert nearly moved me to tears. His story affirmed, for me, all the spiritual and social good Judaism can provide at its best. As his face beamed with pride as he emerged from the mikveh, I knew that he had made a decision that would bring him immense meaning and joy.
But there was one aspect of my conversation with the individual that troubled me. Part of the Beit Din process involves asking the conversion candidate a variety of questions, both about his past and his present. While he answered most questions capably and with passion, there was one question I asked him for which he lacked much of an answer: “who is God to you?” I was curious to learn more about his theology and wanted to know what metaphor of God he most resonated with. Not only was he unable to verbalize anything concrete, but he also seemed to suggest that this hadn’t been a point of emphasis in his conversion course. I am both not surprised and deeply disappointed.
The Jewish community has just emerged from our annual crash course in theology. It is impossible to read the High Holy Days Mahzor and not think about God. The primary metaphor of Rosh Hashanah is of God as sovereign sitting in judgment over our deeds from the past year, while the primary metaphor of Yom Kippur is of us asking God to exercise mercy and restraint in judging us. Perhaps the fundamental challenge I face in leading High Holy Days services is both offering the metaphor of God in judgment, for those with whom it resonates, and critiquing that metaphor, for those with whom it is deeply alienating. (Full disclosure: as a process theologian, I reject both metaphors and prefer a partnership model.) I spend a good deal of my English speaking roles during the service explaining the liturgy and offering alternative ways to understand the liturgy that speak to different views of God.
But regardless of which approach of God one embraces, I think it is fundamental that one embrace (even temporarily) a view. To ignore theology, on the High Holy Days, dilutes (though does not eliminate) the efficacy of our experience. If God is irrelevant, then the only reasons to come to services on the High Holy Days are: 1) cultural/social (“because that’s what Jews do on the High Holy Days”) or 2) purely personal (i.e. a self-improvement contemplative practice). oth of these goals are worthwhile in and of themselves, but the process is incomplete without God. That’s why I am saddened when I read posts that take God out of the High Holy Days, and why I cannot be a Rabbi In Favor Of Atheism. Grappling with God (along with Torah and Israel) is an essential component of what makes us Jews; we cannot abdicate this struggle. To be clear, there is no single approach to understanding God that I am advocating; only that one commit oneself to having a view about who or what God is to them and letting that view inform the way he or she engages with the world around us.
So I challenged the conversion candidate to keep thinking about God. I gave him a few different metaphors for God to consider and urged him to keep thinking about it, to keep struggling with trying to articulate who or what God is for him. I advised him that this journey never really ends, and that he might find himself holding radically different views as his life circumstances change. And I encouraged him that the struggle is worth it and will add richness and depth to his new Jewish identity.
As we cross from 5774 to 5775, the Akeida (the Binding of Isaac, which is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah) tells us to look both ways so we can perceive the fullness of our reality.
As he looked up, Abraham saw the place from afar (Genesis 22:4)—three days before, God commanded Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering on a mountain. Even though he is still far away, the moment Abraham sees the mountain he begins to anticipate his grief. He doesn’t raise his eyes again for a long time.
We all know what this feels like. This past summer, many of us stopped looking up as well. We “saw from afar” news of rockets falling on Israel and on Gaza, the murder of another black child—this time in Ferguson—the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, Robin Williams’ suicide, and the spreading threat of ISIS. We were flooded with images of beheadings, pleas from helpless parents for the release of their captive children.
And to avoid the pain, we learned to look down. And in looking down, we missed everything else.
Did you hear – just this month – about teachers at an elementary school in Cudahy California, who got together to donate 154 sick days to a Carol Clark, a sixth grade teacher who was diagnosed with breast cancer? Or about the zoo in Victoria that released five endangered species, including Tasmanian devils, back into the wild after their populations grew back to a healthy size? Or about the UN report that the ozone layer is recovering?
As Abraham looked up, he saw a ram (Genesis 22:13)—in Rashi’s commentary on the Akeidah, he quotes a midrash that the ayil, the ram, is one of the ten things in existence before the creation of the world. According to this midrash, the ram was always there and Abraham just never saw it. With his eyes cast to the ground, Abraham has forgotten something central about the very nature of the world around him.
And with his gaze lowered, Abraham nearly kills his son Isaac (and some say, the news of what Abraham has gone off to do actually kills Sarah). In the moment he raises the knife above his head, Abraham has come to imagine that nothing else is possible. But when he lifts his eyes, he sees a new possibility, a new way of being in the world.
Like Abraham, we learn to expect disappointment and loss, rather than to notice the unexpected wonders that surround us. In order to protect ourselves, we learn to lower our gaze. We get into the habit of looking down at the brokenness and shadows in our world, jobs and relationships. And like Abraham, we cannot perceive reality until we start to look up and see that something else is possible. The Akeida comes to us this year to teach us to look both ways before crossing.
How do we do this?
Before bed each night, my partner and I share with each other five things that we are grateful for. Some people keep a gratitude journal. There’s even a Facebook meme going around of sharing what you’re grateful for, and tagging other people to do the same. There are so many ways to strengthen our instinct to look up, and get better at noticing what is going right.
On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate yom harat ha’olam, the birth and renewal of our world. As we cross into 5775, we aren’t merely surviving anymore. We aren’t just trying to hold back the knife, or protect ourselves from what is going wrong. We can and must work on flourishing—lifting our eyes to find a saving ram, connecting to the nourishment of our food, feeling the love of an old friend.
Before you cross into the new year, take on a practice that will help you break the habit of just looking down, and help you to look up and see what is good in this world.
We live with a practical tradition. We begin the New Year with ten days devoted to introspection. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are asked to review our past; failures and victories, to evaluate our relationships and how we can make things better for ourselves and those we care for. We take stock of our lives and try to put ourselves back on the right path. “Chet” is the Hebrew word commonly translated as “sin.” It is derived from the term which means “to miss the target.” The assumption is that sin is a mistake; an action we would correct if possible. It is human to make mistakes—it is brave to try to correct them. This makes “Teshuvah” translated as “to return” an attainable task. We are not expected to be perfect but we are expected to clean up the messes we have made.
Our tradition identifies two categories of relationships; those we have with each other and those relationship we have with God. The mistakes we make fall into these categories as well: The ways in which we hurt others and the ways in which we hurt God.
Isn’t it incredible that we can hurt God? Some may disagree and ask, “How can a perfect God be concerned with our sins?” In my opinion it is a measure of God’s love for us that God created a relationship in which God is affected by our actions. And, while some may say this is only a metaphor —I am not so sure. If one truly believes in the concept of “Tikun Olam,” and recognizes our responsibility to fix the world, how can God not be disappointed and hurt when we fail?
This interplay between “Teshuvah” and “Chet,” our relationship to others creates a very involved dynamic and ideally forces us to face our frailties and responsibilities. We have made mistakes—how can we atone for them? We are always in need of repentance and atonement.
We learn from the Midrash (Mishle 6:6):
The students of Rabbi Akiva asked him, “Which is greater, Teshuvah or Tzedakah?
He answered them, “Teshuvah, because sometimes one gives Tzedakah to one who does not need it. However, Teshuvah comes from within (it is always needed).” They (the students) said to him, “Rabbi, have we not already found that Tzedakah is greater than Teshuvah?”
How does one explore Judaism and derive deep meaning from it? What if you want to strengthen your Jewish identity? One way is to become introspective and find yourself in intense moments we create through silent ritual and prayer. This is the essence of “Teshuvah,” the “return to one’s tradition. This is one way, and it is a good way. But it is not the only way.
Another way to achieve this goal is to immerse oneself in Tzedakah. To experience the intensity of giving a bag of school supplies to a child who has never had them before, delivering 20,000 pounds of food to a shelter in Mississippi or building a house in Appalachia—is a way becoming close to God.
I can tell you this; when I am alone and feel in the dark, scared and aware of my mortality, when I am in pain, it is the Tzedakah experiences I dust-off and recall. They bring me back. Ritual and prayer are vital expressions of my identity and form the basis of my observance, but my humanity comes from Tzedakah.