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Rosh Hashanah Morning 5773 / 2012

posted Sep 16, 2012, 7:01 PM by Ohel Avraham   [ updated Sep 16, 2012, 7:08 PM ]
All wise sayings come in threes. When I was a youth, my father, of blessed memory, used to have small signs posted on the walls throughout the house, frequently hand written ones. One I remember vividly, said, “Read. Think. Act.”

It was taped at eye-level, just in front of the toilet seat. “Read. Think. Act.”

You couldn’t miss it. Of course, he intended it just that way.

This was his motto for living. Learn what the world has to teach you, use your brain to draw your own conclusions, then, by all means, take positive and committed action in your life.

During the “Yamim Nora’im” -  Days of Awe - or High Holidays, we are similarly exhorted with a deeply wise three part formula in one of the most awe-filled of prayers, the U-netaneh Tokef. That 3 part formula is Teshuva, Tefillah, and Tzedakah.

“On Rosh Hashannah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die.” But Teshuva, Tefillah and Tzedakah, enable us to withstand the unbearable-ness of our sentence, or in Hebrew, "ma'avirin et roaa hagezeira.“

This core teaching of the high holiday liturgy merits deeper examination and understanding. First, on language.

Teshuva is frequently translated as turning back. We implore God as we’re putting away the Torah, “Hashivenu... venashuva,” turn us back and we will re-turn to you. But a helpful analogy comes from traveling in unknown territory. When you're out hiking in a place that's unfamiliar,  it’s important to turn every once in a while and see, “How will the world look when I come back? What will my view be, what landmarks will I see and in what relative positions?” Essentially, turning around lets you get a complete picture of the world, where you stand in all of it, where you come from and where you’ve been. And so, Teshuvah is more than just "going back", it is re-viewing the world honestly, realistically.

Tefillah is usually translated as prayer, but in Hebrew, the word carries a rich and complex range of meanings. Lehitpallel, to pray, is, in Hebrew grammar, at once both reflexive (referring to oneself) and mutual (referring to two). In the reflexive sense,  prayer is what you do to yourself.  In the best of circumstances, if you are lucky, you become your prayer. It might help to elaborate with another example in our worship service, “Nishmat kol hai tevarech et shimcha,” or, the soul of all that lives blesses Your name.  So in this sense of Tefillah, when we pray sincerely, we are trying to make ourselves a prayer, to become the blessing.

But the verb is also mutual. And that mutuality is with God. In other words, when we pray in the Jewish sense of prayer, it is a communal experience. We become one with God. Perhaps that is why community prayer, the minyan, is so important in Judaism - we exemplify our oneness with God by becoming one with each other.

And last, but certainly not least, let’s look at Tzedakah. Again, to translate from Hebrew to English, we need to convey a concept, more than a single word. Tzedakah has been translated variously as charity, justice, or good deeds. They are all correct in the sense that they convey a part of the concept. Fundamental to all these is that Tzedakah is active involvement. To use a phrase that has become cliche, it is doing things that make a difference. And the ultimate goal of that action is to make justice manifest in this world, to enable others to see and experience justice through your actions.

So, Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah are the 3 things our High Holiday prayers tell us to do. That is, Teshuvah, turn around and look at your world with an unprejudiced eye. Tefillah, be at one with your world, be present with your community and with your Creator. Tzedakah, conduct yourself such that your actions are seen as just, responsible actions. This is all that we are asked to do.

And in return, what can we expect? “Ma’avirin et ro’aa hegezeira.” The most recent Conservative Mahzor Lev Shalem translates this as “... the power to transform the harshness of our destiny,” which is different from the older Conservative Mahzor, “averts the severe decree,” These are quite different,  and so both deserve closer inspection.

In the older translation, the notion that our actions, Teshuva, Tefillah, and Tzedakah, can avert the severe decree is rooted in the mystical Kabbalistic traditions that tell us we are partners with God in the work of creation. Essentially, it says that we, through our actions, can have an effect on the course of our destiny. We are all connected, this plane of existence along with all others, we and each other, we and God, and what we do matters, to others and to God. It is audacious and empowering and humbling all at the same time. This is the mystical meaning of “ma’avirin et ro’aa hagezeira,” averts the severe decree.

But there is also a rational interpretation as well. Ma’avirin derives from the root (shoresh) aaver - to cross over. It is the same root that yields our tribal name as Hebrew - Ivri - the one who crossed over, whether spiritually, from polytheism to monotheism or physically, over the Jordan River, or metaphorically, we cross over. This grammatical form, “ma’avirin,” is causative. It means “cause to pass over”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks remarked once that one of the most difficult jobs he does is to deal with divorce cases, often trying to secure a Gett for a woman who has undergone a civil, but not a religious divorce. He said that most of that job involves actively listening, because when people realize that they are being heard sincerely, they are then able to express their pain & in doing so, reduce the hurt. In his words, it may not prevent the divorce, but it makes them able to continue with their lives.

Essentially, what the prayer and our tradition is telling us is that, “Things will happen in the coming year which we have no ability to prevent. Some of us will get sick. Some of us will grow poor. We will be afflicted, physically, emotionally, psychologically. For some of us, everything will be great. And for  some of us, we may not be among the living this time next year. It is inevitable. As much as we work and try to avoid these things, they will happen. God does not promise that we will not die. And we do not create an afterlife of happiness to console ourselves. Our world is in the here and now.

But God’s promise to us is contained in those three words -- Teshuvah, Tefillah, Tzedaka:  if we live a life of wholeness, exemplified by awareness of the world, being in relationship with it, and taking actions that make justice manifest, then whatever our fate is, we will be able to tolerate it. We will be able to understand it and accept it as what must be. It may be painful, we may not like it, but we will not suffer and we will know it is correct in the greater scheme of our existence. God will cause to pass over us, the suffering, and leave with us the greater understanding of whatever happens.

In another sense, this is hugely compassionate. These three things are all that matter in order to live a whole and fulfilled life. Teshuva, Tefillah and Tzedakah are good enough. You don’t have to be Gandi, or Moses, or Einstein. You just have to be you. You don’t have to be a hermit and leave your community. You just have to be you, in the best relationship you can manage with others in your community. Teshuva, Tefillah and Tzedakah will be your blazes, your guideposts to tell you you are on the right path.

And this is not your only chance. Our liturgy, the Unetaneh Tokef continues, “Ad yom moto techakeh lo” - right up to the day of death, the last moment of life, God accepts us. Thus, our tradition is understanding and compassionate to each of us in the unique path our life takes.

Read. Think. Act. This was my father’s motto for living. Really observe the world around you -- this is Teshuvah. Use your intelligence to understand and relate to the world and others-- this is like Tefillah. Then, take positive and committed action in your life  -- this is the same as doing Tzedakah. My father’s motto for living turns out to be a fine interpretation of the central message of today’s prayer service: teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a ha-gezeirah -- this is how our Jewish practice tells us to keep in balance, with ourselves, with others, with our environment, and ultimately, with God.

Shannah Tovah
Samuel Asher 
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