Rosh Hashanah 5769

Three Tried and True Paths of Mitzvah: Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah

This week's commentary was written by Professor Arnold Eisen, chancellor, JTS.

I don’t know why, but as the years pass, they seem to go by more quickly. It’s hard to believe that the Holidays are upon us once again. Where did the past year go? The world too seems to be moving faster and in the wrong direction this Rosh Hashanah; indeed it seems more fraught with danger than at any time in recent memory. The litany of trouble is all too familiar: Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and now Georgia; economies verging on recession; crisis in the health-care system; Israel under threat and seeking leadership; America in debt for oil and trade to rising powers whose interests collide with our own.

On bad days, the problems seem utterly beyond managing. On good days, they call for a degree of judgment, sacrifice, and national unity seldom seen in our country or our world.

Thankfully, the High Holiday liturgy offers repeated reminders that we ourselves will write at least some of the pages of the Book of Life. A great deal is in our hands.

The rabbis who put the High Holiday service in place many centuries ago were convinced that Jews need, at least once a year, to confront head-on the seriousness of life and the inescapability of death to better grasp the urgency and possibility of action. The repeated collective confession of sin and unworthiness is meant to help us to meet the challenges we face together, to push us past the avoidances, distortions, and pride that get in our way. But most of all, I think, the liturgy reminds us that our covenant with God is one of partnership.

The une-tane tokef prayer, sublime and fearsome in its imagery of sheep passing beneath the shepherd’s crook, the divine hand writing, the many forms of death in store—this very prayer insists, in words we sing loud and with genuine fervor, that “teshuvah (atonement), tefillah (prayer), and tzedakah (justice) avert the evil of the decree.” Our actions are of ultimate importance. For God does not rejoice in death, but rather in life.

What can this assurance mean specifically for contemporary Jews, specifically for Conservative Jews, in 5769? These suggestions are based on conversations and correspondence concerning actions taken by Conservative Jews in 5768 in the realms of repentance, prayer, and acts of justice. All point me toward hope at this New Year when hope is sorely needed. It is my fervent desire that we will read them as signs not only of hope but of inspiration for our own actions, our own paths of mitzvah.

Teshuvah

In recent months, many people (including me) were struck with more force than ever that we all have much to atone for when it comes to the most basic acts in our day-to-day life—eating, drinking, breathing, doing business, interacting with others. Assumptions of infinite plenty have proved unwarranted. The laws of kashrut, which have long attempted to focus Jewish attention on what exactly goes into our mouths, seem all the more relevant as we consider the sources of our sustenance. As we recite blessings over food, Judaism has us recognize that someone planted seeds, watered fields, and picked the plants or fruits that we are ingesting.

Hekhsher Tzedek—a project initiated by Rabbi Morris Allen, the Rabbinical Assembly, and United Synagogue this past year—builds on that recognition rather directly. It will award its hekhsher (seal of approval) only when ritual practice is aligned with strict ethical standards relating, among other things, to wages and benefits, workplace health and safety enforcement, and environmental impact. This endeavor is driven by the conviction that for Jews, and certainly Conservative Jews, punctilious ritual observance, though important, is never the end of the matter. Kashrut is meant to serve the cause of justice. The chapter of Isaiah we chant in shul on Yom Kippur makes this point with incomparable power.

We should all take pride in the Conservative rabbis and laypeople who launched the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative. They show us the way to teshuvah, not only in kashrut but in other matters as well. Such efforts might truly “avert many evil decrees” by ensuring a higher ethical standard in the treatment of others and in the consideration of our environment.

Tefillah

The Mitzvah Initiative I announced a year ago started as a pilot program in six congregations the last twelve months and has been embraced wholeheartedly. Conservative Jews in those shuls talked honestly with one another about the mitzvot that command and engage them, the Jewish actions for which they feel responsible, the observances they perform with real love—and why. They studied and discussed a variety of practices including kashrut, prayer, tikkun ‘olam (repair of the world), Shabbat and holidays, and bikkur holim (visiting the sick). They shared their convictions as to the source of the Commandments: Loyalty to parents and grandparents? Responsibility to the Jewish community or people? Obedience to words spoken by God at Sinai? Conscience? All of the above?

Many participants in the Mitzvah Initiative reported that the most difficult issue when it comes to the Commandments is their personal relation or lack thereof to God as Commander. The mahzor contains a list, boisterously chanted, of the things that “all believe.” But if one does not believe these things, and does not know that many others do not believe them either, how can one summon the kavanah (mindfulness) that prayer requires? It is also true that many congregants (perhaps most) have never practiced the art of prayer. Prayer is intrinsically difficult, and will not work without practice no matter what one believes. As Heschel trenchantly put it, the problem with a great deal of tefillah is not the prayers but the pray-ers. Without an appropriate focus on tefillah, how can we expect to cultivate a life of meaningful prayer?

This is good to ponder as we sit in shul during the High Holidays and expose ourselves to the torrent of words and images that rabbis and poets over the millennia have composed to elicit and enhance our devotion and inspire our souls. Just what are we doing as we speak and fall silent, stand up and sit down, meditate and sing? Many Conservative synagogues have worked hard on revitalizing the tefillah experience of their members recognizing that shuls succeed or fail on the strength of the davening (communal prayer). We should not let another year go by before doing all we can to get communal tefillah right.

My hope is that, through the work of the Mitzvah Initiative—which will continue to broaden its circle of influence—as well as in other contexts, Conservative Jews will address the meaning of their prayer lives. Tefillah that consistently misses the mark, sanctuaries that undermine their reason for being, pray-ers who have never been asked or enabled to clarify for themselves what they are doing when they pray—how shall we avert the evil decree if we cannot pray together with full intention?

Tzedakah

The third and final dimension of mitzvah to which we are summoned by the une-tane tokef resonates immediately with every Jew I know. For while the concept of mitzvah may be opaque or unknown, everyone can tell you why you should do a Mitz-vah. Jewish educators have successfully taught us to appreciate the fact that in our religious vocabulary tzedakah, though often translated as charity, has a far stronger linguistic connection to justice. It is immediately apparent how the tzedakah that we do helps to avert the evil decree. The problem is knowing exactly what to do, figuring out how to do it, and summoning the necessary courage.

The recently formed Commission on Social Justice in our movement—spearheaded by Rabbi Leonard Gordon of Philadelphia—is a major and welcome achievement. The Conservative Movement is putting its weight and resources behind the Commission, which will initiate and coordinate projects to bring a strong Conservative Jewish voice to national and international concerns. Their work will make us proud and stimulate some valuable thinking in our movement. I await these developments with great anticipation. Conservative Judaism has long stood out for its learning, its service to the Jewish people, and its integration of traditional religious practice with full participation in the societies and cultures of which we are a part. I hope that we will soon be known for social justice activity as well.

There is so much wrong in our world. The congregation not only rises as one, chants as one, prays as one—but often seems to sigh as one. How will we mend all that needs fixing?

Teshuva, tefillah, tzedakah. Three tried and true paths of mitzvah: three possibilities for action by us that make an obvious difference, three promising new starts in Conservative Judaism on the path to mitigating the evils that are decreed.

The hopes we express for the next chapter in the Book of Life are deeply felt. May its pages be filled with goodness and blessing. May God’s promise—and ours—be fulfilled.


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The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.