Teshuva, Tefillah utzeddakh – maavirin et roah ha gzeira.
Repentance, Prayer, and charity lessen the severity, the evil of the decree. The line that is at the center of all of the High Holidays. But what is the evil decree?
In this year, I don’t think it has been hard to see what was the evil of the decree –for our society and country, for our people, for the world. We have seen terrorist attacks and experienced the fear and despair that they sow: Orlando, San Bernadino…Jerusalem, Tel Aviv Paris, Brussels, Nice, and countless others…
And you don’t have to go so far. Chicago has seen more murders and death than in recent years. Just there, on the other side of the neighborhood, of Austin. I remember when my wife told me she was having trouble sleeping after she heard about the murder of an OPRF high schooler this summer.
The societal divisions over the role of police and of the persistence of racial inequalities. Heated arguments exposing rifts and differences that are deeper than ever, that are shocking.
A Middle East still in flames. In Syria. Israel no closer to peace, but with daily conflict and violence ever closer, more intractable. More personal than ever. From guns and explosions to knives in the back.
And right here, one of the most divided political seasons that anybody can remember.
And beyond all of these struggles, the roah ha gzeira, the evil circumstances of the decree, that are over all of our heads this year, are our own life circumstances that we are praying for. Those questions and loads that we each have weighing on our shoulders and souls and hearts.
On Rosh Hashannah, we wish that the decree of the next year be a better one.
The evil lessened. A more joyous and worry free year. A lighter of spirit year. A sweeter year.
But what can we do?
There were too many times from this pulpit this year that I had to dedicate a misheberach or a kaddish yatom, a mourner’s kaddish.
What can we do?
According to the unetaneh tokef prayer, it is tzedakkah, tefillah, u’teshuvah, that lessen the severity of the decree.
Charity, Repentance, and prayer.
They are the tools we possess to combat the evil decree.
One of the times I have experienced the roah ha’gzeira, the evil of the decree, most powerfully was in France after the Charlie Hebdo attacks a little over a year ago. A story that has been on my mind this year as the terrorism in France has continued, in a country that I grew up in and where my parents still live.
I was in France during the Charlie Hebdo attacks. I can remember the atmosphere of fear, despair, and chaos. It was their first major terrorist attack and it struck at the very foundations of the country. Terrorists affiliated with ISIS stormed the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and opened fire on the editorial staff in their weekly news meeting.
The whole country was beset by an evil they had not known previously. (fast) The killers were at loose. The public feared new attacks. Everyone here can remember the same shock and fears after 9/11. There were police and military all over the country. What struck the country so deeply was that it was an attack on its most dear values and symbols. Free speech and political expression – that were decimated before their eyes.
I was in the middle of it as I was scheduled to travel from the south of France to Marseilles in the days after the attacks to lead services over Shabbat at the Conservative synagogue there.
What precautions could be taken? – I remember thinking as I travelled on the trains in the heavy atmosphere of those days.
I did not wear my kippah, because I knew that Jews were primary targets of the terrorists but also has been targeted for years by more petty criminals.
And I was a little uneasy when I noticed that my carriage was mainly populated by visibly Muslim French passengers and that the person sitting next to me was a young Muslim man.
During the train ride, I hid my Torah reading, curling the page my way so that he wouldn’t see the Hebrew.
But eventually I relaxed and he read over my shoulder, and I almost jumped in my seat when I heard, etes vous rabbin? Are you a rabbi?
I had to answer ‘oui,’ yes – he asked me why aren’t you wearing a kippa then?
And he was a good person. He was critical of me for not wearing a kippah and giving in to a fear that he dismissed. And he was friendly and curious about my background and being a rabbi. He had never met one before. I don’t think he had ever met a Jew before.
We had disagreements. He asked me what I thought about the actions of the Israeli military? And he accused Israel of doing to the Palestinians what had been done to the Jews in World War 2.
I argued back with another narrative. He paused. He had never heard the arguments. He had never heard another side. As we parted, he seemed satisfied from the conversation and said shalom to me as the train stopped.
In that situation, we had each learned a lesson: to be more charitable to each other. We cannot judge other people because of appearances. We can’t let our fears get ahead of us. And the situation is always more complicated that we think. We may hear one point of view our entire lives and then when we’re up against the other in real life, it can suddenly feel very different.) Exchange and being charitable to others creates movement and flow when there had been blockage and barriers.
That is tzeddakah, to be charitable. To seek connection. As we do during the days of awe. We ask for forgiveness from those we wronged and look to repair relationships that have suffered over the year. As the tradition asks of us –we approach them three times, even if they rebuff us.
We force ourselves to understand that we too have been entrenched in a position. And to integrate that dialogue, restarting a relationship does not mean losing what we stand for. It only means taking our position – what we think – and bringing it into real life face to face interaction. Right or left –out of the realm of our heads and emotions and into reality. Our distrust is lessened after talking. My distrust was lessened after talking to the man on the train. It removed a cloud that I had hung on everybody’s heads there. It made my step lighter.
Being charitable faced with religious or political divisions and blockages opens up new possibilities.
It also open ups possibilities in our own personal growth. In the realm of our struggles with our personal problems that we hide away and never want to look at in the face. We build mountains of emotions and fears surrounding them. We give them more life than they deserve. Tzedakkah, is also about being charitable with ourselves. Giving ourselves the space to look at our problems and creating a dialogue with them. We are not the only ones to have them. They are not that terrible. It lessens the evil of the decree to force them into the open. It allows us to see them for what they are.
But there are times when dialogue, exchange, being charitable is not enough. When the flow that it creates is dissipated by the weight of the evil, by new events that cloud it even further.
And that Friday as I walked out of the train in Marseille after parting with the man I sat next to, I got a call from home. Terrorists had taken Jewish hostages at a crowded kosher supermarket in Paris.
I spent the rest of the afternoon with my hosts watching the news.
The city’s security liaison advised us not to hold Friday night services but we had them anyways.
The congregation had a Friday night dinner planned and far more people came than planned. To show their resilience. To be together. They wanted to show that they were not afraid. They were going to carry on their lives as normal and stand up for their beliefs.
They would fight the evil with the values that they held dear. Community, Tradition, Shabbat –Life not Death.
It’s a response that is familiar to anybody who has spent time in Israel. The policy there is that after a terror attack, the police and other services clear the scene as quickly as possible and set it back to normal. They refuse to let the terrorist’s win. That is the way they deal with waves of terrorism.
I remember living in Israel during the second Intifada when there were buses exploding sometimes 2-3 times a week in the Jerusalem but people continued to take the bus. The message was you carry on, and fight the evil by embracing what you stand for and love.
In our own battles, when we can find the courage inside of us, it can suddenly shed light on problems that appeared insurmountable before. It can fill us with the power to overturn them, even problems and habits that have beset us for decades, our whole lives. It is our capacity for teshuvah, for returning to who we are and what we believe in that gives us the strength to surmount difficulty and to undergo transformation. It is why teshuvah, repentance or return is the foremost work of the holidays.
For the French, at that moment, it was a return the values of the Republic. And that weekend I joined the head of the Conservative movement in France and we travelled to Paris to take part in a march that drew millions.
The whole country was seeking to return to what they stood for, to what could unite them, fill them with hope, courage, and positivity to find a new way forward.
They held up signs stating Je suis Charlie Hebdo, I am Charlie Hebdo, (power) Je suis Juif, I am Jewish, and even Je suis Musulman, I am Muslim.
And they marched singing the French National anthem, the Marseillaise. Aux Armes Citoyens, to your weapons citizens, formez vos bataillions, form your lines, marchons marchons, let’s march let’s march. A melody that I had never connected to, evoking the violence and purges of the French Revolution. But on that day as I heard it rise and fall among the crowds, I felt its power as a battle cry for liberty, fraternity, and equality.
Teshuvah, return, to who we really are, where we came from, our deepest values and beliefs is also what gives us power and strength in our personal lives to transcend and conquer any difficulty, any obstacle. To find the place of eternity within and to face the evil before us. To sound the shofar of warfare against evil, inner and outer. To state our willingness to engage in the battle.
It is an aspect that I also thought about a few weeks ago at our 9/11 commemoration, how that event pushed this country to fall back on what it stood for, to unite… that was a way to lessen the evil of the decree.
By returning to what we believe, our values, and marching with them, filling ourselves with hope and courage, taking a stand in the battle against what is good and right… We become filled with justice and the spirit of goodness. It is one of the best and most powerful instincts of humankind, teshuvah, return.
But unfortunately, there are times when even that is not enough.
The French marched by the millions, asserted the values and ideals they held dear, and their love of life, not death, their willingness to be charitable.
But then, they were struck with another more devastating attack on them and their ideals. The Bataclan terrorist attack this past November. And later this year, the attack in Nice when a truck driver slammed into a crowd convened on Bastille Day, the French national day that celebrates the values and ideals of the country.
At that moment, even if in their hearts they did not want let go of their values, the French did not return to the streets. The moment had passed. What now?
We all know how powerful the decree can sometimes be, the evil…
In our own selves, we can muster all of our strength, all of our power, go back to our ideals, to what we stand for, but there it still is – the evil staring us in the face, filling us with dread and fear. It’s not going to be so easily defeated, so quickly. We marched and found our courage and now we are facing it. But now what? How do we accomplish the next stage of the work? How do we undo situations and conflicts that have brewed over decades or longer? Bad blood and out of control ideologies that have festered over long periods of time. Deeply ingrained ways of thinking and habits within societies and ourselves. Grooves in our minds and hearts. How do we conquer those?
The answer of our tradition is tefillah, prayer.
We often think of prayer as the first response. A truism. ‘We offer our prayers, we are thinking of you.’
But prayer is also the last resort, when we are called upon to overcome the seemingly insurmountable, within ourselves, our own societies and the wider world.
When we have to reach further even than ideals and values.
The shofar is our call to battle, but even more than that, the shofar on Rosh Hashannah is the call, the prayer that resounds from the depths of our soul, that finally pierces through.
Prayer is the vehicle to transcend, to go beyond our own finite powers and touch that which is eternal and infinite. To draw on a power we never knew we had. To turn to the highest heaven, and the deepest place inside of our souls for strength, for faith, for courage to make the leap.
Prayer, tefillah is what we spend the most time doing here in synagogue during the High Holidays, trying to strike the note on our souls where we cry out and call out on the Creator of the Universe to come to our rescue, when we go deeper and deeper until we find what we need to go forward. When surrounded by darkness we grab the last ray of light, with the firm belief, that morning could come in the next second. As psalms say, ‘weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
Prayer is saying – ‘I cannot do it alone’, ‘I need to hold Your hand’ and ‘I need you to hold mine’ – ‘together we can accomplish anything!’ We can conquer parts of ourselves that deeply ingrained, we can surmount divides that are centuries old. We can find the strength to power through the evil decree that is facing us, staring us in the eyes.
Prayer is not absolving ourselves of the responsibility. It’s digging and reaching as far as we can to transcend what is seemingly impossible.
It’s having faith in the ultimate goodness of creation and of the Creator, however we envision Him or Her. Having faith ultimately in humanity, even in the darkest of times. And in ourselves.
The model for prayer in Judaism is Hannah whom we read of in our haftarah this morning, who could not have children but went to the ancient tabernacle and laid bare her soul, poured out her heart, gave over everything to the point that the High Priest thought she was drunk and scolded her. That is the kind of prayer, our tradition teaches, that has the power to change ourselves and the world.
We need all three.
Tzedakkah, being charitable with others, opening the flow of communication, of coexistence, saying we’re sorry, accepting others’ apologies, lessening hate and fear, lessening confusion, bringing light to what is not real, to what is fantasy even as conflict and problems remain.
To that end, this year, at our synagogue I am looking to start an interfaith dialogue group with Christians and Muslims communities in our area. To together build bridges of understanding, dialogue and mutual respect.
Teshuvah, going back to what we believe. Returning to who we really are and what we stand for. To return to the values and ideals that define us and march with them as a rallying battle cry against the force of the evil of the decree. Sounding the shofar against fear and oppression, against that which seeks to do us harm. Saying we will not budge from who we are and what we believe in, even in the face of those who are willing to do almost anything so that we do.
We do this work here at the synagogue with our educational programs, with new and exciting classes, of meditation, study, and lively discussion. These are tools to help us learn how to return to who we are, to learn about what Jews have believed in and sacrificed their lives for –for thousands years.
Finally Tefillah, when all other doors have closed, we use the power of prayer, the prayer of Channah, to transcend our own limitations, to accomplish that which seems impossible. We use the power of prayer and faith from the depths of our soul to sound the shofar and crack open the gates of heaven.
To that end, we are planning to start a prayer group in our synagogue that will meet on a regular basis to recite psalms together. Reciting the Psalms is one of the oldest Jewish practices, to come together as a community to pray for the world and for individuals in need, to focus our collective spiritual powers. Also, this coming year we will be initiating a series of learning services, perhaps a whole month of them, so that more of us can access the structure, power and meaning of the traditional service.
Teshuva, tefillah, utzedakkah maavirinon et roah ha gzeira.
Repentance or return, charity, and prayer lessen the evil of the decree.
It has been a difficult year in the world. There is suffering and evil everywhere we look. In this country. In this city. But Rosh Hashannah gives us the means to combat that evil in the coming year, to work to eradicate it. To not let it rule our lives…
We pray for a year of growth and of wiping away evil, in ourselves, in our societies, in the whole world. A new year filled with the strength of Charity, Return, and sincere Prayer.
Together, one step at a time, working with God as our partner, we can transform our world.
Shana tova u’metukah