It’s that time of year again. Backpacks and school binders tumble off the shelves at local stores, crossing guards in bright orange vests patrol the roads and parents are bemoaning the frenzied schedules that “back to school” requires. But there’s a positive energy in the air as kids, tanned and freckled from the summer, greet each other in the school yard as they begin a new school year.
The fall is a time for new beginnings and the Jewish calendar is right on track. Rosh Hashanah, which in Hebrew literally means “head of the year,” kicks off the parade of holidays with a spirit of perennial optimism. When we wish one another “L’shanah tovah tikatevu v’taihatemu” (May you be inscribed and sealed for a good life), we are saying that we hope this year will be a good one all around, a year of good health and well-being in relationships, family, work and life.
But if that isn’t enough, we are given another 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (called the Days of Awe or Yomim Noraim), to reflect on where we have been, where we are going, and what we want to do differently in the coming year. It’s a time of personal and spiritual introspection grounded in the idea that we have the continuing capacity, each and every year, to change the way we live. Judaism promotes this powerful idea: that in each one of us, at every age and stage of life, is the capacity to change.
We encounter this wisdom in a prayer that is unique to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur called the Unetaneh Tokef, which inscribes our fate for the coming year on Rosh Hashanah and seals it on Yom Kippur. This prayer tells us that through repentance, prayer and charity (teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah), we can change the severity of God’s decree and alter our own fate.
I ask you: If repentance, prayer and charity are strong enough to change God’s mind, then shouldn’t we consider them as worthy tools to help us change our lives in the year ahead?
Repentance requires us to recognize that we have done something hurtful or wrong and to feel badly, maybe even guilty, about it. But awareness is not enough. Repentance demands that we commit to behaving differently in the future. In essence, it mandates that we transform ourselves the next time we are tempted to gossip, cheat on our taxes or misrepresent the truth.
Prayer means different things to different people but many of us intuitively feel that prayer has the power to heal, comfort and even change circumstances. Whether we pray formally using the words of our liturgy or informally with words from the heart, prayer is both a language and a pathway that lets us be in relationship with the divine.
Prayer also helps us focus on what is most important at any point in our lives. A sick parent or a marriage on the rocks, the birth of a child or the purchase of a new home; all can elicit an urge to speak to God. Words of gratitude, requests for healing, prayers for strength or comfort give us an opportunity to articulate and affirm the feelings we have deep inside. But even more than this, prayer can help us change our perceptions about what is possible in life because it enables us to be in conversation with something much greater than ourselves, a Divine source in a universe where anything is possible.
Tzedakah is most often translated in English to mean charity but in truth, it is much more than that. Charity suggests benevolence and generosity and is purely a voluntary act. Tzedakah comes from the Hebrew word Tzedek, which means righteousness or justice. The justice we speak of stems from the idea that everything we possess comes from God who is, in a sense, the Ultimate Landlord of the earth. As tenants, we don’t really “own” anything; rather, we are given the gift of using what we have for our benefit during our lives. But this privilege comes with responsibility and we are commanded by God to care for the world and those in need. That’s why in Judaism, we don’t give to the poor because we want to. We give tzedakah because we are obligated to, whether we want to or not.
In its broadest sense, Tzedakah means acting righteously, which in the Jewish tradition means following the commandments. Tzedakah reinforces our humility and our humanity; it reminds us that regardless of what we want to do, we must do more simply because it is the right thing to do. Knowing that we can and must do the right thing requires us to admit to ourselves what we already know: that we have the power to change and to become the human beings we aspire to be.
No one ever said change is easy because … it isn’t! But knowing that there is a time each year to think about the changes we want to make, and to commit to making them, is the first step. Repentance, prayer and charity are part of our tradition that can help us in the process.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at amyhirshberglederman.com.