The great beauty of the Jewish High Holy Day season is the wonderful opportunity it provides for each of us to start over. Whatever it is that we have done in the past year, whoever we have offended, however we have failed, we now have the chance to begin again, to remake our personal world.
Teshuvah means more than repentance: it means return, as well, to the best that is within us. In the course of a long year even the most ethical of us have been known to act in ways that are less than stellar, to do things we are not proud of having done. In a basic, human way the High Holy Days ask us to remove the burden of guilt — that most Jewish of emotions! — and restore the delicate balance we all need in our lives. By repairing our relations with others we can reignite the Divine spark within us and return to being the good people we wish to be.
If we are fortunate, and sincere in our teshuvah, we can even rediscover the idealism that we have hidden away so deeply under the weight of daily responsibilities and emotional baggage. And we can emerge from this period of the year refreshed, replenished, ready to live better lives in the new 5773 year. What a gift!
But first, we must admit that we made some mistakes …
In this et ratson, this time of potential Divine favor, it is also essential for us to look at our Jewish community. In order to make teshuvah effective we must honestly examine both our individual actions and the ways we have worked collectively. In the past year, have we really done all we could to improve our microcosm of the Jewish world? Or are we simply perpetuating the same mistakes annually?
The Hebrew word for year, shana, comes from the same root word as the Hebrew word for change. The lesson is clear: where we have not succeeded we must seek new ways to do things. Where we are not meeting our goals and ideals we must change.
Unfortunately, in our communal Jewish world we are not meeting our goals. We need to change.
On my “Too Jewish” radio show (Sunday mornings at 9 a.m. on KVOI 1030 AM, toojewishradio.com and http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/too-jewish/id391627329) I recently interviewed the president of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, Jay Sanderson. He comes from the entrepreneurial business world rather than the more typical Jewish organizational background of so many Jewish community professionals. Tracing the demographics of the American Jewish community, he believes that the non-Orthodox aspects of our society will simply disappear in the next 25 years without significant change in what we are doing now. That is the “severe decree” he sees in this season of judgment.
I am not quite so pessimistic, but I do believe that far too much of our energy, talent, attention and resources go in the wrong direction. Without a significant redirection we will see the great American Jewish community of the 20th and 21st centuries fade in numbers, relevance and importance.
While this may come as news to some, the essential elements of Judaism are not greeting, meeting and eating, but Torah, prayer and acts of generous kindness. Those Jewish institutions that focus solely on the mechanics of perpetuating themselves — no names here, I wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone — but fail to actively engage Jews and their partners and friends in real Jewish prayer, study and life-changing charity, are not valuable. They are actually moving us farther from where we need to be.
For too long we have followed the same models and pretended that our efforts will bring commitment and change. They don’t and they won’t.
Only a significant redirection of Jewish talent and resources from institutional inertia and bureaucratic waste to truly support primary Jewish acts in synagogues and study centers — Torah, Avodah, uGemilut Chasadim, as Pirkei Avot teaches, study, prayer and tzedakah — will “avert the severe decree,” change our fate and give us a good new year.
May we choose this course, wisely and well, in our community. And may you and your family be blessed with a season of true teshuvah and a good year of blessing!
L’Shana Tova Tikateivu v’Teichateimu.
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon is senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El and host of the “Too Jewish” radio show on KVOI 1030 AM.