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Guest Columnist: Rosh Hashanah Reminds Us That We Have the Power to Change

Amy Hirshberg Lederman, guest speaker at upcoming JPSA Advanced Gifts/Summit dinner

Amy Hirshberg Lederman will be a guest speaker at Jewish Philanthropies of Southern Arizona’s (JPSA’s) Campaign Summit & Advanced Gifts Dinner, October 25, 2022, details are forthcoming.

It’s that time of year again. Backpacks and school binders tumble off the shelves at Target, crossing guards in bright orange vests patrol the road and parents are bemoaning the frenzied schedule 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 ten 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 and is based upon this powerful idea: that in each one of us, at every age and stage of life, is the capacity to change. This power of personal transformation is not beyond us but within us, and Judaism gives us guidance by which to the make it real.

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 own minds and lives in the year ahead?  And if so, doesn’t it require us to take a closer look at how we can harness Jewish wisdom to help us build a stronger, more united Jewish community as well?

Repentance requires us to recognize that we have done something hurtful or wrong and to feel badly, maybe even guilty, about it. But we can’t stop there.   Repentance mandates that we commit to behaving differently in the future. In essence, it demands that we become a “new” person 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.  A sick parent or a marriage on the rocks, the birth of a child or a new job, the loss of a loved one or the loss of a friendship; all of these can elicit an urge to speak to the divine.  Whether we pray formally using the words of our liturgy or informally drawing upon words from the heart, prayer is a language and a pathway that lets us be in relationship with something greater than ourselves- something that reminds us of our humility as human beings in a universe where anything is possible.

Tzedakah is often translated in English as 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 have or possess comes from God who is, in a sense, the Ultimate Landlord of the earth. As tenants, we don’t really “own” anything we have; rather, we are given the gift of using it for our benefit during our lives.  But this privilege comes with responsibility, and we are commanded 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, 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 become the person we want to be.

Noted author James Baldwin once wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”  Jewish tradition gives us an annual reminder of the power to change in this three step process, beginning with acknowledging our failings and deciding that we want to change.   Repentance, prayer and justice are available to each of us, regardless of wealth, status, or education.  It is up to us to take the first step.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an award-winning author, nationally-syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, international public speaker and attorney. She has written more than 400 columns and essays that have been published nationwide,