August 2008

Robert Caro is one of my favorite historians. His biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, is one of my all-time favorite books. For the last generation (!) he has been working on a multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. 

In this morning’s New York Times, Caro wrote a moving (and lengthy) op-ed piece about Johnson’s 1965 speech that propelled the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Noting that Johnson’s 100th birthday was yesterday (and of course that this week also coincides with the passage of women’s suffrage, and MLK’s March on Washington), Caro writes that King had tears in his eyes as we watched Johnson’s speech. At the same time, he reminds us of the historical moment we witness tonight with the first nomination of an African American for President of the United States. I was probably not alone in having tears in my own eyes as I read Caro’s moving account.

What particularly struck me was the fact that the people involved in this story–King, Johnson, Kennedy before him, and the countless ordinary people who did extraordinary things in those times–what made all of these people remarkable was that they didn’t just use words, they used their bodies. They marched in the face of violence. They moved their bodies to the front of the bus. They walked into Little Rock High School in spite of lethal threats. 

The fact that these acts were embodied makes a difference. Yes, ‘young people’ today are better activists than we were in the previous generation. Yet much of that activism happens through and as a result of the Internet. And while it’s wonderful that people are text-messaging each other or changing their Facebook pictures to show their support of political candidates, that kind of ‘activism’ isn’t in the same league as the kind that involves physical risk. It’s an activism of personal, not communal, expression. 

Don’t get me wrong–the internet can be a wonderful and powerful force for good. (You wouldn’t be reading this without it, for one thing.) But it’s important to remind ourselves that the truest activism comes about when it is embodied, when it involves physical labor and physical risk. The same is true with Jewish life: It’s not enough to be Jewish through status updates, expressive and powerful as they might be. At the end of the day, those expressions have to lead you to do something, and you have to do it with other people.

בראש השנה יכתבון, וביום צום כיפור יחתמון

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: Who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water, who in his time and who too early… 

The most famous lines in the High Holiday liturgy, and the most haunting: On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. On these days we stand in judgment before the Almighty, on trial for our lives. We look around us and we wonder, who will be here a year from now? In a year’s time, who will look back on a year of success, a year of growth, a year of good deeds? Will my neighbor? Will that woman across the aisle? Will I?


On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Our fates are sealed on this day! This is it! What are we to do?


ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רע הגזרה

Three things, the Machzor tells us. Three things will take away the harshness of the decree: Teshuva, repentance; Tefilla, prayer; and Tzedakah, charity. If we do these three things, we may not annul the decree, but we will take away its pain. We will make it more bearable. We will redeem ourselves in some small measure.


At this point I imagine that someone out there is thinking, “That’s a really sweet idea, rabbi. But I have no idea what it means.” Or maybe you’re thinking, “What’s with all the hocus pocus? If I pray really hard and I give money and I confess my sins, I get to live this year? We all know that’s not how it works.” 

So I’ll tell you: you’re right, it’s not hocus-pocus. Confessing your sins today will not bring you the health you want. Praying really hard today will not deliver you the success you strive for. And giving 10 percent of your income to charity will not buy you the love you desire. That stuff is hocus-pocus, and the machzor is far too sophisticated for that. We are not about hocus-pocus.


So let me tell you what I think this is really all about. 

ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רע הגזרה

We have to look at each word of that sentence to really unpack it. 

So first, teshuva. Yes, teshuva means repentance. But more literally it means, “Return.” What kind of return? Returning to who we are capable of being, who we want to be, who we were meant to be. Returning to our צלם אלקים, the image of God within us. 


Doing teshuva means letting go of the things that we mistake for being important and grabbing hold of the things which really are important in our lives. Doing teshuva means being honest with ourselves about who we are and who we aspire to be. It means confessing, but confessing in a way that we really mean it—not a rote recitation of sins, but simply and profoundly realizing what we have done or failed to do in the last year, and taking responsibility for it. And it means resolving not to repeat our mistakes. In short, doing teshuva means returning to our best self. It means being the person we want to be. 

If we do that, then in whatever time we have remaining, we can know that we have been doing the things most important to us, that we have been living a life we can be proud of, a life after which we can meet our maker and say, “Thank you for that wonderful, blessed experience.”  When we realize that, the bitterness of the decree—רע הגזירה—is eased.


Tefilla. Tefilla is prayer. Big help. What is prayer? Prayer is many things, but on its most basic level prayer is about embracing the existence of others in the universe. It is about recognizing that we are not alone, as lonely as we may sometimes feel. No matter how tormented we may be, no matter how far away the rest of the world may seem, when we pray we step into a world in which God hears us. Indeed, God is so close that God can hear the whispers of our lips and the murmurings of our hearts. To pray, then, is to realize that God is with us.

As Jews, we go even one step further: We pray with a community, and we phrase our prayers in the plural—אלקינו ואלקי אבותינו ואמותינו, “Our God and God of our ancestors.” So for we Jews, prayer is also about inhabiting the world with other human beings. 

Prayer for us is an act of remembering that, while the world does not revolve around us, we have a unique role to play in it. When we really pray, we well up with a feeling of fullness. We feel the presence of God and we feel the souls of our fellow travelers here on earth, and in the words of the Amidah prayer, “וכל החיים יודוך,” all living creatures join in giving thanks for this life.  Prayer, like teshuva, is not about reciting a rote text. That text, like the text of the confessional, is a suggestion. True prayer transcends those words, and reaches a point where we realize that we share this world with others. And in that moment, the pain of our loneliness, the bitterness of the decree—רע הגזירה—is eased. 

Tzedakah. Tzedakah is charity. But it is much more than charity. Tzedakah of course comes from the root Tzedek, which means justice. Tzedakah is about righting the wrongs of society, about making the world a more just and equitable place. 

Why is tzedakah on our list? I have tried to show how engaging in teshuva and engaging in tefillah, returning to the selves we want to be and recognizing that we are not alone, can make our remaining days of life ones we will cherish. What about tzedakah?

Whatever the reason, we live in a world that is far from perfect. Perhaps it was Adam and Eve, perhaps it was God’s mistake, perhaps it was even God’s design: But the bottom line is that we live in a world in desperate need of repair. The Kabbalists tell us that when we perform mitzvoth, when we repair the world, we mend the sacred vessels that were shattered at the moment of Creation. On the other end of the spectrum, Maimonides, the arch-rationalist, tells us that when we do an act of tzedakah, we are able to see the divine presence in the world.

What both of them are saying, I believe, is that when we right the wrongs of the world, the image of God within us is acting. And when we right the wrongs of the world, when we comfort the fallen and heal the sick and free the oppressed, we not only see God in ourselves, but we allow the godliness of the other to be seen as well. And in that moment, the divine presence is palpable. We feel great, the other feels great, and the bitterness of the decree—רע הגזירה—is eased.

ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רע הגזרה

So let’s talk tachlis, as we say in Yiddish. Let’s get down to business. Rabbi, what do you want me to do? I’ll tell you: three things.

Teshuva. Teshuva is not something just for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It’s for all the time. So on a regular basis—the first of the month, maybe, or some other regular time—take an hour and go through your priorities. Make a list. And evaluate your life against that list. Are you really spending your time the way you want to? Are you really being your best self?

Tefillah. Every day take at least five minutes to clear your head. It can be a walk by Lake Michigan, it can be sitting on the floor in your bedroom. Doesn’t matter to me where. But just take five minutes to slow down enough to be able to hear your heart beat, to experience your body, to listen to the people and things around you, and to be grateful. 

Tzedakah. Find a cause you care about and spend fifteen minutes a day (an hour and a half a week) working on it. There are tons of possibilities, but if you’re having trouble thinking of one, I’ll make a suggestion. As I hope you know, an entire people is being persecuted and nearly wiped out in Darfur, Sudan. According to recent reports by the World Food Program, the United Nations and the Coalition for International Justice, 3.5 million people are now hungry, 2.5 million have been displaced due to violence, and 400,000 people have died in Darfur thus far. Here’s something  you can do in less than five minutes a day: Call the White House. Every day. 202-456-1414. Demand that President Bush take action. You have been given a suggested script. The White House gets a thousand phone calls a day. That’s it. If every person hearing this sermon called the White House every day for the next month, it would send the President an unmistakable message that the public cares about this issue, and it would take just 2.5 hours of your time over the course of a month. 

בראש השנה יכתבון, וביום צום כיפור יחתמון

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. What kind of life will we lead this year? What kind of world will we build this year? How will we do better this year? 


Today, my friends, is a day to let go of the things that don’t matter and to focus on the things that do. None of us knows how much time we have left, and so, in the words of Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud, we should live each day as though it were our last. What will you do in the next three minutes, in the next three hours, in the next three days, three weeks, three months, and three years, to make your life into something to be proud of? That is your question, that is all our question, this Yom Kippur.

Gemar chatima tovah, May we all find the inspiration to live our best life today.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is a gifted and nuanced thinker who has a wonderful approach to Jewish life in the 21st Century. My wife forwarded me this piece from the Philadelphia Jewish Voice. As he does in his recent book, Brad here presents an understanding of Judaism–and particularism and education, more broadly–that reflects a sensibility of meaning, authenticity and freedom. Good reading.

While we’re at it, here is video from the Benediction I gave at Northwestern’s 2007 Commencement. I’m the very last speaker.

I was recently on a local show called ‘Sanctuary,’ which is produced by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. The Lieutenant Governor is on the first half, and I’m on starting about 13 minutes in along with Rabbi Elliot Goldberg of the Chicagoland Jewish High School.

You can see the video here.