Seeing so many of you in person last week was wonderful as we welcomed the New Year. Being together to share prayers and join our voices in song is always special, but after the challenges of the past few years, it was particularly powerful. I am grateful to be part of such a strong congregation and look forward to being together again for Yom Kippur this Sunday evening.
On Monday morning, Cantor Moses will once again chant the Unetanetokef, which states, “Who shall live and who shall die? Why by fire and who by water?” The words, as I will discuss on Kol Nidre, are a powerful reminder of why we need to do the hard work of repentance and atonement now rather than put them off until some later date.
I have long been struck by the words that come immediately after Unetanetokef. They state,
וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה,
But repentance, prayer and tzedakah cancel the harsh decree.
Including repentance and prayer as two practices that can “cancel the harsh degree” makes immediate sense to me. The day is, after all, dedicated to introspection and personal atonement, and true prayer and repentance come from the recesses of our souls. But why, I wondered, did the rabbi of old include tzedakah? After all, Yom Kippur is the “Sabbath of Sabbaths” and anyone who observes the Shabbat prohibitions would not carry or use money. So why would something that requires the expenditure of money or other physical goods be included in this list?
Perhaps the answer lies less in the specific act of giving Tzedakah and more in its focus. While we may worship together as a community, repentance and prayer are individual acts. (The Hebrew word for prayer—lehitpalele—actually means “to judge one’s self.”) Tzedakah, on the other hand, is an outward-facing act. Not only do we give tzedakah to others, but we first need to see people’s and organizations’ needs before we can do so. Only by knowing their needs can we know how we can help. And in order to know those needs, we need to look past ourselves.
That is the brilliance of Yom Kippur. In ways obvious and subtle, it reminds us that while our “return” needs to begin with ourselves, it cannot end there. Our efforts to bring healing and wholeness need to move past our own needs and wants so we can see the needs of others. Sadly, as you know, we live in challenging times and those needs are great.
That is why we are, once again, collecting items for the IFPO. This year, in addition to cans of tuna and gift cards for food purchases, we are also collecting winter coats. It is shameful to think that there are people who will otherwise face winter without proper outerwear, and I am grateful that we have the opportunity to help them stay warm as the temperature turns.
It is also why the Annual High Holy Day Appeal is connected to these Days of Awe. While we can do important work as individuals, our collective efforts have an even greater impact. The Appeal is fundamental to the fiscal health and well-being of our congregation. In addition, it helps us maintain one of the cornerstone values of TSTI, the commitment that finances will NEVER be a barrier to entry into this community. Thank those of you who have already supported the High Holy Day Appeal and to those of you who plan to. Your support makes our work possible.
If you missed TSTI President Bryan Bloom’s words at Rosh Hashanah, please take five minutes to view this now. I am grateful to Bryan for his leadership and for clearly expressing why this annual campaign is so important.
Throughout this year, we will continue to share opportunities to look “outside ourselves and do for others.”
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatimah Tova – May we all be sealed into the Book of Life, Love and Meaning in this New Year.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen