Last week, I wrote about three key Jewish values. I noted that empathy, study and repair the world were three that were connected to so many practices, rituals and texts. As such, they seem to me to be the ones that rise to the top as most worthy of our students’ attention. During the weekend, as I sat through many hours of Yom Kippur services, I came across another threesome in the Unetaneh Tokef – a prayer chanted both on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I tried to see if the “three” in this prayer had parallels to the three from last week.
The Unetaneh Tokef is one of the oldest prayers in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy. Historians believe that a form of it appeared by the 8th Century. On one level, the prayer seems to deny free-will and to paint a simplistic picture of reward and punishment. In the middle of the prayer, the question is raised ‘who will live and who will die...who by sword...who by famine...who by fire...’ The prayer concludes with the statement that tefilah (prayer), tshuvah (repentence), tzedakah (charity) – the threesome - mitigate these awful outcomes. The prayer is difficult for contemporary people when viewed as a simplistic statement of divine reward and punishment. Instead of dismissing it for this reason, let’s dig a little deeper.
One of the enduring factors in this very ancient religion is that there is an emphasis on an interpretative tradition where we can continuously re-interpret ancient documents and find new meaning in them. So my understanding of this prayer is that we acknowledge that death is part of the human condition, that we don’t have control over how we die and that we must get on with our lives. The threesome in this prayer is the formula for facing life and not allowing ourselves to succumb to despair because of the inevitability of death and natural calamities. As noted last week, this is a fundamentally realistic and optimistic view of the human condition.
What about the connections between this threesome and the three that I addressed last week? Recognizing that these three – prayer, repentence and charity – have their own integrity, it is still possible to make connections from last week to this week.
The first one – tefilah (prayer) – is easily connected to Talmud Torah (learning or study). Throughout the centuries, various commentators have equated prayer to study. I noted last week that synagogues are also called “betei midrash” (places of study). It is also true, that if we approached prayer sometimes as study – pondering meanings, challenging ourselves to think actively and not just recite robotically, thinking about the words in their context or as they connect to our lives – the prayer experience might be more meaningful.
The second one – teshuvah (redirecting oneself to do good) – connects well to empathy. The act of teshuvah begins with thinking about the impact of one’s actions on someone else, and then asking that person for forgiveness. Etgar Keret, a Tel Aviv based filmmaker and writer, expresses this idea so well in his recent article “It’s Never Too Late to Atone” where he speaks of his negative impact on a girl in his preschool and how, years later, he asked for her forgiveness. Teshuvah can also be connected easily to tikun olam (repairing the world) as it is a necessary condition for the envisioned utopian world of prevailing peace.
Finally, tzedakah (usually translated as giving money) is clearly a subset of tikun olam (repairing the world). Danny Siegel, a writer and poet, notes “Gemillut chassadim” (acts of caring) and tzedakah are the two basic Jewish tools for tikun olam (repairing the world).
So from last week to this week – my three values continue to provide a powerful lense for understanding a Jewish way of seeing the world. I’m pretty sure that they could be characterized as “enduring understandings”. What’s an “enduring understanding”? It is the basis for how we map curricula at Wornick. More about that next week.
Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday)