On the High Holy Days we ask God to “write us in the Book of Life.” We are told that God keeps track of us, and compares all the good we have done during the past year, with what we should not have done. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer – the one which says, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die,” reminds us at then end that there are ways to make up for our bad behavior: U’tshuva, utfillah, utzedakah, – But Repentence, Prayer and Tzedakah temper judgment’s severe decree.
This morning I would like to focus on the Tzedakah part of this phrase. Tzedakah is often translated as “Charity” but it means much more than that. It comes from the word Tzedek which means “righteousness” or “righteous one”. In Judaism, tzedakah is not an option. It is not something we do if we feel like it. It is a mitzvah – which is more than a good deed.
Mitzvah means “commandment.” God commands us to do tzedakah – because it is the right thing to do.In the story of creation, which we will read tomorrow morning, it says, “On the seventh day God finished the work that God had been doing, and ceased on the,seventh day from all the work that God had done.”
If we pay careful attention to the words, it doesn’t say that God is done creating the world. It just says that God is done with what God had been working on at the moment. The Rabbis tell us that God intentionally left some of the work undone so we could be partners with God in the work of creation. We work together with God to make the world a better place.
When God created Adam, God created him “in God’s image.” God also realized that Adam should not be alone, and created Eve. This tells us that living for yourself, is only half a life. We were meant to be with, and do for others. If everyone is created in God’s image, we honor the image of God in others by helping them. Helping others does more than help them. It helps us to feel God’s presence in our own lives.
Healing A Fractured World
When Moses was frustrated with the behavior of the Israelites, he pleaded with God, “Let me behold Your presence.” And God replied, “You cannot see my face.” We cannot see God’s face directly but we can see God in the faces of others. That is how we behold God’s presence, by being in the presence of human beings, who are created in God’s image. We must be aware of the needs of those human beings. When we recognize that someone else’s physical needs are our own spiritual obligation, then it becomes holy work.
Why do we need to help others to be holy?
Think of the two bodies of water in Israel. The Kinneret and the Dead Sea. The Kinneret is teeming with fish, birds and vegetation. It is green and lush. The Dead Sea is the opposite. Nothing grows in the Dead Sea. Why the difference? They are both fed by the Jordan River. The Kinneret receives water in the north and gives water in the south. The Dead Sea only receives water. The Jordan ends there.
Life is not about taking. Living a full life also requires giving. Does Judaism ask too much of us? We are just like everyone else. Why us? Are we better than anyone else? Not really. We are an unexceptional people, often stubborn and rebellious, not instinctively a community of saints, yet we are made great by being asked to do great things.
God appeared to Abraham and said to him (translated)
“I am El Shadai. Walk yourself in front of me and you will be pure.”
Not next to God, but in front of God. In other words, don’t always wait for God to take the lead. Sometimes you need to take the initiative. We are here because God wanted us to be here and there is a specific task that only each of us can fulfill individually.
Even if you do realize that you are expected to do mitzvot, and you really want to help, you might say, “But there is so much need, so much suffering. God is supposed to be good and just. So why are people hurting and why are there so many evil people out there? It can be overwhelming. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers an explanation: He says, “There IS justice in the world but it is Divine justice, justice from the perspective of God. We don’t have that same perspective. What seems to be bad to us, might not be if seen from a different perspective. We can’t see the whole picture. If we learned of a person who wanted to cut us up with a knife, we would be extremely fearful, unless…that person is a surgeon, and we have a cancerous tumor that needs to be removed.
Rabbi Sacks explains further, “If we were able to see how evil today leads to good tomorrow – [then] we would understand Divine justice, but at the cost of ceasing to be human… There is Divine justice, but this is long-term justice. We may not see the justice carried out in our life times, but according to Jewish teachings, it all evens out in the end. When we sing Bayom Hahu after the Aleynu, we are praying for the time when this long-term justice will come to fruition.
In the mean time, God wants us to strive for human justice. It is our duty and responsibility to do what we can to pursue justice here on earth. God creates Divine justice but only we can create human justice, acting in partnership with God.
God experienced the same concern with all the violence and evil in the world. God created humanity with high hopes, then gradually faced one disappointment after another. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the generation of Noah, Sodom and Gemorrah. So God lowered His expectations offering human beings the Noahide laws, the minimal ethics that people should follow.
But God selected one person, then one family, then a tribe, then a collection of tribes and ultimately a nation, The Jewish people, to act as role-models, to be a living case study of what human beings ARE capable of.
We are therefore a holy nation. Or at least expected to act like one. Not that we are inherently better or more moral than others. This is not a privilege but a responsibility. We are God’s ambassadors on earth.
Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, is a valued ethic in Judaism. It represents the hope and belief that in every evil there is a fragment of good that can come of it. We are an eternally hopeful people. We continue to believe that things will get better, even during the most difficult of times, so we don’t give up.
It goes back to Biblical days. When Jacob was returning to Canaan after spending 20 years away, he feared the meeting he was going to have with his brother. He left because his brother Esau threatened to kill him after Jacob stole the birthright from him. One night he wrestled with an angel. He refused to let the angel go until the angel blessed him. Jacob looked for a way to turn his suffering into a blessing. We are challenged to do the same.
Judaism is a religion of responsibility. Responsibility in Hebrew – achrayot –from the word acher – which means “other.” Even if one is wealthy – we are all commanded to eat the bread of affliction on Passover, to dwell in a hut – a sukkah on Sukkot. These rituals are a reminder to us to remember those less fortunate than ourselves and do what we can to lessen their suffering.
We will be spending many hours together in worship during these Ten Days of Awe. Yet sitting in shul is not enough. We worship God not only in prayer but also in how we act in the world. We worship God spiritually by helping God’s creations physically. There are different ways to help others. Tzedakah is a physical gift, a gift of money or other needed items such as food or clothing. There is another, equally important way to help others called Chesed – loving kindness. This is a gift of person.
Some people have unlimited money. Giving away some of that money has little effect on what they have left. In contrast, we all have the same 24 hours in each day. Giving of our time to some else, is a limited resource that we cannot get back. Tzedakh is for helping the poor. Chesed is for everyone.
God’s first question to humankind – to Adam after he ate the fruit.– Ayeka? Where are you? What have you done with the gift of life I gave you? How have you used your time? God asks the same question of us today. So the High Holy Days are more than just sitting in shul for hours, confessing our sins. It hopefully gives us perspective and insights as to how we can live a better, and more meaningful life.
It is precisely our day-to-day activities, how we relate to others, our integrity, sensitivity, compassion and generosity that enables us to serve God in our daily lives, much better than in a synagogue.
I challenge you this year, to work harder at tikkun olam – Doing what you can to make the world a better place because you are a part of that world.
Keep these things in mind:
- Each of us is here for a purpose. We can’t all do everything. Figure our what your strengths and desires are and use those to guide you in your Tikkun Olam work.
- Even the smallest deed or kind word can change someone’s life. (There is a true story about a high school student who was walking home from school. In his fog, he dropped his books. A classmate that he didn’t know very well, saw what happened, and helped him pick up the books. Years later they met at a high school reunion. The boy who dropped his books told the classmante that he was in the midst of planning his suicide when he dropped his books. Because this person helped him, he realized that his life wasn’t as bad as he thought, that people DID care, and he changed his mind. Now he was happily married with two children. Lucky for those children that he stopped to help.
- There is a reason for each situation we are in, even if we can’t know it. It is our obligation to turn the moment into a blessing by helping or saying words of healing.
- The ability to give to others is a gift.
- Those who spend at least part of their lives in service of others are the most fulfilled and happiest people.
- Those who give to others are the closest we come to meeting the divine presence in this short life on earth.
If we listen carefully enough, we will hear the voice of God within our heart, telling us that there is work to do and that God needs us to work in partnership with God to do the work. Take a moment of silence then. Listen carefully to the voice of God within. What is God asking YOU to do?
SUGGESTIONS FOR TIKKUN OLAM
You may have your favorites. Become more active or involved in them. A mitzvah that has always been important to me was feeding the hungry. As I struggle to control what I eat, having available to me, much more food than I would ever need, I try to remember those who don’t have such advantage.
Also, we will be fasting next week. One of the purposes is to make us more empathetic to those who feel hungry ever day.I want to tell you about The Hunger Site – https://thehungersite.greatergood.com
When you click on the site, sponsors of the site agree to fund food for the hungry. The website also offers you many other ways to do tzedakah. You can get a daily e-mail reminder, which I arranged to do. It was becoming somewhat of a burden. I have so many e-mails to go through each day. Sometimes I skim them and only address the very pressing or important ones. I began to feel resentful at first, wanting to just skip over it,but then realized that I should embrace doing such a simple mitzvah. It only takes two clicks. Even at my busiest, I can find the time for two clicks. By doing this every morning, it has become a morning ritual that reminds me of my obligations to do good in the world every day.
U’tshuva, utfillah, utzedakah, – But Repentence, Prayer and Tzedakah temper judgment’s severe decree. Repentence and prayer, you can do that here at Temple. For the tzedakah part, the world awaits you, and needs you.
Based on the book To Heal A Fractured World by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks