“בראש השנה יכתבון וביום צום כיפור יחתמון” – ‘On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed’
As we recited these moving words in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer last year, we could hardly have anticipated the devastation that would be wrought by the relentless terrorist atrocities that would follow. The daily threat of terror is one to which our brethren in Israel have long become accustomed, but that awful reality has largely been greeted by silence in the mainstream media. Global terrorism has spread its tentacles far and wide, making no place on earth immune to this scourge. As the French philosopher and author Bernard-Henri Lévy has said, the world must now learn from the experiences of the Jewish State.
Never before in the history of human conflict has every innocent man, woman and child found themselves on the front line. As we endure an onslaught on our freedom, our democracy and our very civilization, what should our response be?
The Unetaneh Tokef prayer provides an answer: תשובה תפילה וצדקה – Repentance, Prayer, and Charity.
תשובה – Repentance
Teshuvah comes from the Hebrew word meaning ‘to return’. Over our High Holydays we are tasked with making a uniquely honest and comprehensive assessment of ourselves so that we can return to our natural state of piety and purity. Our global challenge is to return to the values of human dignity, tolerance, mutual respect and peaceful coexistence. That process must begin with ourselves and those upon whom we can make a positive impression.
תפילה – Prayer
#PrayersForParis #PrayersForMunich #PrayersForBrussels. If these popular sentiments from social media are anything to go by, it seems that the world is rarely more united in prayer than after devastating terrorist attacks. In July, after a particularly brutal murder of a beloved Catholic Priest in Normandy, one Twitter user responded to my own message in despair: “The time for prayer is long gone,” he said. I couldn’t disagree more.
The Talmud describes prayer as avodah shebalev – the ‘service of the heart’ – because, in essence, prayer is about training oneself to love and serve God. The Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, is linked to tofel, which means connecting to a greater power. We pray with a deep sense of humility and responsibility because we understand that we can never simply be a ‘law unto ourselves’. The power of prayer has always been and will always be a force for good; a spiritual connection with something greater than ourselves, elevating our souls and directly affecting our future actions. We will never fully comprehend the potency of our prayers or how things would have turned out without them but we do know that while terror thrives on a sense of narcissism and superiority, through prayer, we act with modesty and accountability.
צדקה – Charity/Righteousness
The first Chief Rabbi of the Holy Land, Rav Kook, taught that the antidote to causeless hatred is causeless love. Having embraced Teshuvah and Tefillah with all of the self-improvement that they require, we will have an instinctive and deeply rooted love for peace. But Tzedakah is the means by which we look beyond ourselves and turn that goodness into positive, meaningful action that will leave a lasting impact on the world around us.
Every one of us can increase the degree to which we give of ourselves to others, whether as part of an organised charitable campaign or by investing our time and energy into kindness and generosity. There is no degree of evil that cannot be overcome and outshone by an equal and opposite desire to do good for others.
Embracing more fully these three fundamental principles of Jewish life as a response to global hatred and violence might feel inadequate, even naïve. But, I believe that we are far more likely to change the world through positive action and leading by example, than simply by standing in judgement.
May this coming year be one filled with only peace and reconciliation among the peoples of the world.
Valerie and I extend to you all our very best wishes for a happy and fulfilling New Year.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
September 2016 • Ellul 5776