Mending Ourselves, Mending the World
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Wednesday 17th September 2014
I've never felt very comfortable teaching and delivering sermons over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The themes of sin and repentance always sound so heavy and depressing. I hear myself sounding more and more like an old fashioned preacher pouring down fire and brimstone on the community.

Still, the ideas of self improvement, `breaking out of the rut and mending the world are concepts that I find very appealing and these lie at the core of the High Holiday period.

On Rosh Hashanah we recite the "Untanetokef" prayer with its terrifying descriptions of Divine wrath and its famous conclusion that, "Repentance, prayer and charity may avert the evil decree". How can these activities make up for what we have done in the past? The Talmud develops the idea with Rash Lakish's pronouncement that through repentance our sins can be transformed into merits (Yoma 86a). Does it make sense to rewrite claiming reward for misdemeanors?

It’s a difficult concept to understand, but I wonder if a modern parallel will help. Those of us who pollute the environment, destroying nature and ruining our planet are encouraged to plant trees in a form of carbon trading. We can never bring back what we have destroyed, but we can invest in the future and actually leave the world in a better condition that we found it.

Perhaps what is true in the physical world, has parallels in the world of the spirit. Everyday, we inadvertently hurt others and break God's commandments. Judaism encourages us to repair the damage and renew ourselves. We may not be able to put everything right, but we can work towards making major improvements for the future. Prayer and penitence express our contrition and commitment to improve, charity is the way that we can make a difference in practice.

I have just returned from a young rabbis' mission to Ghana sponsored by American Jewish World Service. After a short plane journey, I found myself in a village where thousands of people live in the shadow of malaria, without running water or toilets. They cooked, crouching over open fires because they had no gas stoves, ovens or fridges and they burned their rubbish each day because there was no rubbish collection. Many parents cannot afford to feed their families, so they had sold their children into slavery. One of the most poignant moments was when a child asked me to help tie his shoe laces. Normally, that's something I would do it without thinking; but this case was different. As I bent down, I realized that his shoes were in ribbons. If I pulled too tight, they would fall to pieces and the child would be left with nothing on his feet.

These wonderful warm, intelligent people are no different from us except for the fact that by the luck of the draw, we have been born in the west and they live in the global south. Or as Rabbi Nachman puts it in the Midrash, "The world is like a great wheel which turns filling the pockets of some, emptying those of others". (Vayikra Rabbah XXXIV: 8)

We do not know how exactly how Divine accounting works or how we will be judged. But one thing is certain; by giving charity, we can make the world a better place. When defining what makes a good person, the Rambam said, "A righteous person is someone who does one more good deed than bad". (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:1). At this time of year, we try to do as many good deeds as we can.

For every penny that we invest in our schools and communal institutions, we build a stronger Jewish community, with every penny that we donate to the welfare organizations, we will improve the lives of the needy, for every penny that we give to Israel we can strengthen our national homeland and with the support that we pledge to organizations working in Africa, we will save the lives of those who are dieing in poverty.

With charity we can make a real difference to our world, leaving it a better place than we found it. With charity we can mend our relationship to other people and to God making us worthy of forgiveness.

By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, Tribe Israel Rabbi

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