September 2017 -- Elul 5777 -  Tishri 5778,  Volume 23, Issue 9

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For Rituals to be Meaningful, Make a Good Faith Effort

By Rabbi Michael Goldman

Director, Senior Programs in Mt Vernon, WJCS.


A passage from the Mishnah states: “Yom Kippur atones for sins between a person and G-d, but for sins between oneself and one’s neighbor, Yom Kippur cannot atone, until one appeases one’s neighbor.” (Mishnah Yoma, 8:9)


As Jews we embrace nuance and complexity. “Two Jews, three arguments,” we joke, taking pride in our reputation—largely self-made—as a people who loves multiple perspectives. Our religion is founded upon the Talmud, a monumental work of commentary which to the reader often seems less intent on explaining than it does in reveling in multiple perspectives.


But there are occasions when ambivalence and ambiguity drop away. The text I quoted above speaks of one such certainty. This is, that to get right with G-d, you first have to get right with human beings. We can argue over how we define “sin.” Likewise, we can disagree on “atonement.” When we say “G-d” we may have very different ideas of what we’re talking about. But one thing is clear. Our relationship with the divine is predicated on our relationship with our fellow human beings. Said another way, Jewish spirituality starts with and requires our involvement in the affairs of the world. If you want to feel holiness at the mountaintop, you better have cleaned up your area at the base camp below.


A passage from the prophet Isaiah, which we read on Yom Kippur in the morning, makes this same point:


“This is the fast I desire”…

It is to share your bread with the hungry,

And to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe him.” (58:6-7)


He’s not saying that fasting and prayer are unimportant; rather, they are not in and by themselves sufficient. In order for these rituals to be meaningful, we must first make a good faith effort toward clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.


Oh, and here’s another thing that Judaism speaks about with certainty: we are obligated to help. Keeping oneself from sin means more than merely not bothering other people; it means actively helping.


Now, we can have principled arguments about how to do that most effectively. Do we best support our world through private efforts or through the government? Do we support our “own”—those in our town, in our religious group, in our family—at a different level than we do for those who are distant or less known to us? Do we need to serve others directly, or is it enough to write a check? One can find support for any of these arguments, both pro and con, in our vast canon of Jewish sacred writing.

But while it’s not always clear how to help, Isaiah speaks, loud and clear, about who it is who most deserves our help. It is the most vulnerable among us. In the words of Rabbi Anne Ebersman (about a related passage from the same prophet): “Isaiah’s vision is not complicated and it is not multivalent. Our duty is simple. It is to protect the vulnerable and the wronged. There is no question here about seeing all sides of a situation. When it comes to defending the rights of the widow and the orphan, G-d is unequivocal and G-d’s loyalties are clear. G-d is always on the side of the oppressed and the vulnerable.”


No matter how we define—or choose not to define— “sin,” “atonement” or “G-d,” and no matter how we identify as Jews, we respond to Isaiah’s call to help the most disadvantaged among us. This means putting time and money into the institutions which do this. I do this through Westchester Jewish Community Services. WJCS has been helping people in Westchester County for more than 70 years overcome emotional, cognitive, physical and social challenges. If you want to enter Yom Kippur knowing that you’ve done something good, give your support, in time or money, to WJCS or a similar direct-service institution. At least that’s simple.