Uteshuva, Utefillah, Utzeddakah

Reflection by Ari Israel, Fall 2017

This fall, as the Jewish seasons turn, we approach the High Holiday season filled with anticipation, angst, joy, hope, renewal and a myriad of other sentiments and emotions. Many of us look forward toward celebratory family reunions while others dance around in-law relationships; many of us relish our favorite family recipes while others dread the extra gym hours needed to work off the honey cake and tzimmes; and many of us embrace our annual synagogue rituals of dusting off the High Holiday Machzor (dedicated High Holiday prayer book) while others eye with trepidation the many passages of liturgy found within its pages. One of the primary opportunities at this juncture is setting one’s goals and priorities for the coming year; getting one’s life in order in terms of personal and communal responsibility. Constant Leadership reflection demands an honest check-in system to ensure compliance that our mental model is in sync with our values.

The Machzor, through its myriad of liturgical highlights, is replete with opportunities to focus on what is important and achievable. Each of us latches on to a unique tune, a poem that moves us, or even a phrase that charges our soul. One highlighted example is Unetanah Tokef – we shall ascribe holiness to this day – found in both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. This prayer touches upon many powerful themes: it reviews the year and recalls those who have passed on; it reminds us that our lives hang delicately in the balance; it pushes us to appeal to Gd, who holds the key to our fragile existence. The end of this hallowed chant ends with the entire congregation invoking in unison: וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה – repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree. These three aspects, when considered through a lens of personal leadership, can help all of us prepare of the coming year with focus. These three components seek to overturn Gd’s steadfast judgement and alter our destinies. Each piece peels away at another layer of the law, to reveal Gd’s loving mercy and willingness to forgive.

The first, teshuva – repentance, speaks to the heart of our purpose on these austere days. Are we willing and able to self-reflect and when necessary, make adjustments to our life, and our behaviors? Can introspection lead to personal commitment and ultimately to change? Teshuva demands honest self-reflection, without which no forward movement is possible. From a leadership perspective, teshuva ask us all to start the process of change, within ourselves. On this day we are reminded that we can’t inspire others if we are broken. We can’t influence people if we can’t advance our own path first.

The second, tefillah – prayer, beseeches Gd directly and offers us the springboard for a meaningful conversation with Gd. Through a spiritual conduit of the beautiful tunes that have set the stage for our words for generations, tefillah tugs on our heartstrings and pushes us to welcome the emotions of the day into our souls. We, in turn, strive to penetrate the Heavens with our words and our sentiments. As leaders, we are challenged to communicate clearly and thoughtfully. Tefillah is a guidebook for clear communication and offers us a platform, or a toolkit, for communication with our Creator. Tefillah challenges us to connect in a way that causes us to feel emotional, and vulnerable. We humbly reveal ourselves; we consider our strengths and our fragilities. As leaders, when we clearly articulate our thoughts and our emotions, when we make ourselves vulnerable, , those we are trying to reach will allow themselves to be vulnerable as well, and will readily join us on a journey.

Finally, the third phrase of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, Tzeddakah, is not simply the act of making a donation to charity; it is the pursuit of justice as in Tzeddek Tzeddek Tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue’(Deut. 16:20). It is about making a difference to others; it’s about putting your thoughts into action. Where Teshuva (repentance) is internal and Tefillah (prayer) is about communication, Tzeddakah is the opportunity for implementation. It is doing, not simply wanting to do, something to help the other. Changing behavior is a bolder and deeper manifestation of who we really are and who we strive to be, much more than a declaration alone.

Leadership, as Maryland Hillel instills in our Jewish students, is about enabling others to pursue their own journeys; ultimately, leadership is about action. Tzeddakah is not about dollars and cents alone; it is action and follow through that speaks volumes and impacts change. As leaders, we strive to set realistic goals both for those we lead, as well as for our organizations as a whole and this all starts with our own priority setting. When we gather in synagogue on this Days of Awe season, we begin the process of personal change through Teshuva; then through Tefillah we begin to express our renewed feelings to Gd with others in our community; and finally we propel ourselves into the world of action through Tzeddakah. One prayer, three paths to success. While synagogue seats for prayer may be expensive, at the end of the day Teshuva, Tefillah and Tzeddakah are priceless.