Every year for the past 14 years, I’ve written a Yom Kippur Greeting and sent it to people I’ve interacted with over the course of the year. I appreciate the time you take to read it.
- Since 1998, 3.5 million people have died in the Congo from war, famine and disease.
- Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are locked in internment camps under the most cruel conditions � often simply because their grandparents made the wrong comment to the wrong person. Women who have escaped have told of watching their newborn babies executed through suffocation with plastic sheets.
- In Zimbabwe, life expectancy has dropped from 60, to only 37 years. Entire neighborhoods have been bulldozed. When the residents move to refugee camps, those are also bulldozed. There are no calculations of the loss of life. Inflation is in the millions of percent.
- Burmese authorities have resumed their long-established murder of their own population, with help from a monster storm.
- Tens of thousands died in Chinese earthquakes, and millions were rendered homeless.
- The ancient Jewish community of South Ossetia has fled their home, driven away by officially recognized Russian Cossacks.
In each of these cases, there are endless stories of people torn apart by what has happened around them. They are living lives of horror.
We have given some charity this year.
But I have not given a dollar to help any of those who suffered from the above catastrophes.
For those not in the know, Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. We don’t eat or drink or wash or work. We don’t refrain from these activities as a sign of mourning, but as an attempt, for one day, to be like angels. For one day, we seek to be totally free of our earthly concerns and able to concentrate on our relationship with G-d. It is called the Sabbath of Sabbaths because while we withdraw from work-a-day life on Sabbath (our second holiest day), we withdraw from almost all the trappings of life on this day.
A great deal of preparation goes into Yom Kippur. The day itself is about our relationship with G-d and about seeking forgiveness and atonement for our sins of the past year. But G-d does not forgive us for all sins. We can only ask G-d for forgiveness for sins against G-d. The sins against our fellow man must be cleared up in advance – by seeking forgiveness from others.
And so, every year, Jews ask for forgiveness for any sins they may have committed against their fellows. And every year, I write a greeting to those I know asking for general forgiveness. Of course, I hold no grudges against any of you and any slights or sins, known or unknown, have been forgotten and forgiven.
For my family, this has been a year of great blessing. Our little daughter was only about 3 months old at the beginning of the year – but she has grown an enormous amount. I’ve attached a collage of family pictures. Her vocabulary is exploding (although she isn’t much of a fan of consonants) and she’s fully mobile – last night she didn’t want to go to bed and so she finally demonstrated the ability to go down (not just up) stairs.
In addition, Rebecca and I are expecting again. G-d willing, it will all go well and our family will expand once again in January.
It total, it has been a year of tremendous blessing.
In the Torah, there is a concept that when Israel grows prosperous and peaceful, they will throw off their responsibilities. For a long time, I’ve basically failed to understand this. When you are blessed you thank G-d for the blessings, you don’t forget where they came from and you use them for good in the world. It has always seemed obvious to me, and I’ve always tried to follow that path.
People often talk about the trap of money – of wealth. And Jewish tradition is no exception – there is a concept of the Jewish people as a whole waxing fat and kicking – throwing off their responsibilities. There is an axiom common to many cultures that if you value you money too much, it will consume you. You’ll never have enough and you’ll spend more and more of your life protecting what you do have. It can dampen your relationships with others, stunt your growth as a person and lead to a fundamentally flawed life. In my greater family, money has always been a tool, not a goal.
Thankfully, the worship or hoarding of money for money’s sake has not been a great weakness of mine.
And so I thought I had the whole ‘getting blessings/using blessings’ thing under control.
But looking at this past year during this period of repentance, I am coming to realize that this has in fact been my most critical failing.
My family has been blessed, and it is in the process of expansion 🙂 But I’ve become protective of them, financially and otherwise, and not as eager to extend my hands outwards. I’ve discovered, that while they are far greater and far more rewarding, the blessings of family can be as consuming as the blessings of money.
There are all sorts of excuses to be had, and I’ve exercised them: I do have a legitimate need to provide for my family above all else, and that can be a challenge; I’ve poured myself into tzedakah (charity) in the past, but with mixed success; a great deal of charitable money, particularly for the third world, is just wasted; and the simple act of giving money can, in many cases, be counter-productive.
But all of these excuses should only be reasons to be careful in how you act and what you do. They should not be excuses to fail to act. If they become excuses not to act, then not only will those who need help be deprived, but you will teach yourself not to care about the difficulties of others.
You will distance yourself from everyone around you.
And it is this, in specific, for which I ask for your forgiveness.
When looking at the coming year, I know the actions I must take.
On a basic level, I need to turn analysis into action. I’ve given more thought to the nature of effective charity – even in areas like Burma – than to any other area of life. While my thoughts aren’t perfectly refined and while I lack resources to implement a lot of them, I need to drive myself to act on them.
But not allowing the blessing of family to be a damper on acts of charity is only the first step. We are supposed to use our blessings themselves in the service of good. And so, I need to use the blessings of family itself as a tool for bettering the world. I need to commit myself to teaching my daughter and those children who (G-d willing) will come after her to be charitable and to think about and act on the needs of the world around them.
In a very concrete sense, we need (and will get) a more prominent pushka (charity box) for our house, and we will make daily contributions a key part of our daughter’s, and our own, routine. This is something I practiced (and preached) for years, but didn’t do this year.
G-d willing, our children will have the opportunities to do more than we can in helping and building the world. But in order to do so, they need a solid grounding in the practice of charity – and there is no better way to teach, than leading by example.
And last, but not least, the act of caring about one’s family is itself a beautiful and powerful thing. You can care about your family while pushing aside the needs of others, or you can use the knowledge and power of the experience of family as a way to reinforce the empathy and support you extend to others.
And so, these are my goals for the coming year:
- I need to prevent a desire to protect my family from unreasonably dampening my tzedakah.
- I need to recognize my family itself is a blessing that can be used for good � and do so by passing the regular practice of Tzedakah to my children.
- And I need to use my experiences as a father and husband to strengthen all of my connections to those around me.
To use a very up-to-date analogy, while acceptance of the risks of credit is the lubricant of business and of wealth, acceptance of the risks of charity is the lubricant of humanity itself. While investment can produce wonders of prosperity, charity and the connections it creates can create beauty on a far more fundamental level.
If there is any slight or sin I have committed against you – whether known by either of us, or only one of us – I apologize and ask for your forgiveness. As mentioned above, I hold no grudges against any of you. And any slights or sins, known or unknown, have been forgotten and forgiven.
With Yom Kippur, we can wipe away the sins of the past and begin a New Year of unbounded possibilities unimpeded by the weight of our histories.
And so, may we all experience a year of blessing, a year of health, a year of prosperity, a year of family and a year of joy. And may we find ways to use each and every one of those blessings to build on, and not dampen, our relationships in this world.
Shana Tova Umetuka (May you have a good and sweet year),