Judaism’s three pillars and the Days of Awe

At sundown, on Monday, Sept. 6, Rosh Hashanah 5782 will begin. And, with the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, Jews all over the world will begin one of our faith’s most profound spiritual annual experiences — celebration of the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim).

These 10 days last from Erev Rosh Hashanah through the close of Yom Kippur.

Rosh Hashanah, our faith’s New Year, marks the celebration of life itself. Judaism teaches that as individuals and collectively in our communities, during the Days of Awe, we grapple with atoning for our transgressions, and use the period as an opportunity to make peace with others whom we may have wronged. At its core, the Days of Awe present us with an opportunity to atone directly to those we have or may have wronged and ask for forgiveness. As we reach out to our brothers and sisters, we acknowledge our mortal frailties and repent for errors. It is then up to those from whom we seek forgiveness to either grant forgiveness or refuse to do so. But, if we ask with a pure heart, each of us takes a critical step in the process of atonement.

The Days of Awe have sometimes been described as the birthday of humility. For Rosh Hashanah is the commemoration of Hashem’s creation of “ben-adam” — the Hebrew word for “human.” So, Rosh Hashanah is, at its essence, the birthday of humanity itself.

Pirkei Avot 1:2 teaches that the world stands on three pillars: on Torah, work in the service of Hashem and acts of human kindness. Mishna teaches that we are not alone in the world, but must live and coexist with others. Thus, by studying the Torah and gleaning its eternal lessons, we have an opportunity to become closer to God. Studying the Torah and its mystifying array of meanings is a lifelong journey. But, every journey must necessarily begin with a first step. So, as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, and begin experiencing the Days of Awe, we have a new opportunity to take a first step.

Each of us may use our lives in the service of Hashem and our opportunities are not delimited by our individual callings. Whether one is engaged in business, teaching, physical labor, a profession or any other undertaking, each day presents us with opportunities to perform work that is useful to other human beings. By remembering that we are connected to each other as we undertake our daily tasks, we act in harmony with a greater purpose and are compelled to remember that none of us can survive alone.

The third pillar of Judaism sanctified in Pirkei Avot 1:2 is our responsibility to perform gemilut hasadim, which literally means “the giving of loving-kindness.” Carrying out acts of kindness toward others is a fundamental Jewish value. Such acts may be small, and almost insignificant, such as opening a door for another. Or, an act of kindness may be realized by visiting the ill, comforting the dying or offering succor to those who are experiencing the harsh realities of life, the illness of a child or loved one, the pain of separation and divorce or the havoc of financial hardship.

Every act of kindness has the potential to ripple with larger meaning. For if each of us acts with kindness to others, they may observe our actions, and emulate them.

There are very special acts of kindness, known as showing rachmones, the Yiddish word for compassion. As Leo Rosten wrote in “The Joys of Yiddish,” “this quintessential word lies at the heart of Jewish thought and feeling. All of Judaism’s philosophy, ethics, ethos, learning, education and hierarchy of values are saturated with a sense of, and heightened sensitivity to, rachmones.”

Rekhem, the root of the Hebrew word from which rachmones is derived, means “a mother’s womb.” The great rabbis taught that Jews should look upon other human beings with the same feelings a mother has for the unborn child she is carrying in her womb. That emotion is challenging to put into words, but clearly it inspires awe.

Individual acts of compassion are treasures that we may bestow upon others. Perhaps the ultimate act of rachmones or mitzvah is undertaken by the sacred souls of the Chevra Kadisha, who selflessly prepare the dead for burial. Their acts of kindness are profound — they keep company with the dead awaiting interment. Such acts are referred to as chesed shel emet or a good deed of truth.

The mitzvahs of the Chevra Kadisha are distinguished, for the recipient can never repay the benefactor.

Not every act of kindness can compare with the blessed work of the Chevra Kadisha. But, we can draw inspiration from such selflessness, and learn from it as a touchstone to practice rachmones and other acts of loving-kindness in our daily lives.

As each of us enters the Days of Awe, let us contemplate Judaism’s beautiful teaching that the world is anchored on three ideas: Torah, service to Hashem and acts of human kindness. By renewing our commitments to the pillars of Judaism, each of us may act toward tikun olam — repairing the world — in the new year.

A version of this editorial appeared in the Sept. 2, 2021, issue of the Jewish Herald-Voice in Houston.

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