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Thinking About Tzedakah

by Rabbi Evan Schultz
Rosh Hashana 5775/2015

Thinking about Tzedakah – The tension between giver and recipient.

Here’s a little thought experiment for you as we begin the  new year.  Imagine I hand each of you $100,000 and I instruct you to donate this money to tzedakah.  There are no restrictions on this money, only that you donate all of it to charity.  You can donate it all to one organization, divide it up between organizations, or hand it all to a beggar on the street.  You can donate the money to a local organization, national, or global organization, to a Jewish charity, an Israeli organization, or a secular charity.

My question to you is, how would you go about deciding where to donate this money?  What questions would run through your head as you engage in this process.  Is there anyone you would consult with or would you go about making the decision entirely on your own?  How do you ultimately conclude where to donate this sum of money?

This is a question I have been thinking about a lot lately- we as Jews are obligated to give to charity, but how do I thoughtfully and intentionally decide where and why to give our money?  How do I do what is right in the eyes of the Jewish tradition?  It is challenging question for sure, as we can often feel pushed and pulled in so many different directions when it comes to charitable giving.  I open the mailbox in the month of December and it seems like every day I receive a request for a year end donation.  In my email inbox, I find requests from friends and relatives running a marathon for charity or doing a bike ride for a cause  Natural disasters take place around the world, and celebrities on television ask me to donate to help get basic supplies to those desperately in need.  I ride the subway in Manhattan, and it is almost certain that someone will approach me for money, and I struggle to decide in those five seconds if I should give them the dollar bill in my pocket.  And of course, how can I say no to any girl scout who comes to my door selling girl scout cookies to raise money for her local troop, they must know our family has a weakness for thin mints and Samoa cookies!

So how do we decide?  Who receives that $100,000?  Perhaps we can begin to answer this question by thinking about the Hebrew word tzedakah itself – we derive this word from the Hebrew root tzedek, which means justice.  When we as Jews give tzedakah, we not only support one in need, but we view ourselves as distributing our funds as a means of bringing more good into this world.  As Harvard professor Michael Sandel writes in his book entitled Justice, What’s the Right Thing To do?, justice is about the right way to distribute things.  Whether one has $100,000 or $10, tzedakah, or justice, entails a responsibility to do what is right with our money.  So then the question becomes, who decides what is right?  Let us remind ourselves that there are two parties involved in tzedakah – the givers and the receivers – and we find in our tradition that there is a potential tension between the two, that the givers and the receivers may each may have competing notions of what constitutes justice, of how best to bring more good into this world.

This tension really came to the forefront of my thinking this summer, upon reading philosopher Peter Singer’s new book entitled “The Most Good You Can Do.”  In his book, Singer, a professor of bio-ethics at Princeton University, argues that many of us give based on what is meaningful for us as the giver – we give to a cause that we feel a personal connection to, or to the friend running the marathon, or to the emergency relief organization, or to the young neighbor selling girl scout cookies – he argues that many of us at the end of the day, end up giving relatively small amounts to many charities, and we really don’t take the time to seek evidence about what the charity is doing and whether it is really having a positive impact on the world.  Psychologists call this warm glow giving – these types of donations make us feel good, that we’ve done something meaningful, but in many cases it may not be the most effective use of our money.

Singer highlights his argument with this example from 2013, when twenty thousand people gathered in San Francisco to watch a five year old boy dressed as Batkid ride around the city in a Batmobile with an actor dressed as Batman by his side.  The pair rescued a damsel in distress and captured the Riddler, for which they recieved the keys of Gotham City from the mayor – not an actor, he really was the mayor of San Franciso – for their role in fighting crime.  The boy, Miles Scott, had been through three years of chemotherapy for leukemia, and when asked for his greatest wish, he replied, “To be Batkid” The Make a Wish Foundation had made his wish come true.

I’m sure for all of us this story give us a warm glow, and I recall reading of this story and thinking how amazing it was that so many people gave their time and money to make this boys wish a reality.  Yet there is another side to this story, argues Singer.  He writes that the average cost for Make A Wish in making a child’s wish come true is $7,500.  He points out the same amount of money could protect families from malaria and save the lives of at least three children and maybe more.  Yet many more people donate to Make A Wish than the Against Malaria Foundation, because many feel an emotional pull of knowing this child, it makes one feel good to give to Make A Wish – it is a meaningful donation for the giver to fulfill a child’s wish – yet when thinking about the impact on the recipient, fulfilling the wish of one child or saving the lives of three, it becomes difficult to argue that the Make A Wish donation offers a greater good or causes less suffering than giving to save three lives from malaria.

Singer’s book pushes us to think long and hard about a very difficult tension – do I donate to an organization or charity that has meaning for me personally and emotionally, or should I give, as Singer argues, from a sense of duty, based more then on the effectiveness of the charity and their impact in helping the most vulnerable and downtrodden individuals throughout the world?

Moses Maimonides, the great 12th century Spanish rabbi and physician, was avid follower of Aristotle.  Aristotle, as I can best understand his writings on justice, prompts us to act based on our passions and our inclinations.  Aristotle prompts us to think about our telos, a greek word meaning purpose – in other words, each of us was put on this earth and we each have some kind of greater purpose – we should figure out what our purpose is, and give based on that realization.  If you love music, you should give to a musical charity.  If you love art, then donate to an art museum.  Maimonides internalized this Aristotelian view, and in his commentary on the mishnah, one of his early writings, Maimonides wrote, “The saintly man is guided in his actions by that to which his inclination and disposition prompt him.”  Maimonides also wrote that our charitable giving is a marker of our Jewish identity – in other words, giving is deeply personal, it should have meaning, where we give our money should reflect our personal beliefs and values, it should speak to our very telos, our very purpose on this earth.

Other aspects of our tradition, however, challenge this notion, arguing that we cannot give based only on what is meaningful to us, we must think about the needs and impact upon the recipient.  Consider the famous Talmudic tale of Mark Ukba and the fiery furnace.

Mar Ukba was a renowned scholar. Every day, on his way home from the Beit Midrash, the house of study, he would slip four coins under the door of a poor man who lived in the neighborhood. One day, the poor man thought, “I want to go and see who has been so gracious to me all these years” So the poor man waited outside his door in anticipation of meeting his mysterious donor. On that very day, it happened that Mar Ukba was late in returning from the Beit Midrash, and his wife came by the study to see what was keeping him- it turned out he had simply become absorbed in Torah study and lost track of time. On the way home, Mar Ukba, accompanied by his wife, stopped by the poor man’s house, as usual, and stooped to slip the coins under the door. At that moment, the poor man opened the door to greet them. Mar Ukba for some reason became startled in meeting the poor man face to face, and went running down the street with his wife running after him.  Mar Ukba took shelter in an oven, and his wife joined him.  The oven had just been swept of hot coals, but the floor was still very hot. Mar Ukba’s feet were burning, so his wife said, take your feet and put them on mine. Mar Ukba was astonished why his feet burned on the oven floor but his wife’s feet did not.  “I give so much tzedakah and I study Torah every day,” he said, “Why is it that my feet burn in the oven and yours do not?”  She looked at her husband and replied, “Because, my dear, I give food and tzedakah directly to the hungry and poor, face to face.”

In this Talmudic story, we are presented with two models of giving, writes Yeshiva University Student Gavriel Brown. Mar Ukba gives anonymously. Mar Ukba’s anonymous wife gives face-to-face. The former’s giving appears to be motivated by a fear of the “shame of poverty,” that is, the humiliation of depending on someone else for one’s individual needs. Mrs. Ukba’s charity is empathetic and person-specific; she interacts with those who come to her door and gives them what they need.

In order to make sure that Mar Ubva can remain an incognito benefactor, they eventually find themselves in a furnace. Mar Ukba’s feet begin to burn while Mrs. Ukba becomes worthy of divine protection. This suggests a flaw in Mar Ukba’s anonymous giving. From this short tale, let us try to understand Mar Ukba’s mistake.

Mr. Brown continues, “Mar Ukba’s distance from those he gives charity to leaves him blind to the emotional registers of the poor. Anonymous benefactors like Mar Ukba and anonymous giving often lead to rigid, and at times ineffectual, solutions to poverty. Four zuz (the amount of Mar Ukba’s charity) does not respond to the particularity of the recipient. The anonymity of money suggests detachment and perhaps a degree of apathy; as if to say, take your money, but I have no need of creating a relationship with you; I am not responding to your needs at all.”

Mar Ukba’s mistake is not one that only took place in the days of the ancient rabbis; I can speak for myself that I am guilty of it often.  One just example of this is choosing to buy products from businesses that employ the one-for-one business model of doing good.  You may have heard of companies such as Toms shoes or Warby Parker glasses.  When you buy a pair of shoes, for example, they will donate a pair of shoes to someone in need in the developing world.  The same is the case for Warby Parker and glasses.  I must say that on a personal note, I am a customer of Toms and Warby Parker, I’m wearing my Warbys right now, precisely because I was drawn to this business model.  I can wear a pair of shoes or glasses feeling good that I helped someone else out along the way.  And I am certainly not the only one – Since 2006, Toms has given away more than 35 million pairs of shoes in 60 countries.

However, data is starting to show that the one-for-one model can potentially do more harm than good.  According to a recent article in the Wharton School of Business online journal, “The unintended consequence with Toms is that, of course, there is a local cobbler who actually makes shoes and sells them. Can you imagine what happened to that guy the day the truck showed up with Toms shoes? Why would you go buy something if you could get it for free? And then, to add to this complex situation, that truck doesn’t show up all the time. That wreaks havoc on a lot of businesses, especially small- and medium-sized ones.”  The article goes on to say that these companies mean well, Blake Mycoskie, the founder of Toms, has a good heart. But, following the heart to fight poverty is a terrible idea. It pleases you more than it helps anything. To give anything is always a bad idea when you’re trying to fight poverty.”

It is essentially the Mar Ukba mistake – we donate a pair of shoes to an anonymous donor, we feel good, we have good intentions, but we really haven’t listened to those we’re trying to help.  Peter Singer points out that many of us fall into this category.  Most gifts, he writes, are emotionally based.  Two-thirds of donors do no research at all before giving.  Our tradition encourages us to take heed of the Mar Ukba tale, to follow the example of Mar Ukba’s wife, to know our recipients, to understand their needs and build relationships with those we seek to help.

Maimonides touches on this point in his compendium of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah.  In his laws of giving to the poor, he writes, We are commanded to give a poor person according to what he lacks. If he lacks clothes, we should clothe him. If he lacks household utensils, we should purchase them for him. If he is unmarried, we should help him marry. And for an unmarried woman, we should find a husband for her. Even if the personal habit of this poor person was to ride on a horse and to have a servant run before him and then he became impoverished and lost his wealth, we should buy a horse for him to ride and a servant to run before him. This is implied by Deuteronomy 15:8 which speaks [of providing him with “enough to [fill the] lack that he feels.”

I should note that Tom’s has shifted their approach and taken some of Maimonides’ advice. Last year, for example, it began selling coffee and giving away a week’s worth of clean water for every pound of coffee sold. This is an improvement over Toms’ shoe giveaways because the coffee is grown in the countries where the water is provided, sustaining local jobs. Also, Toms is working to develop local manufacturing in Haiti for the shoes that it gives away.

Tom’s shift in their approach to giving provides us with a valuable lesson on how to navigate the tension between the desires of the giver and the impact upon the recipient- it does not have to be an either/or situation- When giving tzedakah, Jewish tradition prompts us to both follow our heart as the giver, and research the effectiveness of the charities that receive our donations. It is ultimately about finding that balance in our giving that honors both the donor and recipient, that leads to greater justice and bringing more good into this world.

What might this process look like in practical terms?  Well, this summer i emailed about fifteen congregants at random and asked them the same question that I posed to you earlier – That if I handed you $100,000, how would distribute the money to tzedakah?  I was curious to hear how real people thinking about this complex question.  I received very thoughtful responses that highlighted how seriously those in our community think about giving tzedakah.  I too found that their responses, when I looked at them all together, so beautifully highlighted the balance between recipient and giver.  Here are snippets of their responses, blended together into one single paragraph:

“To me, donating to tzedakah is about having the most impact I can have with my donation.  I would want my money to go to an organization that might realistically save at least one single life.  I would choose an organization that aligns with my own values and does work that touches something that I am passionate about.  I look for organizations that are in accordance with my mission and talk to them to see if they have any projects or innovative programs that need a kick start to get going.  A beggar on the street always gets something.  Bona fide charities that send me mail get a fixed amount every time they send a letter.  The institutions that were or are important to me get the largest allocations.  I want to give the money to organizations that would use the money most effectively and where it would have an impact.  I generally will give to any friend that asks …as long as the cause they are promoting is not one in opposition to my social  and political beliefs.  The $100,00 check is in the mail, right?”

Judaism presents us with a multiplicity of dichotomies, of tensions that we struggle to negotiate.  When it comes to our obligation to give tzedakah, and our sacred texts highlight the complex tension between the giver and the recipient.  We want to give to organizations that have meaning to us and that are in line with our own values and passions.  But we too must reach out and understand the recipient, the poor and needy mustn’t be anonymous figures to us, but rather real people with specific needs, and we must understand those needs and which organizations will most effectively meet those needs.  If you haven’t had a conversation with your family about your giving, take this opportunity to do so.  I’ll encourage you to read Peter Singer’s new book together – it gave me a great deal to think about when it comes to giving tzedakah. Visit websites like GiveWell, that analyze the effectiveness of charitable organizations.  Think about your telos, your purpose, and which organizations help to further your unique mission in this world.  We can think more seriously and intentionally about our giving, we can have real and meaningful conversations with others about donating to charity, and we can bring more tzedek, more justice, more good into this world in the new year 5776.

Shanah Tovah.


The 13 Attributes – Cheap Grace vs Costly Grace

I’d like to begin this morning with short excerpts from a short story entitled, “The Story about a Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God,” written by Israeli author Etgar Keret.

This is the story about a bus driver who would never open the door of the bus for people who were late. Not for anyone. Not for repressed high school kids who’d run alongside the bus and stare at it longingly, and certainly not for highly strung people in windbreakers who’d bang on the door as if they were actually on time and it was the driver who was out of line, and not even for little old ladies with brown paper bags full of groceries who struggled to flag him down with trembling hands. And it wasn’t because he was mean that he didn’t open the door, because this driver didn’t have a mean bone in his body; it was a matter of ideology. The driver’s ideology said that if, say, the delay that was caused by opening the door for someone who came late was just under thirty seconds, and if not opening the door meant that this person would wind up losing fifteen minutes of his life, it would still be more fair to society, because the thirty seconds would be lost by every single passenger on the bus. And if, there were, say, sixty people on the bus who hadn’t done anything wrong, and had all arrived at the bus stop on time, then together they’d be losing half a hour, which is double fifteen minutes. This was the only reason why he’d never open the door. He knew that the passengers hadn’t the slightest idea what his reason was, and that the people running after the bus and signalling him to stop had no idea either. He also knew that most of them thought he was just an SOB, and that personally it would have been much much easier for him to let them on, and receive their smiles and thanks. Except that when it came to choosing between smiles and thanks, on the one hand, and the good of society, on the other, this driver knew what it had to be.

Keret goes on to introduce Eddie, a character who has been lazy his whole life, but now has a met a girl named Happiness, and is on his way to meet her for a date.  This is where is life intersects with the bus driver, who has just closed the door on Eddie.

Nothing was going to get in his way except our bus driver, who had just closed the door, and was beginning to pull away. The driver saw Eddie in the rear-view mirror, but as we’ve already explained, he had an ideology‹a well-reasoned ideology which, more than anything, relied on a love of justice and on simple arithmetic. Except that Eddie didn’t care about the driver’s arithmetic. For the first time in his life, he really wanted to get somewhere on time. And that’s why he went right on chasing the bus, even though he didn’t have a chance. Suddenly, Eddie’s luck turned, but only halfway: one hundred yards past the bus stop there was a traffic light. And, just a second before the bus reached it, the traffic light turned red. Eddie managed to catch up with the bus and to drag himself all the way to the driver’s door. He didn’t even bang on the glass, he was so weak. He just looked at the driver with moist eyes, and fell to his knees, panting and wheezing.  And suddenly the driver remembered how he’d once promised himself that if he became God in the end, he’d be merciful and kind, and would listen to all His creatures. So when he saw Eddie from way up in his driver’s seat, kneeling on the asphalt, he simply couldn’t go through with it, and in spite of all his ideology and his simple arithmetic, he opened the door, and Eddie got on‹and didn’t even say thank you, he was so out-of-breath.

I won’t share the ending with you – if Eddie finds Happiness or not – but I do have copies for you of the story if you would like to read it in its entirety.

The two characters in the story, Eddie and the bus driver, to me, serve as a brilliant metaphor for how our understanding of God shifts during the High Holy Days, from a God who expects us to follow all of the rules, to a God of grace, mercy, and forgiveness.  And the character of Eddie provides us with a powerful model of tshuvah and atonement as we begin to prepare for the holiday of Yom Kippur.

No, God does not open any bus doors for us during this High Holy Day season, but think about the doors we do open throughout the High Holy Days – the doors to the ark, each time we remove the Torah scrolls dressed in white.  And on the High Holy Days, as we open these doors to the ark, we sing these words – Adonai, Adonai, el rachum v’chanun, erech apayim, v’rav chesed v’emet.  Notzer chesed lalaphim, noseh avon vafesha, v’chataah, v’nakeih-

Adonai, Adonai, God compassionate, gracious, endlessly patient, loving, and true; showing mercy to the thousandth generation; forgiving evil, defiance, and wrongdoing, granting pardon.

These words, known in the Jewish tradition as the thirteen attributes of God, are recited as we take out the Torah on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In one sense, these words, drawn from Exodus 34:6-7, seem quite appropriate for the days at hand – in this season of forgiveness, we are reminded of God’s neverending grace, mercy, and love for the Jewish people to the thousandth generation.  That God forgives us for all of our wrongdoing, no matter how great.  This makes sense, when we consider that God recites these words to Moses in the book of Exodus following one of their gravest sins, the creation of the golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai.

This proclamation of God’s grace and mercy is a shift from that way in which God presents God’s self as part of the revelation of the Ten Commandments in Exodus chapter 20, in which God tells the Israelites, “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep my commandments.”

Contemporary Torah scholar Shai Held points out the dramatic shift in emphasis between these two Exodus verses – “Whereas in laying down the law, God begins with the threat of punishment, in the wake of apostasy, God leads with the possibility of forgiveness.”  Held goes on to say, “But the two texts differ in an even more powerful way.  In Exodus 20, God speaks of showing kindness to those who love God and keep God’s commandments; after the Gold Calf, however, God sets no limits on who may be the beneficiary of divine grace and compassion.”  Bible scholar Walter Moberly adds,  “God’s mercy towards Israel is independent of their responding in the right way – even when Israel is disobedient it is still the recipient of the divine goodness.  God’s love, it seems, is unconditional.  Nothing is beyond reach of God’s mercy.”

This way of thinking about the thirteen attributes creates a potential challenge: this verse we recite on the Day of Atonement, which professes God’s unconditional love, mercy, and grace, in fact makes no mention of atonement, of making t’shuvah, of the Israelites having to do anything to merit God’s forgiveness. Therefore it may create the illusion that essentially one can get away with anything because God will automatically forgive.

This was a worry expressed by Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who referred to this concept as “cheap grace.” In his book entitled The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer defines cheap grace essentially as forgiveness without repentance.  “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church, he writes.” Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares.  The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices.  Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner, it means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.  Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.”

As I enter into my 36th set of High Holy Days, I do not believe that there are very many Jews who come to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur seeking cheap grace, looking for a forgiveness from God at cut prices.  I think deep at heart we come to synagogue feeling at our core more like Eddie in the Etgar Keret story – weak, vulnerable, seeking, hopeful, kneeling, banging on the glass, wanting to be better people- and God, the God of Exodus who the rest of the year expects us to follow the rules and the commandments – today becomes the bus driver who looks at us and opens the door, seeing that we want so desperately to be let in, on these days God becomes the God of Exodus 34, we like the Israelites who built the golden calf know we have done wrong in the past year, we are in need of forgiveness, of grace, of a loving parent who loves us unconditionally, and lets us in when we need it most, when we are confused and distressed, broken hearted and feeling the burdens of our sins.  I think there is an implied understanding the thirteen attributes that one must come to really atone, one may not simply assume that God will forgive.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, articulates his vision of what it means to engage in this process of atonement and experience the grace and forgiveness of God.  He writes,

“The person confronts his sin face to face, and feels remorseful that he fell into the trap of sin.  Slowly he struggles to come out of it, until he liberated from his sinful enslavement and he begins to experience a holy freedom that is most delightful to his weary self.  His healing continues; rays of a benign sun, bearing divine mercy, reach out to him, and a feeling of happiness grows within him.  He experiences this at the same time that his heart remains broken and his spirit bowed and melancholy.  Indeed this lowly feeling itself, which suits him in his condition, adds to his spiritual satisfaction and his sense of true peace.  He feels himself drawing closer to the source of life, to the living God, who but a short time before was so remote from him.  His wistful spirit recalls with joyous relief its previous inner anguish, and is filled with a feeling of gratitude.  It breaks into a hymn of thanksgiving from the book of Psalms, “Praise the Lord, O my soul, forget not all God’s kindnesses, God forgives all your sins, God adorns you with grace and compassions, the Lord performs merciful acts.”

How blissful she now is in the inner feeling that her sin has been forgiven, that the nearness of God is already alive and shining in her, that her inner burden has been made lighter, that she has already paid her debt and is no longer oppressed by inner confusion and distress.  She is at rest, and filled with an innocent peace. As it says in the Psalms,  “Return to your peace, O my soul, for the Lord has bestowed God’s kindness on you.” (Kook, 46-47)

It is a powerful message that we open the doors of the ark while reciting the thirteen attributes of God.  It brings me to the moment in Keret’s story when the bus driver opens up the door to Eddie – we who are weak, vulnerable, carrying out sins, seeking forgiveness, gaze upon our scrolls, which contain the stories of the many falliable characters who came before us, Abraham who placed his son upon the altar, Sarah who banished her handmaiden to the wilderness, Jacob who stole the birthright from his brother Esau and showed favoritism to his children, Rachel and Leah, sisters who felt jealous towards one another, Joseph who boasted in front of his brothers, Moses who did not believe in himself and lost his temper with his people, Aaron who led the people in crafting the golden calf, and Miriam who complained that God favored Moses over her.

We gaze upon the scrolls filled with these stories, with these characters so dear to us, these deeply flawed and human individuals who were so close to God, who felt God’s compassion and grace and mercy, and we, who ourselves stand, weighed down by our sins and our flaws, see that the doors are open to us, that when we need it most, God is the parent who loves us unconditionally, the parent who holds us and comforts us, who re-assures us that God will forgive us, show us grace, and mercy, and kindness, and what we must do is truly try to atone, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to be weak, to come as seekers to come kind of peace and wholeness.

Bonhoffer refers to this type of grace as costly grace.  Costly grace, he writes, “is the sanctuary of God.  Is is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.  It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart.”

For those who seek to atone, God offers them forgiveness, grace, and mercy.  This point is driven home on Yom Kippur afternoon, when we chant the haftarah story of Jonah the prophet.  God summons Jonah to call the Assyrian city of Ninevah to repentance, and he resists mightily.  When he finally does do as he has been commanded, the people of Nineveh repent.  Normally a prophet would be pretty proud of him or herself for such a turn of events.  Most prophets begged the people to change their ways with no success, and here Jonah may be the most successful prophet of all time.  However, when God renounces the punishment that God had intended to bring upon Nineveh, the prophet reacts not with joy but with resentment – Jonah is angry that God shows mercy upon the Ninevites, a nation he views as cruel and barbaric.  God effectively responds to Jonah saying yes, the  people of Nineveh are sinful and wicked, but they are My creations, my children, and because of that, when they repent, I will respond.

Soon our Rosh Hashanah services will conclude and we will begin our spiritual and emotional preparation for Yom Kippur.  Take the time to really embrace these days and the power they exude.  Let is not be a time of cheap grace, but rather of costly grace.  The challenge of course is, how do we truly engage in this process of repentance; unfortunately there is no exact formula for atoning to God.  For me, I try to really read the words in the prayerbook.  I close my eyes and allow the haunting music of Kol Nidrei and Avinu Malkeinu to envelop my core and my being.  As I pound my chest during the ashamnu, I try to be present each time my closed fist touches my heart.  I try to acknowledge that the day is awesome, that on this day I truly am like an angel near to God.  This year I will try to picture myself like Eddie, chasing after the moving bus, weak, banging on the door, standing face to face with God, with moist eyes, fulling feeling the profundity of the moment when we open the ark and begin to sing of the grace and mercy of God.  And then I will hope that it will be enough, that God will let me in, and I will continue on my journey to find happiness, to find wholeness, to find peace.

Shanah Tovah.