Teshuva. Tefilah. Tzedakah.
That’s what we will keep hearing next week, as we welcome the New Year. Those are the keys to unlock the door to a good New Year. Those are the balms, we read, for our souls that have missed the mark so many times over the last year.
I’m not so good with Tefilah, and Teshuvah is tough. I just studied a bit with my weekly Torah class on this topic. There’s a section of Deuteronomy (Chapter 30:1-10) that we read this time of year, in parashat Nitzavim. Within ten verses, the word “shuv” or turning, appeared eight times. That makes you pay attention. Turning back, turning inward, turning toward…it’s not just turning in circles. I don’t really want to go back to the beginning, or back at all. I would prefer to move on, maybe envisioning spirals instead of returning back to “Go.” Teshuvah, as “atonement” doesn’t really capture the idea; we go back to those times when we chose the lesser option, but we don’t stay there either. Rather, we use it to impel us move beyond, choosing better.
Now, Tzedakah has been in my heart and mind a lot. As many of you remember, I recently started coming downtown Chicago every day for a new job, and among all the good things, there is the constant reminder of those who literally have no place to go. I see the same people along Jackson Blvd, and if I change my route, I see completely different people, with the same needs.
Tzedakah isn’t charity; “charity” is from love, “tzedakah” is from righteousness. It’s not something we do out of the goodness of our hearts – it’s commanded that we live righteous lives, and that includes taking care of the vulnerable in our communities.
But it’s so hard, not the sharing or giving part, but the enormity of the need and feeling I can’t really help in any meaningful way. I’ve started talking to some of the women, especially. How did they get on the streets? It seems to start with “I moved here with/for this guy”. One day, there was a new face on the street, and she seemed so young. I gave her some money, but stayed to ask her name. “Do you have any family?” She had a mom. “Have you called her?” She’d been thinking about it. She’s the same age..younger, in fact…as my daughters. I imagined their faces, looking up from the hand-made cardboard sign. “Call her. Trust me, she’ll want to hear from you. Call her. If it were my daughter…” and I started tearing up. “Call her.” I haven’t seen her since, though I keep an eye out. Maybe she did call.
One woman I’ve seen regularly is named Michelle. Yesterday, it was getting chilly, so I offered her a cup of coffee, and asked how she takes it. She seemed surprised I asked. When I mentioned I was taking the coffee to a woman on the street, and the barista said, “Michelle?” Yes, Michelle. As I gave her the coffee, she hugged me. “I worry about you, Michelle. I don’t know how to help you.” She asked me to pray for her. I don’t know how.
Which brings us back to Tefilah. I’m still not so good with it, and I really don’t know how that helps Michelle, or any of the others I see. Maybe it’s connecting the three – Teshuva, Tefilah and Tzedakah – in a continuous spiral, one leading to the next and to the next. I’m better with action than with deep reflection, or at least, that’s the way it seems sometimes. Actually, I reflect on things all the time. Is that prayer? Is that “turning”? Is Tzedakah handing out the money, or is it looking for them each day? Good things to think about next week.