Words from the Rabbi – Rosh Hashanah 5784

I love writing ‘To Do’ lists.

Some might say I like them too much, as when I sat down to write these words I discovered I have over 130 To Do lists on my Notes app, going back to 2016, not to mention countless notebooks and scraps of paper.

For me at least, this time of year is full of To Do lists, with everything that needs to be done for the High Holy Day season that is rapidly approaching. There are services to prepare, sermons to write, people to speak to, volunteers to be organised and so much more. It’s a huge operation and I’m grateful to all the wonderful volunteers making sure that it will be as smooth as possible.

What’s on your pre-Rosh Hashanah To Do list?

Do you need to buy the apples and honey, bake the honey cake, send a New Year card? Are you making sure you’ve got some good reading material for Synagogue, or cleaning your tallit? Perhaps you’re dusting off the Machzor from last year, or contemplating the coming year and what you’d like to do differently.

According to the Talmud there is one important element we should not forget:

It is related that Rabbi Elazar would first give a coin to a poor person and only then would he pray. He said: As it is written in the same verse: “Then, in justice, will I behold your face” or rather “I will behold Your face through charity.” (Psalm 17:15)
-Babylonian Talmud Baba Batra 10a

Through a creative re-reading of the verse in Psalms, Rabbi Elazar understood that he shouldn’t pray without first giving some money to charity, helping out someone less fortunate than himself. Why should God heed our call if we don’t hear the desperate cries of those in need? Rabbi Elazar seems to be teaching us that prayer alone is unhelpful if we don’t also take practical steps to make the world around us better.

If you’ll be in Shul over the next few weeks, there will be a lot of praying, with services far longer than the rest of the year. The liturgy can be arcane and difficult, but with practice and with good preparation, it is also beautiful and can take you on a profound spiritual journey, to help you feel God’s presence, to feel in touch with your inner self and the person you could become. But before all that prayer starts, we should take a page out of Rabbi Elazar’s book, and make sure that we first put Tzedakah on our To Do lists, make sure we give some charity to those in need.

At Yom Kippur last year I spoke about the importance of Tzedakah. It’s considered to be a hugely important mitzvah, commandment, and a core component of the season. After all, at the deepest part of the central service of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, we declare that: “Repentance, Prayer and Charity can avert the evil of the decree”. We can repent and pray on the days of the festivals themselves, but Charity must be done before or after.

I’ve been so impressed with how the community has stepped up in the last year to do more Tzedakah. We formed a Tzedakah team and agreed to support the Hackney Night Shelter. We’ve raised money at Purim, through a Pub Quiz and had volunteers help staff several Sundays. It’s been amazing to see the good work of the shelter and to build a connection with a great local charity.

Once you’ve put Tzedakah on your To Do list, what will you actually do? There are so many ways to give. You might decide to give to a charity of your own that holds great personal significance, or to help a friend or neighbour who is struggling. As part of the work of our Tzedakah Team we have launched a High Holy Day appeal for the first time, where the money will be split between the Night Shelter and our own community. If you’d like to support our community in another way, you can contribute to my Rabbinic Discretionary Fund which I use to support members who are struggling, or to otherwise boost our Shul. If you’d prefer to get involved in person, we are looking for more volunteers to staff the Night Shelter on Sunday evenings, and have a WhatsApp group to discuss it. It’s not too onerous and is an amazing way to connect with local unhoused people. Let me know if you’d like to be connected to that group.

I was always taught that if something good happens in your life, you should give Tzedakah out of grattitude. And if something bad, God forbid, happens in your life, you should give Tzedakah as an act of repentance. Rain or Shine, the Jewish people respond by sharing what we have.

I hope you will add Tzedakah to your High Holy Day To Do list.

Shana tova umetukah, may you have a good and sweet new year,
Rabbi Roni