A High Holy Days Reflection on Teshuva, Hope and Giving

There is a famous story about a chaplain who visited a jail to deliver a sermon to the inmates. While ascending the podium to speak, he tripped and fell flat on his face. The room erupted in laughter. He picked himself up and went over to the podium and said, “I have just concluded my sermon; the moral is that even when a person falls flat on his face, he can rise up again. The important thing is to never give up hope.”

As we begin High Holy Days, we are reminded of this very same principle: never to lose hope. The start of the new year is a reminder that we can always start fresh. This is the time of teshuvah, or repentance. But repentance in Judaism does not mean what it means in English. Teshuvah means turning or returning. … Returning to who we were created to be. Turning inward, turning to those around us, and turning toward the Source of all hope and healing.

The passage of the Torah that we read on Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) describes Moses, at the age of 120 years, who tells the Children of Israel that he feels he has become too old to lead them, and that he no longer has any energy to lead them. He begins by almost giving up, yet he then goes on to deliver what many scholars have described as the most powerful sermon ever given.

We are capable of far more than we believe. Too often, we give up before we even try. But the Torah reminds us that G!d is always waiting for us to return to our truest selves – the parts of us that are still capable of faith and hope, despite the cynicism and hurt that the year may have brought us. Maybe we believe ourselves to be unable to do what we used to do, even as Moses began his most important speech with words of self-doubt.

Sometimes our biggest obstacle is ourselves. We fail to believe in ourselves. We fail to believe in those around us. We fail to believe in G!d. The message of the High Holy Days is that we need to remember to believe in ourselves, even when it feels like all is lost. We need to remember that G!d believes in us, and that we have been chosen to be G!d’s partners in completing the work of creation.

Remembering those who have faith in us can be one of the most critical ingredients. The biggest gift we can give someone else is our faith in them – our ability to look past their limitations, and see their potential.

Consider the well-known story of self-made millionaire Eugene Lang, who changed the lives of a sixth-grade class in East Harlem several years ago. Mr. Lang had been asked to speak to a class of 59 sixth-graders. He struggled with what he could say to inspire these students.

From a purely statistical perspective, he knew that the vast majority of them would drop out of school within a few years. Part of him felt like giving up, and part of him worried about what seemed like an impossible task. He wrote and prepared and showed up with pages of words he hoped would be inspirational. He stood before the children, and realized that his words would sound empty and hollow.

Scrapping his notes, he decided to speak to them from his heart. “Stay in school,” he admonished, “and I’ll help pay the college tuition for every one of you.” At that moment the lives of these students changed. For the first time, they had hope. Said one student, “I had something to look forward to, something waiting for me. It was a golden feeling.” Nearly 90 percent of that class went on to graduate from high school.

We forget how powerful hope can be – how tremendously transformative it can be – in our own lives, and in the lives of those we meet. More important than anything we can do, what matters is what we believe, about ourselves, about others, about G!d. Our attitude is so important.

At these High Holy Days, we are reminded of this important message – we should never give up – not on ourselves, and not on others. As George Eliot once said: It is never too late to become who you were meant to be.

There is a tradition to give tzedakah (charity that makes for justice) during this High Holy Day period of time, as a way of helping ourselves be who we were created to be, and in the process, assist others in doing the same.

One way that can transform lives is to make a donation to the Jewish Hospital and St. Mary’s Foundation, which provides scholarships to help Jewish Hospital employees be able to pursue their education. Generous gifts such as these can transform the lives of entry level employees who may simply have never had anyone who believed in them and supported them … and it can transform their families … and it can transform us all. …

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention warns that there is a looming shortage of nurses and health care providers in our country that will lead us to a public health crisis. However, thanks to the generosity of donors, we can change this dire prediction for our city.

Donating to the Jewish Hospital and St. Mary’s Foundation means that future caregivers are able to receive the scholarships that can ensure that we, and our children, will be able to continue to receive the miraculous, pioneering and award-winning care that we have come to depend on in our city.

To learn more about how you can make a tax-deductible gift that can save lives: http://www.kentuckyonehealth.org/giving.

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