On August 8, devastating wildfires swept across the island of Maui in Hawai‘i, which destroyed most of the historic town of Lahaina as well as other parts of the island and resulting in at least 115 deaths (as of this writing). The loss of life and property is tragic beyond measure, made worse by the fact that many people have still not been accounted for.
As reports of this tragic disaster reached the mainland, I was inundated with calls, texts, DMs, and emails from friends as well as people I have not spoken to in years. They all wanted to know how they could help those who were suffering on Maui. (For the record, I live on the island of O‘ahu, some distance from Maui.) Individuals as well as Jewish community leaders wanted to do something, anything, to help the people of Maui, even from thousands of miles away. Their outpourings of compassion and kindness filled my heart.
So often we are worn down by what seems like constant sensationalist news reports of people committing various heinous crimes. Yet this overflow of chesed (lovingkindness)—a fundamental principle of Judaism – reminded me that kindness resides within most of us who inhabit this blessed planet.
The time is upon us when we will once again celebrate the holiest of days on our Jewish calendar: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is traditionally a time of personal reflection, an opportunity to confront ourselves with honesty in identifying the aspects of our behavior that need improvement. We know there is always room to be better, do better. We can always be kinder, more compassionate, more generous (not only with charitable contributions but with our time). The day we give up and stop trying to be better people would be a day of true sadness.
The days between these holidays are known as Aseret Y’mei T’shuva, generally translated into the “Ten Days of Repentance.” The word “repentance” in this context is misleading. The Hebrew root of the word t’shuva comes from the word for “return.” What we are, in fact, doing is returning to God by tapping into the holy parts of ourselves that dwell within each of our souls. Instead of viewing these days as fraught with self-flagellation, we can ask ourselves: What can I do to be the type of person God wants me to be? And perhaps even more importantly: What can I do to be the type of person that I want to be?
We do not need to wait for a tragedy to reach out to others. There are people in our midst who are suffering and need help. Their stories are just not in the news headlines. There may be people you already know putting on a brave face who are in great pain on the inside. They may be lonely or coping with illness or facing financial hardship. Look around you and reach out with chesed to people who may be struggling or in need among your family, friends, coworkers or in your community.
Our High Holy Days t’shuvah challenge is to find ways we can be kinder, more helpful people, not just for the few days or weeks that follow the holidays, but on a regular and consistent basis. We do not need to wait for a local or distant tragedy to be our best possible selves. Performing acts of chesed (lovingkindness)—a Jewish obligation and true mitzvah—makes us not only better Jews but better people. This is a blessing for all of humanity.
L’shana Tovah U’m’tukah. Wishing you a sweet and happy New Year.