Not long after 9/11, I received a request for a ‘private’ meeting from a prominent Imam from Sudan. I decided to bring three ‘gifts’ to jumpstart our deliberations at the undisclosed (London) location.
The first gift brought a knowing smile from the Imam. It was a Hamsa. Deriving from the Arabic word for the number five, the Hamsa is an ancient Middle Eastern amulet symbolizing the Hand of G-d and for many, a sign of protection. For Jews, five (hamesh in Hebrew) represents the five books of the Torah and the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, "Heh", which represents one of God’s holy names. It symbolizes the Five Pillars of Islam for many Sunnis, and the Five People of the Cloak forShi'ites. This Hamsa was inscribed with Judaism’s Priestly Blessing.
Next, I produced my traveling companions—My Tallit-Prayer Shawl and Tefillin- Phylacteries, along with a pocket Hebrew Siddur—prayer book.
The Imam was dumbstruck: ‘Jews Pray’? he asked incredulously and we quickly fell into a discussion of the uniqueness and challenges of prayer. I quoted a wise sage who said if Prophecy is G-d reaching out to Man, Prayer is humankind reaching out to G-d. The Imam explained why he prays five times a day, I related why our Rabbis pegged the number at three. We both agreed anyone could pray anytime to our Father in Heaven…
Finally, I shared a lesson from the Talmud that discusses just who goes to heaven. ( Hint: Suicide bombers need not apply) Redacted by the great Medieval Theologian and Physician, Maimonides, it boils down to simple equation. G-d wants each of us to do good during our lifetime. If at least, 51% of your deeds were good, you’re going to heaven; 51% the other way means you are heading South. We are cautioned however, not to try to calculate the value of each good (or bad) deed, that calculus is the exclusive domain of the Lord. The Talmud’s best advise? No pressure, but before the next time to act, think of yourself at the 50/50 mark, with the next deed deciding your destination and perhaps the fate of your neighbor, community, or planet.
The good news is because Judaism does not believe in Saints—we are provided with one lifeline: Repentance.
Ripped someone off? Pay it back and ask forgiveness. Hurt someone’s feelings—have the class to tell them your sorry. It will make everyone feel better and inch you back in the right direction towards your ultimate destination.
Which brings us to the Jewish High Holy Days; it starts with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and culminates with Yom Kippur—The Day of Atonement, ten days later.
Those three gifts: Prayer, Repentance and Blessing are at the core of the ten-day spiritual marathon.
There’s nothing wrong with bringing your personal wish list of ‘must haves’ to Synagogue, but there a few caveats: This isn’t just about ME. It’s about US. The holy prayers, the wish lists are all written in plural. The message is clear: It’s community before the individual. And it’s not just about Jews. The entire world is straddling the 50/50 divide between good and evil, between redemption and destruction. Those of us with a front row seatbefore the heavenly court have the obligation to pray first for all others- before our own…
The Jewish concept of repentance introduced a revolutionary idea to the world: The possibility of change. Whether you’re 13, 30 or 113, G-d has gifted us with the tools to know and choose between right and wrong as well as the power to right a wrong. Freedom of choice, personal accountability…
Which brings us to the concept of a Bracha- or blessing.
We live in a time of extraordinary confusion and economic uncertainty. This New Year it’s worth looking at the Bible’s Priestly Blessing. (Numbers, 6; 22-27). It ends with: “May G-d lift up his face to you and give you peace.” That’s a reminder in these uncertain times, there's one blessing that is the most important of all- Peace. It is ultimate gift that secures all other blessings.
May we all merit a New Year of peace, good health, and renewal.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leading Jewish human rights organization with over 400,000 family members.