In May of 2007, in the Old City of Jerusalem, I unexpectedly spent ten minutes talking with a Muslim man from East Jerusalem. In the time we shared, he expressed to me his strong desire for peace, he prayed that Jews and Muslims would some day learn to see that we have more that unites us than divides us, and he blessed me beginning with the phrase “May the G-d of our father Abraham . . . .” Six years later, I still frequently think about that man and his message of Unity and Oneness, with G-d and with my “cousins.”
This past Sunday evening, we went to our synagogue for an interfaith celebration of Iftar, the meal that Muslims eat to break the fast during each day of the month of Ramadan. At the beginning of the evening, a few Muslim speakers discussed the ways their families observe Ramadan. One of the women explained that each member of her family focuses on three tasks during the month:
(1) fasting, which for her family is not just about abstaining from food and drink during daylight, but is about purifying and correcting oneself, and finding ways to be a better person;
(2) praying, which involves attending a two-hour prayer service each night after the Iftar meal, in order to engage in an “on-going dialogue with G-d;” and
(3) giving charity, which includes giving both of one’s money and one’s time.
As she spoke, I was immediately struck by the similarity between her description of her family’s three priorities and the “tasks” encouraged by Jewish High Holiday liturgy.
On Rosh Hashanah, Jews recite the Unetanah Tokef, a rather dark prayer about G-d passing judgment on each of us. The prayer states that G-d will decide how long each of us shall live and determine how each of us will die (or suffer) in the coming year. But then we chant: “t’shuvah, t’fillah, and tz’dakah avert the severe decree.”
(1) t’shuvah means “return,” and indicates we are to return to acting from the pure soul that was planted within us by correcting any misbehavior;
(2) t’fillah is prayer, but it is different from prayers in which we ask G-d to provide for us, because instead it involves “reaching for” and “strengthening our bond with” G-d, without asking for anything; and
(3) tzdakah, which colloquially is used as “charity,” but actually means “justice,” reminding us of our duty to give to those in need, just as others have provided for us.
Rosh Hashanah begins the ten Days of Awe that end with Yom Kippur, the day on which it is said G-d “seals the book” containing the decisions about what will happen to each of us in the next year. Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, and the month before Tishrei is Elul. Because of the importance of the renewal and growth that can happen during the Days of Awe, many Jews begin preparing for those ten days during the month of Elul, which has become a month for introspection, for taking account of the ways in which we may have “missed the mark” in our quest to be holy people, and for engaging in additional t’shuvah, t’fillah, and tzdakah.
It just so happens that, this year, the first day of Elul began at sunset on Tuesday August 6th, and the month of Ramadan ended at sunset on Wednesday August 7th. Thus, the Jews who use the month of Elul to prepare for the High Holidays shared one day of “increased observance” with our Muslim cousins, and because t’shuvah, t’fillah, and tzdakah are the equivalent of fasting, prayer, and charity, it is as if we Jews accepted the “baton” from our Muslim cousins in a two-month relay-marathon toward a holier future. I pray that it might be, for all of us, a future filled with peace, unity, and abundant blessings from the G-d of our father, Abraham.