Consequences: how our actions build character

The consequences of some actions are clear.

I drop a glass on the tile floor, and the glass shatters.

I turn away from someone who is talking to me, and something in the relationship shatters – in a small or a big way.

Over the span of a year, a decade, a lifetime – cause and effect tend to be less clear to us. How have our actions and their consequences added up over time? How have we built our character? Out of what have we built our character?

All of which makes me deeply grateful for the Jewish cycle of Holy Days, which are heading toward their annual high point.

It is said that on the Jewish New Year, our names are inscribed in the Book of Judgment. Who will live and who will die. Who will live in peace and who in anxiety.

It is said that ten days later – on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement – that Book, and our destiny for the year, are sealed.

During the in between days we are both cautioned and encouraged to engage in three sorts of actions that can assure us of being inscribed and sealed for a good year. (Interestingly enough, the seeking and granting of forgiveness with our fellow humans, a main focus of the whole period of time, is not among the three actions that can “avert the decree” of misery or death.)

Turning, or returning (in Hebrew, teshuvah), which involves heartful remorse, actions to repair or provide restitution for harm done, and resolve to refrain from repeating the behavior.

Prayer (in Hebrew, tefilah), an introspective and simultaneously connecting effort. The Hebrew root connotes both a discerning evaluation of oneself and a strengthening of ourattachment to God. This attachment exists as a matter of the nature of Reality, regardless of whether we feel “close” to God or not.)

Material acts of justice (in Hebrew, tzedakah), commonly understood to be an obligation to give charity, but which can be understood more broadly as acts that redress wrongs to individuals or to social groups.

There is a growing urgency as we near the end of our 26+ hour fast on Yom Kippur, our destiny all but sealed, yet even then our tears are said to be a gateway that remains open.

And the turning and re-turning, the discerning and attachment, the material acts of justice? On we go with these companions, day by day until the year turns once more, as we pause again to face the Character in the mirror.

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