A Jewish New Year Message That’s Relevant to Everyone

The Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), offer a guide for introspection. We’re told to pause, take stock, confess our sins and repent: What have we contributed, to our family, our community, ourselves? Where did we go astray, do something harmful to someone else or to ourselves?

The Hebrew word “chet” is frequently used during the holiday services. Chet is usually translated as “sin.” But it comes from the Hebrew verb meaning “to miss the mark,” which conveys a very different meaning. As author Debra Darvick has written, “At a most basic level we Jews view sin not as a permanent birth stain upon our humanity, but as a regrettable action whose effect can be remedied.” Consider a dart board: if you throw a dart and it misses the board entirely, the dart isn’t defective, nor should we assume its user is a bad person. The user had poor aim. And that mistake can be corrected.

Another word we read throughout the High Holidays is “teshuvah.” It’s usually translated as “repentance” but it literally means “return,” as in turning back to something you’ve strayed from. So let’s put these two words together. The High Holidays call on us to acknowledge where we’ve missed the mark (chet), and then to repent (teshuva) by returning to something we’ve lost. Repentance also involves making amends with those we may have hurt.

Fine and good, but what are we to return to? The rabbis over the centuries have interpreted teshuvah as a return to: oneself, our core values, the essence or root of our soul, to God. To put it another way, we must return to our core, however we might define that.

The Jewish High Holidays call on us to:
• Identify where we’ve missed the mark
• Repent
• Return to what’s at our core

Some of our finest public and private organizations are successful, in large part, because they are fiercely dedicated to what they consider to be their core. For some organizations the core involves certain key disciplines. At the 3M Company, for example, that includes continual innovation and collaboration. For some, the core is about fundamental values. The U.S. Marines have long embraced the values of honor, courage and commitment. These aren’t just parts of a slogan, they’re baked into their training, evaluation, promotion and other key Marine processes.

And for others, the core is made up of their employees. FedEx, one of our most trusted companies, is committed to their P-C-P philosophy: create a positive work environment for the People (their employees) and they’ll provide world-class service to the Customers. The result: increased Profits, driven by delighted customers who keep using FedEx.

Leadership expert Stephen Covey used to preach, “The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” My initial reaction to this idea was negative; it seemed a bit cutesy. But I’ve come to see its wisdom. It challenges us to first figure out what our “main thing” is, and that’s not always clear. The Jewish High Holidays call on us to think deeply about what our main thing – our core – is.

If we’re to do that, as teshuvah suggests, we first must determine what that core is. And that is a search worthy of our greatest efforts.

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change. [more info]