Global Jewish Reflections | It’s Elul, and This Brazilian Rabbi is Asking the Big Questions

As Rabbi Fernanda Tomchinsky-Galanternik prepares for the High Holidays, she's focusing on the Jewish values of avodah, Torah, and gemilut hasadim.

By Rabbi Fernanda Tomchinsky-Galanternik - Rabbi, Comunidade Shalom; São Paulo, Brazil | September 9, 2022

Rabbi Fernanda Tomchinsky-Galanternik leads a Jewish learning session in her home community of São Paulo, Brazil.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

The Jewish tradition believes the world is sustained by three pillars (Pirkei Avot 1:1): Torah, avodah (service), and gemilut hasadim (good deeds). It’s not just that the world is held up by them — it’s that if we let them, each of the pillars can also make us better people. Though the work of making ourselves better is a year-round task, when we arrive at the eve of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the trio seems to become a central part of our daily reflections.

Many of us are familiar with the term cheshbon hanefesh, the scrutiny of the soul we are supposed to engage in during Elul, the month preceding the High Holidays. We say that on Rosh Hashanah the books of life and death are opened, and they are closed and sealed on Yom Kippur. The calendar gives us a reminder that we need to look within ourselves, to acknowledge all the good things we’ve been doing and all the not-so-good things that represent areas for improvement. This is why the month of Elul is so important, and this is why we have the tradition of sounding the shofar (every day in the Ashkenazic tradition, and during the week before the holidays in the Sephardic tradition) — an actual alarm that is supposed to shake up our souls.

Still, the task of doing this very important cheshbon hanefesh might be easier to imagine on paper than to execute in real life. How exactly are we supposed to begin this process of looking inside? This year, I’d like to suggest we start with the three pillars that sustain the world and ourselves as individuals: Torah, avodah,and gemilut hasadim.

Taken literally, the Torah is this book where we find the history of the beginning of the world and the foundation of the Jewish people — but it can be so much more. Torah is the relation we have with our ancestral tradition, our families, our past, and our future. How much have we dedicated to our roots, to our history and our story? How much have we considered our Jewish heritage in our actions and in our daily lives? How much have we considered, and how much have we applied what we’ve uncovered? These are important questions, especially at this time of year.

This year, I’ve started my Kaplan Leadership Initiative fellowship in the DIRECTORES/Leatid Program, which works with Latin American Jewish communal professionals engaged in a diverse array of activities. It’s always been very clear to me how extremely important it is to have different institutions working to reach different Jews, and being part of the DIRECTORES program has deepened my knowledge of how we each can work to connect Jews with their own personal traditions and heritage. Everyone has a unique way of accessing their roots, history, and story, and I’m sure being part of the Kaplan fellowship — the Torah of what I’ll learn there — will enhance the way I ask and answer these questions and how I’ll help others ask and answer these questions of who we are today and who came before us. 

Rabbi Fernanda Tomchinsky-Galanternik leads a program for the fall Sukkot holiday.

Avodah can be a tricky word. Those who know Hebrew know we are talking about work, so this could mean that the question here is how much we’ve dedicated ourselves to work or how we’ve balanced our work with our personal lives. I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but avodah has a whole different meaning when speaking in the Jewish realm. Originally, avodah was the word used to define the Temple services (and yes, I do mean animal sacrifices). Then, when there was no more Temple, avodah shifted to simply meaning the work we do toward God — in prayer, for example. But cheshbon hanefesh demands a deeper question than simply if we prayed enough or not. Prayer is about getting in touch with ourselves and the surrounding world, with the spark of divinity in each one of us and everyone around us, with nature and also with God.

Have we paid enough attention to our needs? Have we noticed the ones around us and what they need? Have we done anything with all this “noticing”? Have we checked around us to see the impact we’re having in the world? Have we done anything to preserve the one and only earth that we have? And what about God? Have we found spirituality and divinity in our daily lives? Have we even looked for it?

Prayer is about getting in touch with ourselves and the surrounding world, with the spark of divinity in each one of us and everyone around us, with nature and also with God.

And then there’s gemilut hasadim, the good deeds. If you’re reading this, you have at least thought about them. Why am I so sure? Well, being part of any of JDC’s many initiatives already tips our scale into a good year — because being an active part, or a donor, of JDC means that we believe we have to put our Jewish values into practice to ensure a better tomorrow, to act where it’s needed, aspiring to a world where everyone can live their lives to their fullest. These are the questions  we have to ask ourselves when doing cheshbon hanefesh: Have we just learned about Jewish values, or have we also put them into practice? Have we done something to make this world a better place?

The world is sustained by three pillars: Torah, avodah,and gemilut hasadim. How have we lived our 5782, and how do we want to live 5783? If we haven’t done the work of reflecting, this is the month to do it.

I hope that we can enter 5783 with not only a commitment to Torah, avodah,and gemilut hasadim, but also by taking them into our daily lives.

Fernanda Tomchinsky-Galanternik

Fernanda Tomchinsky-Galanternik is a rabbi at Comunidade Shalom in São Paulo, Brazil. Married to Rabbi Leandro and the mother of Naomi and Taly, she believes that Judaism can give us the tools to make this world a better place. She’s also a proud Kaplan Leadership Initiative fellow participating in the eighth cohort of the Leatid/DIRECTORES program in Latin America.

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories