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Monday, August 26, 2013

Teshuvah, Tefilah, Tzedakah

Elul 21

The three tenets of the High Holy Days can be described as Teshuvah (repentance), Tefillah (prayer) and Tzedakah (charity).  We know these Hebrew words are important, for they are at the center of the worship services for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - the two holiest days of the year.

If those ideals are at the center of our thoughts, then I'd like to challenge their English translations - for they are difficult to understand and somewhat childish, if looked at too literally, but more on that in a minute.

The place where these three words are present come at the end of Unetaneh Tokef prayer.  Unetaneh Tokef  and its surrounding liturgy discuss in pretty serious detail that "on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live and who will die; who will be rich and who will be poor..." and what method of death those who die will suffer. The end of the section exclaims: "But repentance, prayer and charity will temper judgement's severe decree," insinuating that if you repent, pray and give charity you can rest a little easier.  I don't about you, but I'm theologically and ideologically challenged by the notion of predestined fate, especially based on how much someone prayers or gives in charity.

Therefore, I'd like to suggest the following more palatable way of looking at the words Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah.

  • Teshuvah means literally to return. It can be interpreted as repent as in wiping a slate clean.  Teshuvah is about recognizing your true and honest essence, without all the baggage and extra self-imposed expectations, successes and failures.  Returning to a clean, true essence of who you are is the only way to understand transgressions, fears, accomplishments and threats.  
  • Tefillah literally means prayer.  In Hebrew, the verb is reflexive, indicating that it is something that has to oneself. By the very nature of the word, it's turning us inward, asking us to examine ourselves. God doesn't need our prayers, we need to offer them. 
  • Tzedakah is often erroneously translated simply as charity.  The root is tzedek meaning just and right.  Completely acts of charity are surely just and right, but they don't define the word. Doing what is needed in this world for those who need it most might be charity, but it is what is commanded of us to be just. 
Who will live and who will die - this is a tough thing for us to think about.  But actually, it's fairly normal.  For better or for worse, there are people who will die between this Yom Kippur and next.  Some will be of an old age and have lived a full life.  Some will be young and taken from us way too soon.  Some will die quickly and quietly without suffering; and others, unfortunately, will see pain and suffering before their death.  There is no rhyme or reason for this - illness, for the most part is purely random.  To suggest that there is a magical Book of Life that records who's been "naughty or nice" is folklore and scary that action or inaction can predispose someone to life or death, painful or painless.  That is not the Judaism that I signed up for. 

Rather, consider that giving yourself the space to be a person that searches for your essence is an important aspect of Teshuvah. Praying inwardly for peace inside yourself and then for the world is Tefillah. And,  Tzedakah means using that true essence and prayerful/intentional space for good in the world through acts of justice and righteousness is completing a circuit of goodness in your life.  Thus, when we die - and we all will - we will not fear death, but rather reflect on a life with the dignity and courage of a life lived with true essence, prayerfulness and justice.  

The clincher for me, is that all of this possibility - every bit of it - lies completely within each of us.  

Cantor Seth Warner

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