One of the key prayers of our Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur liturgy is unesaneh tokef. Not only does this prayer have an emotive melody, but the words were written to generate feelings of both remorse and awe: On Rosh HaShannah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die …
At the end, we cry out that teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah will remove the evil of the decree. Many translate the words teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah as repentance, prayer and charity. However, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson z”tl explained in a discourse that those translations were not accurate. In truth, his discourse was about the difficulty and danger of translation as there is often an assumption that for every word in one language, there is an equivalent in another.
The Rebbe explained that when dealing with fundamental ideas such as teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah, we must be very careful to understand each one correctly. Often, when looking for equivalent words in other languages, we may mistakenly equate a Jewish value with an idea from another culture.
Repentance, says the Rebbe, is not teshuvah but charatah. These terms are not only dissimilar but in many ways opposites. Charatah implies remorse for the past and a pledge to not repeat the offence in the future. Teshuvah from the Hebrew root lashuv means to returning to the old, to a person’s nature prior to the sin. Worldly desires and instant gratification may distract him from who he really is – a good, moral and principled person – but his inherent being remains unchanged. Repentance means recognition of past mistakes and starting over, teshuvah – returning means revealing and rediscovering a person’s true holy nature.
Prayer in Hebrew is bakashah, meaning request or beseech. The Rebbe, basing himself on Genesis 30:8 and the explanation of the medieval commentator Rashi, the word tefillah means a connection with G-d. While prayer indicates a movement from above – from G-d to man, granting our wishes – tefillah is a movement from below, from man to G-d. People who have everything they want, may not need to make requests of G-d, but everyone needs to attach themselves and make a connection with him.
Lastly the word charity in Hebrew is chessed not tzedakah. Chessed implies that the recipient has no particular right to receive help and the giver is under no obligation to provide it. Tzedakah however, means righteousness or justice. The implication is that the donor gives out of a sense of duty.
These three acts help us to merit a year that will be written and sealed for good. Teshuvah allows us to return to our innermost self. Tefilah helps us to form a positive relationship with G-d. Tzedakah teaches us to turn outwards and be righteous and just to others.
May we all merit a year of blessing and success together with the rest of the Jewish people.