April 13, 2024 |

Repentance, prayer and tzedakah can avert the evil decree

"The year and its curses has ended." A Sephardic poem sung on Rosh Hashanah Eve repeats this refrain eight times before ending with a glimmer of hope, "May the year and its blessings begin."

If we could only close the door and turn the key on everything that happened to the Jewish people and the world in the past year, I think that many of us would be pleased to do so. However, borders in time, like borders in space, can't be sealed. Gateways in time, unlike the doors to our homes, cannot be closed. Time always flows forward. We can look back but we can’t stop or stand still. We can't undo what has been done even if, sometimes, we can neutralize some of the effects.

Borders in time, like borders in space, were created by people. Even though there are traditions that the world was created in Tishri and the liturgy refers to Rosh Hashanah as the anniversary of creation, the Rabbis taught that when the angels wanted to know when Rosh Hashanah would be, God referred them to a human court. Our beliefs and actions fill the day with meaning. Therefore, the prayer-book says, "We proclaim this day's sanctity…"

"We proclaim this day's sanctity because it is an awesome, frightening day…" The continuation evokes fear and helplessness. The High Holiday prayer-book is full of judicial imagery in which the individual always stands alone, facing the highest tribunal. Even in those sections that do not use judicial imagery, people are portrayed passively. The liturgical poets apparently thought that these images would move people to act but its not at all certain that this is indeed the most effective means. Helplessness can lead to paralysis and desperation can lead to drastic acts.

It is impossible to imagine that these are the desired results. Jewish tradition expects us to live active, positive lives. Further down the page, we find the keys to positive action that direct us towards the right path and return some of the control to our hands: "Repentance, prayer and tzedakah (charity/good deeds) can avert the evil decree."

The usual melodies repeat time and again, "On Rosh Hashanah, it is decreed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed." But the more encouraging "repentance, prayer and tzedakah annul the evil decree" is recited only once. Therefore, I would like to take a moment now to examine these words in a little more depth. Although these are actions we are prescribed to take, I will not go into the "how to" (there are enough books on that) but rather the "why." Why are these three actions so important on Rosh Hashanah and how can they avert the evil decree?

The Hebrew word tzedakah is derived from a root meaning justice. Unlike charity, it is not an optional activity. We are commanded to take some of our hard-earned money and share it with the needy. There are those who would say that this is neither fair nor just but the Torah is not interested in simple fairness but rather in a larger sense of justice and a reduction of socio-economic gaps. This is true not only of the realm of tzedakah that deals with monetary donations but also for other deeds of loving-kindness (gemillut hasadim). Despite that fact that the ourselves and our families are the proper focus of our daily interests, especially when it comes to earning a living, tzedakah requires that we lets others, even people we’ve never met, share some of the pie.

The prayer component of the repentance process is not ritual prayer between a person and God but rather reflective prayer within the person, in the presence of God, a moment when we look at ourselves from the side and measure our deeds by a different scale. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught:

We do not step out of the world when we pray, merely see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub, but the spoke of the revolving wheel. In prayer we shift the center of living from self to self-surrender... Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest, and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy. For when we betake ourselves to the extreme opposite of ego, we can behold a situation from the aspect of God.

Throughout the entire process, it should be stressed that we are not talking about obliterating the self or even reducing its value but only about maintaining a proper sense of proportion. As Hillel taught: "If I am not for myself, who will be but if I am only for myself, what am I?"

Repentance is the correction of our course and the implementation of the conclusions reached during prayer. It is the hardest part of the process and always has been. The Talmud offers this imagery which might be helpful:

Every individual should always consider himself evenly balanced: half sinful and half righteous. If that person performs one mitzvah, happy is he, for he has tilted the scale towards righteousness. If he commits one sin, woe unto him for he has tilted the scales toward sinfulness. Rabbi Elazar son of Simon said: Since the world is judged according the majority of its deeds, and the individual is judged in accordance with the majority of his deeds, if he performs one mitzvah, happy is he, for he has tipped his scales and the scales of the world toward merit. However, if he commits one sin, woe unto him, for he has tipped the scales towards sinfulness for himself and for the world. (TB Kiddushin 40b)

This approach tries to balance the importance of individual actions with the impossibility of human perfection. On the one hand, every act has the potential to be of critical importance, if not for the entire world, then for a smaller world—a family, a community, work-place or even a single individual. Every human being is created in the image of God and is equivalent to the entire world.

On the other hand, the impossibility of human perfection is fully acknowledged. Perfection is a divine characteristic and we can’t expect people to be divine. All that is required is an effort to do better and a desire to keep improving. Even if the good we do in this world is only slightly weightier than the damage, we get another chance.

Therefore, "Repentance, prayer and tzedakah can avert the evil decree." How?

The evil decree is averted, transformed and/or nullified by these deeds because they are signs of the correct priorities and balanced action. If we accept the traditional image of a divine accounting of our deeds, we could say that God is pleased and changes his decree. If we don't take the image literally, the process still works. The evil decree is the natural result of bad priorities, selfishness and deeds that ought not to have been done. Re-establishing proper priorities, balanced perspective and good deeds will transform the evil decree.

That’s all very nice, until we walk out of here. Sometime soon—tomorrow, the next day or next week—we are going to realize that the inspiration and our good intentions have melted away. How can we keep our priorities straight when numbing routine overwhelms us?

Earlier, I compared Rosh Hashanah to a gate. What is the difference between a Jewish door or gate and any other door or gate? The mezuzah. Like doorways in space, the gate in time that we call Rosh Hashanah also has a "mezuzah." That "mezuzah" is the shofar.

Lest the comparison seem far-fetched, let's look at Maimonides' comments on these two commandments.

On the shofar, he wrote:

Awake, slumberers, from your sleep and rouse you from your lethargy. Search your deeds and turn in repentance. Remember your Creator, those who forget truth in the trifles of the hour, who go astray all your years after vain illusions that can neither profit nor save. Look to your souls and mend your ways and your actions; let every one of you leave his evil path and his unworthy purpose. Seek the way of God; this is the meaning of life.

About the mezuzah, he wrote

Whenever a person enters or leaves a home he encounters the Oneness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and will remember His love. He will wake up from sleeping and from indulging things that are senseless and short-lived. He or she will learn that nothing stands forever except the knowledge of the Creator of the Universe. And immediately he will return to their innermost core and walk in paths of straightness."

The main ideas are remarkably similar. Maimonides considers both the shofar and the mezuzah to be spiritual alarm clocks. We hear the shofar only on Rosh Hashanah but the mezuzah is always available. Therefore, we should listen with to the shofar with the intention of recalling its sound whenever we really look at a mezuzah. May it help us find the strength to keep our priorities straight and act in responsible, balanced manner that will modify the evil decrees.


Shoshana Michael Zucker

Joined: September 27, 2007

A professional translator, wife and mother of three, I more a self-educated than a formally educated Jew. Most of my divrei torah are given in Hebrew but when I have time I do translate some.

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