written by: Shaun Regenbaum, AJA Upper School
October 14, 2016
12 Tishrei 5777
There are a couple phrases we started saying these past couple weeks and will continue to say for some time. One of them is “Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah.” These are the things that will “revert the evil decree”. It is a confusing concept, but we will dissect it. This phrase in particular is extremely important for us to understand as it is the goal of the Chagim. We say a lot about how amazing H-shem is, about how merciful He is, about how omniscient He is, and how nothing is hidden from Him, but these praises all lead up to this phrase, this cry to H-shem. When looking from a purely literal point of view, they are quite shallow: “Repentance, Prayer, and Charity”. They are admirable, but these three actions seem oddly specific for getting ready for a new year, a better year.
In Pirkei Avot, the second Mishnah, we learn from a man named Shimon Hatzadik. He was the last member of the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah, the men of the great assembly, a group of geniuses who led the Jewish people in the first century. They rejuvenated Judaism to thousands of assimilating Jews. They brought meaning to Jews who were swaying off the path of their ancestors. They were great people, and Shimon Hatzadik, perhaps the greatest of them all stated: “On three things the world stands: On Torah, On Avodah, and on Gemilut Chasadim.” They literally mean “On Torah, On Work, and on Acts of Kindness.” These three pillars established by Shimon Hatzadik strongly resemble the three end goals we mention in our Davening: “Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah.” When we compare these lists to each other, an amazing realization can occur.
Teshuvah when translated means returning. Returning to what? Well, as Shimon Hatzadik tells us, Torah. We are returning to the main goals of life, those that align themselves with Torah. When we learn Torah, we learn how to live our lives, we learn our core values, and we learn the amazing depth of our world. We must return to the fundamentals of Torah, to the way of thinking presented by Torah, to the purpose of life taught by Torah. That is the first goal for these upcoming weeks: returning to the Torah, the most important part of Judaism.
Tefillah can literally mean debating or petitioning for yourself or for another. Debate and petitions involve two sides. One side has a goal, a hope to leave with something valuable. The other side has the ability to provide. In our case we are asking G-d, our father and provider for something. But what is it we are asking for? What is our Tefillah for?
We are asking for work, which is a surprising thing to ask for. Who wants more work, more things to worry about? Avodah (work) involves putting forth effort to receive the product of the work. We are not simply asking for work, but for opportunities to accomplish goals in life, specifically goals based on the Torah. We are asking H-shem for purpose and a path to meaningful accomplishment in life. We are arguing that the upcoming year not be a futile one, but a year full of achievement and success - a year where we do not waste our time like we did last year. Our right to Avodah changes us and creates personal meaning in our own lives. This is the second goal: to present our case to G-d that this upcoming year we deserve the right to learn, to understand, to achieve, to grow, and to succeed in Torah and in life.
Finally we have Tzedakah directly translated as righteousness or truth. This is a tough one to understand. The previous two aspects are personal. Teshuvah and Tefillah get us ready for the upcoming year with a strong Torah-based foundation, and a clear goal to achieve in the upcoming year, but righteousness involves more than just ourselves. A single man by himself in the world can never be righteous. Adam before Chava was not righteous, he only became righteous when someone else entered his life. The same applies for the idea of truth. If only one idea exists, can it be true? Well no, it is neither true nor false, it simply exists. Truth can only exist when we can compare it to alternatives. Tzedakah cannot exist by itself, it needs something or someone else. But why does Tzedakah need more than one person, compared to Torah and Teshuvah?
When we do Avodah we change ourselves, we grow and learn and all these wonderful things, we affect ourselves, but something else happens, too. We also have an outward impact. Tzedakah is the outward effect of Avodah. Shimon Hatzadik stated both Avodah and Gemilut Chasadim, acts of kindness, meaning that the personal effects of our actions are critical, but we must make sure to have a positive outward effect too. With Tzedakah we are hoping to create change in our surroundings, as well as in ourselves. We accomplish this through acts of kindness, through charity, through being a teacher and mentor. This is the third goal of the upcoming weeks and year, to be a positive influence on your environment, to have beneficial impact on the lives of others, to improve your society, and to achieve the status of a Tzadik.
These three things: Teshuva, Tefillah, and Tzedakah will remove all the negatives of the previous year, the evil decrees. If we promise to return to the fundamentals of Torah, to have clear purpose and work for our growth, and to have positive impact on the world around us this upcoming year, it will be the best yet. Shimon Hatzadik, someone who made impact on his surroundings, assures us that these commitments will provide a life full of success and meaning. So with that I wish you all a G’mar Chatima Tova, an assurance for good life in the coming year.