We celebrated Jewish New Year last week, and we are now in the “Days of Awe,” the ten Days of Repentance in between Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). As a child, the days of repentance were an apology window. We recite every year that “Teschuvah [Repentance], Tefilah [Prayer], and Tzedakah [Charity] temper judgement’s severe decree,” and so I would rack my brain for people I had wronged. But why does repentance loom so large to me, when there are three actions that can help us be signed and sealed in the Book of Life?
Jewish friends on social media are posting their holiday reflections. Someone recommended the Stuff Jews Should Know podcast, and I listened to and loved their Rosh Hashanah and Days of Repentance episodes. They dug into the word Teschuvah. We most commonly translate it to Repentance, but perhaps it could more accurately be translated from the Hebrew as Return, as in return to self.
The cyclical nature of life is a frequent theme in Judaism. We have a holiday in which the congregation rolls the Torah scroll back to the beginning after reading the last parsha [section]. We fully unroll it first, as if to say, “see all we discussed this year. We return to the beginning to build another year layered on tradition. We are enriched by the perspectives of this lived year, and from the knowledge our history has brought to this year of our lives.” Challot are symbolically round during Rosh Hashanah. Per the podcast, in the orbit of our year, this is the time we are closest with G-d.
And so I love the interpretation of teschuvah as return. It implies that there is a good core on which to build. Teschuvah, according to the podcast, also invites us to consider not how we sinned but how we missed the mark; did we express our best selves during the year? If not, can we? We have ten days to clarify our goals and start building new patterns.
How can we translate Tefilah and Tzedakah? I don’t speak Hebrew. These interpretations are my own. This year, tefilah is intention. If the larger goal for the year is to course-correct and live as our best selves, we must regularly consider and articulate what that is, and then affirm it through practice. Awareness, articulation, and action are part of intention and tefilah for this year.
Tzedakah is easy in our modern world. Like many of you, I have automatic deductions set up to give monthly donations to different organizations. This is a start. But the translation to “charity” seems too simplistic, because the word reinforces the idea that we give to those who have nothing. In fact, we donate to those those who have something to give, but are hindered by lack. And when we give, we receive. Individually we receive the satisfaction of giving and often our wallets don’t hurt for the donation, so it is like we get something for nothing. Societally, we reap the benefits of what that person or institution is able to contribute, now that they are not in need. In the end, there is more than simply what was given. And so this year, I will think of tzedakah as amplification. Whose voices, whose missions, whose worthy practices do we amplify? What within ourselves is worthy of this support?
In these ten days, I look forward to my connection with my core self, return; my practice of my best self, the action that follows my guiding intention; and in seeing a world made better by voices that deserve to be heard, amplification. May you be signed and sealed in the Book of Life, and enjoy a sweet and good new year.