Subscribe to a Weekly Series

By Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky | Series: | Level:

“Utshuva, Utfila, Utzedaka ma’avirin et roah hagzeira.” Repentance, Prayer and Charity remove the unfavorable decree.”

Upon closer examination, this very moving climax of the Unethaneh Tokef prayer is puzzling. Doesn’t EVERY mitzvah that we do have the power to delay and remove an unfavorable decree! What did R’ Amnon, the author of this prayer, find unique in these three Mitzvoth?

To answer this question we will explore the nature of these three activities, and find the common denominator between them.

There is a parallel between these three activities and the three pillars upon which the world stands: Torah, Avodah (service), and Gemiluth Chasadim (acts of kindness). They reflect man’s attachment to G-d through each of his three dimensions: the intellectual/spiritual (Torah), the emotional (avodah), and the material (gemiluth chasadim). (We spent quite a number of shiurim on this idea, and I recommend seeing what we wrote in Perek 1: Mishna 2: Part 1,2,3,4,5)

The root of the word Teshuva is “Shav”, return. This raises two questions: FROM where are is one coming, and TO where is one RETURNING?

An even deeper question about Teshuva arises from studying a famous Gemara in Rosh HaShana (17b).

” And G-d passed over (Moshe’s) face and He called… Rav Yochanan says “If it wouldn’t be written, it would be forbidden to say it (on our own). This teaches us that G-d wrapped himself as the Shliach Tzibbur, and showed Moshe the order of prayer. G-d said to Moshe ‘Any time that the Jews sin, they should follow this service, and I will forgive them. (Now the Talmud begins to analyze the 13 attributes of mercy.) HaShem, HaShem: I am HaShem (G-d of mercy) before man sins, and I am HaShem after he sins and repents.”

We understand why we need G-d to be the G-d of mercy after man sins and repents. But why the need for G-d’s mercy BEFORE man sins?? The Maharal, in Netiv HaTeshuva, Ch. 5 writes:

A principle and a foundation of Teshuva is that a person should be embarrassed over the sin he has done, and because of his embarrassment he is received in teshuvah. (Berachot 12b): “Rav Chinina Saba says in the name of Rav: ‘Anyone who commits a sin and is embarrassed, has all his sins forgiven…’ “

We need an explanation how embarrassment brings atonement and forgiveness for ones sins.

A person always tries to remove himself from an embarrassing situation. (How do you feel when someone sees you doing something you don’t want him to know about? How you wish you could just disappear!) One who is embarrassed by a sin shows that he is actually detached from his action, even as he does it. A person who is distanced from sin deserves to have those sins forgiven… On the other hand, an “az panim”, a person with chutzpah, shows that he isn’t bothered by these kinds of situations, but (in justifying his actions through his chutzpah) makes them part of his essence.

The root of Teshuvah is admission and confession of his sin, which brings G-d to accept his repentance. Through his admission, he gives himself over to G-d, returning himself completely to G-d.

The concept of admitting means giving myself over, submission, to the person who has a claim against me. To admit to G-d that we have sinned is an admission that we have not lived up to our potential or our responsibilities. To do this requires an intellectual recognition of G-d, our responsibilities toward Him, and our true relationship to Him. The result of this submission and recognition is to create a bond between ourselves and the one to whom we have admitted our debt — the Almighty.

Even before we have sinned, man’s soul is distanced from G-d by the very act of G-d creating a physical world. Sins simply increase that distance. The possibility of return, of getting closer to the Divine source of our existence, is the result of G-d’s mercy, giving man an opportunity to transcend the limitations imposed upon him by the creation process.

From the above, we learn that Teshuva really means coming closer to the source of our existence, after having been distanced from it.

The Maharal in Netiv Ha’Avodah (on the subject of prayer and service) Ch. 1 writes:

“The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to G-d; the prayer of the upright is His desire (Proverbs 15:8).

When man prays before G-d, declaring his need and dependence, he shows that he belongs to G-d (the way a slave belongs to an owner because of his dependence). This is why prayer is the essence of service, as it demonstrates man’s complete dependence on and subjugation to G-d.

With physical sacrifices, we give our possessions over to G-d. With prayer, we give OURSELVES over to G-d, by demonstrating our complete dependence on Him.

What is the effect of dependence? (We are referring to healthy dependence, not psychological or emotional dependence based on insecurity.) A closeness is forged. What happens between a mother and a baby, as the baby moves from the maximum dependence of the womb to nursing at the breast to being spoon fed to walking for himself, continuing on to greater and greater independence? The closeness of the relationship between the mother and child diminishes. The more we are dependent on someone, the closer we are to that person. As dependence decreases, there is a greater distancing.

Demonstrating our true dependence on G-d requires an emotional commitment. By bringing a sacrifice (which is really in place of sacrificing himself: see Ramban at the beginning of Vayikra) man makes a commitment of his emotional dimension to G-d.

Prayer, emanating from a recognition that fulfillment of our needs are dependent on G-d, forges a bond between our emotional dimension and the Almighty.

The Maharal, in Netiv Hatzedaka (on the subject of charity) Ch. 1, writes:

One who pursues charity and kindness will find life, righteousness and honor. (Proverbs 21:21)

(The Maharal is bothered by the connection between charity and life.) You find that (Biblical) mention of charity is accompanied with “life.” For the charity that ones bestows upon the poor person to enable him to live, is life itself. So he who gives charity (being a source of life) deserves life for himself… for death is not found at the SOURCE of life…

We learn in Bava Batra (9B)…One who PURSUES charity is provided by G-d with money to do charity. (How many of us PURSUE charity, going out to look for the needy to give them our money?)

This is a unique aspect of charity. Whenever one bestows charity on others, G-d assists him by providing more money that ENABLES him to continue bestowing charity on others. This is because one who bestows on others is compared to a flowing spring whose waters flow great distances. G-d, who is the source of all bounty bestows resources upon this person in order that he should be able to bestow and share these resources. This parallels a flowing spring which continues to receive water from the underground source as long as, and in order that, its water continues to flow. The more it produces, the more it is replenished.

This explains why “Tithes are the protection of wealth” (Avot, Ch. 3, Mishna 13). If man holds on to resources that G-d gave him for the purpose of transmitting them to others, G-d takes them back. They were given to enable man to imitate G-d as one who bestows on others. Only one who utilizes them properly, imitating G-d by giving them to others, merits that G-d, the infinite and unending source of those resources, should continue supplying him with additional resources to bestow. This enables man to more fully imitate G-d as an unending source of charity and kindness.

The Maharal also explains why “He who turns his eyes away from charity is like one who turns to Avodah Zarah, false gods.” (Bava Bathra 10a) (Comparisons used by the Rabbis — x is like y — indicate intrinsic relationships, rather than simply a graphic way of telling us that they think something is bad or good.) G-d is called the “mekor hachayim”, the source of life, for He unceasingly bestows all life and existence. But Avoda Zarah, which may have the power to provide some resources, is not the SOURCE of those resources. Therefore, he who turns his eyes away from charity, keeping his resources exclusively for himself, distances himself from G-dly behavior and from G-d, as he attaches himself to other, limited sources of resources. (This would be the behavior of a person who measures his existence by how much he HAS, as opposed to how much he gives and accomplishes; as well as a person who only gives with the expectation of getting back even more. They view their resources as very limited, coming from limited sources, and they rely on unreliable sources of sustenance — precisely “Avodah Zarah.”)

Additionally, explains the Maharal, this person, who is not sharing his resources with others, undermines the unity of the Jewish nation, compromising its ability to be attached to the one G-d.

Since G-d is completely devoid of any physicality, there are limited ways that man can bring his physical dimension closer to G-d. It can only be done through proper utilization of his material resources, through acts of kindness to his fellow men. As man imitates G-d, bestowing resources on others, he becomes closer to Him. Additionally, giving to others brings man closer to the recipients. Since these recipients are themselves created “b’tzelem Elokim,” as reflections of G-d, becoming closer to them is a way to become closer to G-d.

It is through Tzedakah that man elevates his physical dimension closer to G-d.

“Ro’ah ha’gzeirah.” The unfavorable decree. Why would G-d issue such a decree? It is certainly not out of vindictiveness. As everything G-d does, it is directed towards the purpose of creation.

With creation, a distance was created between G-d and man. Our ultimate purpose is to return everything to the unity of G-d’s essence. All the resources of the world are given to us to be utilized in pursuit of that goal.

Through sin, man moves further away from the ultimate unity of the world. If man misallocates G-d given resources for his own gratification, aggrandizement and personal pleasure, rather than for the purpose of serving and imitating G-d, then he may be deprived of those resources. Nothing can be more devastating than deprivation of resources necessary for our purpose of existence. This is the punishment of “roah ha’gzeirah.”

Teshuva, Tefilla, and Tzedaka are the three categories of activities that bring man closer to G-d, maximizing the unity between man and G-d. These are the activities that can transform an unfavorable decree, moving G-d to replenish us with the resources necessary to continue in furthering this unity.

This is the unique challenge of the days leading up to Yom Kippur, when the Jews are truly unified. In their angel-like behavior, there is no disunity, there is no pursuit of material and selfish goals. With proper preparation of Teshuva, Tefilla and Tzedaka, we can reach a state where the barriers between us and G-d dissolve, bringing us closer to Him. This closeness defines our essence, with our sins being incidental to our real existence. This is the secret of the removal of unfavorable decrees. This is the secret of the Atonement of Yom Kippur.

Gmar Chatima to everyone.

The class is taught by Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky, Dean of Darche Noam Institutions, Yeshivat Darche Noam/Shapell’s and Midreshet Rachel for Women.