Art by Zalman Kleinman | Courtesy Rosa Kleinman | Via Zev Markowitz / Chai Art Gallery
Art by Zalman Kleinman | Courtesy Rosa Kleinman | Via Zev Markowitz / Chai Art Gallery

The "Ten Days of Awe," which begin with Rosh Hashanah and culminate in Yom Kippur, are characterized by heightened activity in three areas of our lives: teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah, commonly translated as "repentance," "prayer" and "charity" respectively.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out, however, that these three English words are poor conveyers of the true meaning of these three actions. In fact, not only do "repentance," "prayer" and "charity" fail to express the full significance of teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah, the three mistranslations represent ideals and concepts which are, in many ways, the very opposite of their true import in a Jew's outlook and experience.

Return to Self

"Repentance" means regret and rejection of the past. The penitent is one who opens a new phase in his life — one that is divorced from his former sinful state. Teshuvah, however, is the Hebrew word for "return."

The baal teshuvah (literally, "master of return") is a person who rediscovers, and recovers, his past. "Repentance" is an apt term for a world-outlook which views man as basically (or at least partially) evil, and so attributes his failings and misdeeds to something that is inherent in human nature. Accordingly, the penitent is a person who succeeds in changing himself, in overcoming and repenting the negative in himself; he rejects his past, abandoning his original state for a purer and holier existence. The Torah, however, views reality in completely different terms. The soul of man is originally, essentially and inherently good. For man to act wrongly is an aberration, an event that is utterly inconsistent with his true self. A person sins only when his inner will is suppressed and distorted; it is an irrational act, stemming from a state of mental, emotional and spiritual confusion. To do teshuvah is to regain one's senses, to return to one's quintessential will and reestablish it as the master of one's life.

"Repentance" involves a drastic transformation of self which few can aspire to truly achieve. But no individual can possibly be too far gone to do teshuvah. Teshuvah, after all, is the return to one's true I.

From this derives another important difference: while "repentance" is a prescription for sinners, teshuvah is a constant in every person's life. Although teshuvah is the way to rectify past wrongs, this does not define its function. The most pious and virtuous individual must also be constantly doing teshuvah: forever delving into and retrieving yet deeper strata of self, forever seeking to actualize yet a more lofty potential of the soul.

Ascending Heart

"Prayer" and "tefillah" flow in opposite directions: prayer is "top down," while tefillah is a "from the bottom up" movement.

The directional difference reflects basic differences in what these two words mean and imply. To "pray" is to beseech, to beg for what one lacks. In other words, there is something which you need or want and are unable to obtain on your own, and there is someone else — wealthier, wiser, more powerful — who can grant your request. So you appeal to him, asking for what is beyond your reach to be bestowed from "above." One who lacks nothing, it follows, has no need for prayer.

The literal rendering of the Hebrew word tefillah is "attachment." Tefillah is our striving to refresh our attachment to our creator. Every soul is intrinsically connected with G‑d, a bond which it retains after entering into the body and assuming a physical existence. But the needs and mundane distractions that come with the physical state tend to cloud our vision, distort our priorities and undermine our connection with the Almighty and our commitment to the purpose of our creation. So, three times a day, we realign the focus of our lives. Through tefillah we communicate with our creator, expressing and augmenting our soul's eternal attachment to its divine source.

In tefillah we also request our needs of the Almighty. In doing so, we recognize and acknowledge that our physical lives are not divorced from our spiritual selves and are not distinct and apart of our relationship with G‑d. On the contrary, our earthly life fuels and enhances that relationship: when utilized and oriented to develop the world in accordance with G‑d's will, not only does the physical not obscure our attachment with G‑d but it is the key to the intensification and deepening of that connection.

Thus, to pray for our daily bread is part of, but not the essence of tefillah. Tefillah is much more than an expression of the desire to be the passive recipient of a grant bestowed from above. It is the upward flow of the soul's yearning to cleave to its maker, a flow that carries up with it the physical self and its needs, refining and elevating them by making them part of the soul's connection with its Source.

The Honest Banker

Tzedakah is not "charity" — the word means "justice." One who gives "charity" is a great guy: out of the goodness of his generous and compassionate heart, he gives some of his hard-earned money to a poor, penniless soul.

The Jew, however, knows that the money is not his. The resources in his possession have merely been placed in his trust, on the understanding that he will put them to proper use. If his fellow needs to be fed, and he has been blessed with the means to feed him, then he is merely forwarding the funds as per the depositor's instructions. To fail to do so would be a violation of the trust which the Almighty placed in him. To give is simply a matter of basic honesty and justice.