Please Don’t Give Charity
Rabbi Sholom Keselman
“U’nesaneh Tokef” is one of Rosh Hashanah’s most solemn and arousing prayers. It describes how all must pass before G-d in judgment. He decides who will live and who will die, who will be healthy and who sick, who will prosper and who not, and so forth. The prayer culminates with the famous declaration: “And teshuvah, and tefillah and tzedakah, can remove any and all evil decree.”
We have become used to translating this as: “And repentance, and prayer, and charity can remove any and all evil decree.” This translation, however, not only doesn’t do justice to these three important Hebrew words; it is entirely inaccurate.
“Repentance” means “to regret one’s past and start anew.” It is about becoming someone different than who you were in the past. Teshuvah means “to return.” It implies going back to some previous situation. They are thus opposing ideas; starting anew and returning to the old.
A Jew is inherently good. His essence is his G-dly soul, which is forever bound and united with the deepest essence of G-d. When he sins then, he is being untrue to himself. He is acting not in accordance with who he really is. Teshuvah is not about becoming someone new; it is about going back to the real you. There is no need to reinvent yourself and become someone new; only to return to the true self that you are and have been all along.
“Prayer” means “to ask for and beseech.” It is about asking another to provide that which you are lacking. Tefillah means “to join or connect.” It is man seeking to come close to and connect with G-d. Again, these are opposing ideas; asking G-d to reach out to you versus you reaching out to G-d.
Davening is not supposed to be us showing up to G-d with a list of demands and requests. It is an opportunity to connect to Him and be close. It is not about focusing on our physical needs only, such as health, livelihood, etc., but a time of spiritual elevation and of reaching for higher.
“Charity” means “free, undeserved giving.” It is about giving to someone else when that person hasn’t done anything to deserve it, simply out of your good will. On the other hand, tzedakah means “justice.” It implies giving because that is the just and right thing to do. These are yet another pair of opposite ideas: undeserved giving and just giving.
When we give money to the poor, we are not doing it as a favor, simply out of our own goodness; we are giving them what they rightfully deserve. G-d is the source of all sustenance, and He sees to it to provide for all. Sometimes He sends the money directly to the person its intended for and sometimes He sends it to someone else intending for that person to pass it on to the one it was truly intended for.
If G-d has blessed us with means, we should not view it as simply belonging to us and if we’re kind we’ll give some charity. We must see it as G-d has given us some of what really should go to someone else, and it is our duty to pass it on and make sure others get what they too truly deserve.
This Rosh Hashanah, let’s not repent, pray and give charity. Let us instead return to our true G-dly and holy selves. Let us reach out to and bond with G-d, and let us give to others what is really justly theirs.
“For teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah remove any and all evil decree.”