“When you sin, you ought to repent.” “When you pray, you ought to get your words right.” “When you give charity, you ought to dig deep.” Conventional interpretations, all of them, of the principles of the High Holydays.
But neither penitence, prayer or charity is as simplistic as all that. Each is a sophisticated concept, with much more depth than the superficial approach that many people adopt.
Penitence is t’shuvah, “return”. The rabbis said, “Where penitents stand, the wholly righteous cannot stand” (B’rachot 34b).
But penitence is not limited to remorse and self-correction after sin. It is a constant process of self-regeneration. It is the unending struggle to be the best possible you. It allows no complacency. You must never be satisfied with who you are and where you are at.
It is not only God who judges us; penitence requires us constantly to judge ourselves.
Prayer, t’fillah, is certainly words; the prophet said, “Take with you words, and return to the Lord” (Hosea 14:3). But one prays in other ways too.
Worship is really worthship, from an Anglo-Saxon root that means honourable. True worship involves not only the mouth but the whole of one’s being. You can pray with noble thoughts, you can pray any time you are moved.
But you can and must also pray with your mind, when you pursue truth and stretch your thinking: and with every action that improves the world and spreads goodness, peace and lovingkindness. This is prayer, worthship, in action.
Charity is tz’dakah. Giving promptly, generously, in ways that not only fill a need but prevent the need arising is fundamental to the tz’dakah experience.
Jews fortunately know this well and have practised it throughout their history. The last 150 years in particular have required a massive outpouring of tz’dakah, and we have acquitted ourselves well. But charity is attitude, not only action.
The entry for “charity” in Skeat’s etymological dictionary says, “see caress”. Both words come from a derivation that means dear. True charity is when you find even the most unlikable person lovable.
Charity is not only giving in material terms, but also showing respect and love.
The moment you say or think something wounding or negative about someone, you need to remember that if God can find a place in His universe for them, surely you too can give them some patience and respect.