Wednesday, 08 Sep 2010

Written by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

“Penitence, Prayer and Charity”: What Do They Accomplish?

From 1973 until 1986, I was part-time rabbi of a small congregation in the suburbs of Boston while I worked for a PhD in Jewish Studies and then taught at Harvard Divinity School.

Leading the worship on Rosh Hashanah morning, about five years after I came to the congregation, I became aware of a pretty eleven-year-old girl sitting with her brother and father near the front of the sanctuary. Her mother, who had not yet reached her fortieth birthday, was in the hospital, dying of cancer. There was at this point no realistic hope for a remission (she actually died just a week later, and the funeral service was held on the morning preceding Yom Kippur). I had spent a considerable amount of time with this woman; she had been very much in my thoughts and prayers during the previous few months. But now I was thinking about the daughter. How would she respond when the inevitable occurred?

I had always been moved by the power of the Unetaneh Tokef liturgy, but that year, with the child sitting in front of me, I found it difficult to say the climactic words, Uteshuvah utefilah utsedakah ma’avirin et ro’a ha-gezeirah. In his commentary on the High Holiday liturgy, Max Arzt wrote, “The prayer . . . reaches its climax when it assures us that it is within man’s power to annul an evil decree.”Did this mean that it was within the power of that child, or her mother, to arrest the cancer through penitence, prayer and charity? Would the mother’s untimely death after an agonizing struggle prove that she and the members of her family had not engaged sufficiently in penitence, prayer, and charity, and that they were therefore responsible for the consequences? I was quite certain that I did not want the girl to leave the synagogue with such a message. But was that what the liturgy truly meant?   

Looking into a Hebrew commentary a few weeks later, I discovered that the source of this sentence is a statement appearing in several rabbinic  midrashim: “Three things annul the decree (mevattelim et ha-gezeirah): they are prayer, charity, and penitence.” 2   The word gezeirah, taken over into the liturgy, is not identical with din or gezar din (judgment, verdict); it does not necessarily imply the outcome of a trial administered by a just judge. It is often used (for example in the phrase gezeirat ha-melekh) to mean the arbitrary decision of a powerful ruler, a decision that has no apparent rational basis. What is inscribed on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur may be a gezeirah unconnected with the individual’s moral or religious stature.

Furthermore, the two changes introduced into the wording of the liturgical sentence are of utmost importance. Where the midrash says mevattelim (annul, cancel), the liturgy say ma’avirin (literally: cause something to pass), And where the midrash says ha-gezeirah (or in one version, gezeirot ra’ot (evil decrees), the liturgy says ro’a ha-gezeirah (the evil of the decree). The midrashic source does indeed assert, as Arzt puts it, that “it is within man’s power to annul an evil decree,” but the liturgical passages tells us something quite different: that penitence, prayer and charity, “make the evil of the decree pass away”.

Death, sickness, impoverishment, tragic as they may be, are not identical with evil. They do indeed bear a potential for truly evil consequences. The can poison, embitter, fill us with self-pity or despair, destroy a marriage, blind us to the needs of others, turn us away from God. But the evil consequences of even the most fearsome decree are not inevitable. We can still choose how to respond to that which we cannot change.

We can choose the path of teshuvah, penitence, looking deep into ourselves with the perspective that comes from suffering and pain, transforming our priorities and re-ordering our lives in accordance with what is truly important.

We can choose the path of tefilah, prayer, not the mechanical mouthing of words when our hearts and minds are occupied with other matters, but the prayer that strengthens the one relationship that can endure when everything else seems to be crumbling: the relationship with God. Prayer that enables us to draw strength from the ultimate source of strength by expressing trust even when consumed with doubt.

And we can choose the path of tsedakah, charity, opening our hearts and extending our arms to fellow human beings, learning from our own setbacks or tragedies how we can more effectively help our neighbours in their hour of need.

If penitence, prayer and charity cannot change the external reality, if they cannot arrest the malignant cancer, they can indeed ensure that the evil potential in that reality will not become actual and enduring, but will pass. They can enable us to transcend the evil of the decree. This, I believe, is the simple meaning of the Hebrew words that come near the end of Unetaneh tokef. And this was a meaning that I could, in conscience, share with that eleven-year-old girl.

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
September 2010

(This d’var torah is in part based on part of an article that I wrote near the beginning of my academic career: “Inscribed for Life or Death?”, Journal of Reform Judaism, Summer 1981), pp. 18–26.)


1 Max Arzt, Justice and Mercy: Commentary on the Liturgy of the New Year and the Day of Atonement (New York, 1963), p. 166.
2 Genesis Rabbah 44,5; the extensive notes in the Albeck edition provide parallel readings in other Midrashic texts.


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.