Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, Chana bat Shmuel, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Shoshana Elka bat Avraham, Tikvah bat Rivka Perel, Peretz ben Chaim, Chaya Sarah bat Reb Yechezkel Shraga, Shmuel Yosef ben Reuven, Shayndel bat Mordechai Yehudah, the Kedoshim of Har Nof, Pittsburgh, and Jersey City, the refuah shlaimah of Mordechai HaLevi ben Miriam Tovah, and the health and safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
The Netaneh Tokef prayer is one of the most emotionally expressive tefilot in the Nusach Ashkenaz and Nusach Sefard machzorim, so much so that one of its passages brings many of us to tears each time it is recited:
On Rosh Hashanah it [that is, our judgment] will be inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed—how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who by strangulation and who by stoning, who shall have rest and who wander, who shall be at peace and who pursued, who shall be serene and who tormented, who shall become impoverished and who wealthy, who shall be debased, and who exalted. (Translation, www.Sefaria.org with my emendations)
Following the chazan’s repetition of this section, the entire congregation cries aloud: “u’teshuvah u’tefilah u’tzdakah ma’avirin et roah hagezerah--but repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree!” (Translation, ArtScroll Machzor) This is an incredibly powerful affirmation of the transformative nature of teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah when they are combined into one spiritual unit, for, then, even a negative decree against us, as individuals and as a nation, can be nullified.
In Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:4, the Rambam (1135-1204) renders a p’sak (halachic conclusion) that is congruent with the phrase, “u’teshuvah u’tefilah u’tzdakah ma’avirin et roah hagezerah”: “Among the paths of repentance is for the penitent to constantly call out before G-d, crying and entreating, and to perform charity according to his potential…” (Translation, Rabbi Eliyahu Touger) My rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal (1903-1993), known as “the Rav” by his students and followers, examines this statement in a deeply penetrating manner. In so doing, he elucidates the meaning of “to constantly call out before G-d, crying and entreating”:
Herein it is explained that there is a special kind of tefilah to be undertaken by the ba’al teshuvah, namely, tefilah shel tza’akah—prayer of crying out [from the depths of one’s being], and the unique category of this form of prayer appears to be none other than the selichot (penitential prayers), which are, [by definition,] tefilah shel tza’akah, rather than standard prayer. As such, we are accustomed to say the selichot aloud, as this is a part of the fulfillment of the crying out of the ba’al teshuvah.
Following this, the Rav analyzes the phrase, “to perform charity according to his potential”:
It appears to me that this is the very reason why the parsha concerning the Mishkan (Portable Desert Sanctuary) appears immediately after the parsha of the Chet HaEgel (Sin of the Golden Calf), since it is one of the paths of teshuvah [for the ba’al teshuvah] to give tzedakah. [As such,] the voluntary offerings that went toward the work of [constructing] the Mishkan were in the category of tzedakah to bring about kapparah (expiation) upon their souls. (Sefer Harrerei Kedem, vol. 1, page 76, translations and brackets my own)
These insights provide a trenchant interpretation of the relationship of teshuvah to tefilah and tzedakah. Tefilah of teshuvah is given voice in the selichot, which are the ultimate representation of tefilah shel tza’akah. Tzedakah of teshuvah engenders kapparah al nafshoteinu, expiation for our very being.
With Hashem’s help, may our heartfelt teshuvah, tefilah shel teshuvah, and tzedakah shel teshuvah unite to remove the roah hagezerah from upon us, so that we may be inscribed in the Sefer HaChaim (the Book of Life). V’chane yihi ratzon.
Shabbat Shalom v’Gamar Chatimah Tovah
Past drashot may be found at my blog-website: http://reparashathashavuah.org.
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*** My audio shiurim on the topics of Tefilah and Tanach may be found at: http://tinyurl.com/8hsdpyd
*** I have posted 164 of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s English language audio shiurim (MP3 format) spanning the years 1958-1984. Please click on the highlighted link: The Rav
Talmid of Rabbi Soloveitchik zatzal