Grateful for the Threefold Blessing of Teshuvah, Tefilah and Zedakah
We all suffer; life is hard , even for those who are blessed with much. Suffering is beyond objective measurement since it is so deeply a subjective experience as well. Indeed, only the very fortunate few suffer little- sadly, overwhelmingly vast numbers of sentient beings suffer much too much.
Suffering can be alleviated in many ways-multiple resources that help healing, feed the hungry, provide shelter, educate and entertain, make life more just, secure and livable, are available but sorrowfully inadequate to eliminate suffering entirely. Moreover, sources of suffering happen beyond human control-natural disasters, happenstance occurrences, accidents, and a wide array of circumstances that are haphazard and random. Suffering’s end seems to be reserved for some distant, eschatological moment in the far away future.
And yet, what most of us pray for, in traditional ways or unconventionally, is the removal of suffering from our lives. We wish to be comfortable, secure, happy. These are the things we desire most, for ourselves and our loved ones.
On the High Holidays, we pronounce a brief statement of instructive prayer.
“U tefilah “-Prayer
“U’zedakah”-Deeds of kindness
“Can remove the severity of the decree.”
In earlier translations, the wording was different-”Can avert the evil decree!”
If we pay attention to the wording of this threefold response to “evil” in this world, the traditional reading-”Can avert the evil decree”- suggesting that the performance of these actions will prevent evil from befalling us, is incorrect. The text does not read: ‘gezeirah raah’-an evil decree; rather it reads ‘ roah ha’gzeira,’ namely, the severity or negativity of the decree. Therefore, the traditional translation is inaccurate and holds out what I believe to be a false promise. This earlier translation conveys a literal understanding of reward and punishment, one that is is no longer feasible in our contemporary world. To the best of our observations as rational beings who subscribe to science as a meaningful way by which to deal with painful problems, the quid pro quo relationship between wrongdoing and punishment or doing good and being rewarded by God as a prize for goodness, simply does not work for most of us. Not only doesn’t it correspond with the our rational observations of life, it also leads many to suffer unnecessary disappointment and resentment.
The above triad of responses to the inevitability of suffering cannot protect us against the decree but it can help lessen its severity and remove those features of life’s many unkindnesses that have the potential for crushing our lives into paralysis or dejection. The threefold spiritual path proclaimed above points to ways by which we can come to terms with the inescapable reality of evil over which we often have no control. Further, they guide us to discover a way by which to extract life’s joy and meaning that can be contained in the human experience in spite of its many miseries and atrocities.
Let us examine each approach.
1.Teshuvah-literally, the Hebrew definition of this term is “return.” What do we return to as a means of dealing with life’s unfairness? Traditionally, it represents a beckoning to return from ways that have lead us astray back to the right path, back to God’s ways, if you will.
‘Return’ can be understood as a “getting back to basics,” as discerning those dimensions and qualities of life that are essentially simple things, fundamentals of human existence. When we can achieve such awareness of life’s myriad gifts available to all, then this journey of return to the center of our lives can uphold us and anchor us in our encounter with “evil” and suffering. Even those who suffer most for no apparent rhyme or reason, can discover the tiniest crack through which the smallest glimmer of light can shine through and cast its precious life-enhancing light on the darkness enshrouding the victim of life’s cruelty. This return to life’s most elementary components-a flower, a blue sky, a gentle breeze, a warming sun, human love- while challenging and seemingly out of reach in the midst of despair, nevertheless, contain the seeds of hope and relief, well-being and a feeling of gratitude that is self-nourishing and opens the heart to receive the eternal light of the universe’s goodness.
2.Tefilah- Prayer. For me prayer does not mean asking for things .Perhaps for others, in a state of helpless suffering, the possibility or the faith that God will respond in a direct way and alleviate our pain in some miraculous way does provide strength and a potent way by which to soften the blows of life.
I believe that the prayer of greatest potency is that of praise and thanksgiving, words rooted in gratitude. If one reviews the basic prayers of Judaism ie. Amidah, one discovers requests for the fundamentals of life in general and Jewish life in particular. Such gifts as wisdom, healing , justice, prosperity direct our prayerful attention. If we could translate these requests into statements of gratitude for these basic gifts of life both in their reality and potentiality, I feel convinced that prayer can serve as another powerful prong in the triadic path toward easing the severity of dreadful decrees.The Hassidic tradition maintains that God showers us with unlimited gifts; the purpose of prayer is to open our hearts to receive them.
Tefilah guides us in a direction that takes us beyond ourselves to God, a transcendent reality, the universe.
One of the impediments to gratitude is the feeling that it carries with it an unending obligation to someone or something. Many dislike the feeling that they owe something to others; it interferes with our desire for autonomy and self-determination and is seen as onerous, an obstacle in our path to greater ease and joy. Yet, gratitude itself requires only two things-to simply say thank you, and show that what you receive is deeply appreciated and needed, acknowledging the other’s goodness and kindness, which is, in itself, an act of compassion toward the other. Acting gratefully is a form of compassionate behavior allowing one to recognize that now and after you are gone others will think of you and your life out of a sense of the very same gratefulness and praise that is expected of you toward others. Gratitude generates love and kindness; awareness that all of life is a gift-even your own hard-working accomplishments-enhances your clarity and sensitivity to the giftedness and value of other peoples’ lives and our capacity to respond compassionately to all living beings.
Zedakah’s focus is another human being, the “ other “ in our relationship to life and the world.
One can say, gratefulness is the basic measurement of human morality and compassion.
An ancient Eastern sage once said: there are three essentials of life:
simplicity, patience and compassion.
Judaism would declare:
Teshuvah-return to simplicity.
Tefilah-pray with praise, patiently.
Zedakah- Let gratitude be translated into compassion.
May the severity of any and all decrees be lessened and made tolerable by the sweetness of a brand New Year.