The climax: ‘U’teshuvah u’tefilah u’tzdakah…’


The Netaneh Tokef prayer is one of the most emotionally expressive tefilot in the machzorim, so much so that one of its passages brings many of us to tears each time it is recited:

On Rosh Hashana it [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.

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!)”

This is an incredibly powerful affirmation of the transformative nature of teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah when they are combined into one spiritual unit.

In Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:4, the Rambam renders the following p’sak that is congruent with the above phrase: “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.”

The Rav examines this statement in a deeply penetrating manner:

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 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 appears immediately after the parsha of the Chet HaEgel, 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.”

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. V’chane yihi ratzon.