How Can Repentance, Prayer, and Charity remove the Evil Decree?
By Avi Lazerson
One of the best known lines from the High Holydays prayers is that 'repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil decree'. It is a phrase from our prayer books that we repeat several times. But what is the reason that such a combination of repentance, prayer, and charity is effective to relieve us from our sentence? Is not G-d a fair judge who listens to the evidence and in view of what he sees gives the fair sentence? How can we believe in a G-d who is supposed to be fair yet can be convinced to change a decree?
What are the elements that make up divine judgment that these three components, repentance, prayer, and charity, can be so influential that a change in judgment is effected? What would we say about a real life judge who after hearing all of the fact of the case and after giving judgment, decides to change the decree even in face of the law because of what the criminal said?
Let us first understand 'charity'. We normally differentiate between wages and charity. Wages are that which we earned; charity is that which we did not earn but have gotten (or given) due to feelings that have convinced us to give (or receive) more than we have earned.
When we work or hire a person to do some work there is an understanding that the worker will do a specific job or task and upon completion the employer will pay the worker for his work. As an example, an electrician comes over to fix a problem in the wiring of your home. He is paid for his work – hopefully he succeeds in locating the problem and he fixes it, but often he does not find the problem and is unable to fix it. We pay him for his time and ability. That is part of the concept of wages; a person earns wages – it is not given from the goodness of the employer's heart, but rather the worker is entitled to it. This is a logical relationship that can be legally binding.
Charity is totally different. We feel sorry for a person who is experiencing problems. He has not done anything for us, just we understand his sad plight and situation. Because our heart feels for him, we reach into our pocketbook and give him some money; money that is not earned but money that we feel will help him to alleviate his difficult situation.
We normally think of ourselves in our relationship to G-d as people who do 'work' for G-d – we perform His mitzvots. For each mitzvah that we do, somewhere in heaven we get a certain amount of reward (wages) that is invested for us until we reach the ripe old age of 120. At this time we 'retire' and go to heaven. There and then we enjoy the fruits of our labors that we did for G-d in this world. G-d is seen as our employer and we are his employee. We do His work and He is faithful to pay us for our efforts.
It would seem that the concept of charity really does not enter into this relationship. We put in our effort and G-d, our 'employer' is faithful to pay us for our time and efforts. But in reality it is not like this. Let me explain with a short simile (and a true story):
Once we had hired a handy man to help us with our household work. This man was having severe addiction problems that he was struggling to cope with. In addition to this, his addiction problems were causing him domestic problems with his wife and children. The man had hit bottom and was trying hard to put himself and his life back together again.
My wife and I knew of his problem addiction and his domestic problem when he came to us. We gave him as much work as we could: gardening, paining, repair work in addition to the normal mundane housekeeping chores. Sometimes he did a good job; sometimes it was substandard. We were always cheerful with him even when the work he did was not on par. We paid him in full even though often the work was lacking. We understood his situation and we want very much for him to succeed.
Our relationship with G-d is similar. G-d really does not need our 'work'. What difference does it make to Him if we put on tephilin, observe the Shabbat or if we say the S'hma Israel? He lacks nothing and there is nothing that He can't do. If He wants something, then, poof, it is done! It is really we mortal humans that need the 'work' of doing His mitzvot. It is we who benefit from our 'employment' with G-d since we are able to achieve reward for the next world.
But let us face the truth of the situation. How many of us really have G-d's concerns on our mind. The unfortunate state of our being is that we rarely think about G-d when we do His mitzvot. We just jump in and do what we are supposed to do. Like an electrician who thinks not of the employer rather his intention is to do the work properly and get paid and enjoy the money, we, unfortunately, do our mitzvot with little of pure intention to serve G-d and to draw closer to Him.
G-d sees our poor intentions and realizes that they are far from pure. If He were to pay us according to the intentions of our heart we might not get much reward for that which we do.
However there is a loop hole here: it is called repentance. Quite possible our performance is lacking and not deserving of getting paid. But if we tell G-d about our problems: that we are compelled to dwell in this physical world among a physicality where spirituality does not exist, that we are subject to desires for attractions in this world, that we are physically bound to exist within the boundaries of this world and that we have failed to be a truly spiritual person that we should have been. We have fallen down to our physical desires and have gone astray.
If we are truthful and we pray to him with all seriousness, with all of our heart and soul. We appeal to G-d's mercy to have compassion on us for we are like addicts who are trying to stay clear of our addictions then G-d will be merciful towards us. He will give us charity, for G-d understands our faults. He created us, but it is upon us to be truthful to Him. It is upon us to request G-d's mercy. If we do this with a truthful heart, He will listen.
Now we can understand the statement: repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil decree. May we all merit to G-d's infinite mercy that he grant us a good year, a year of health, prosperity and a year dedicated to getting closer to Him.
from the August/September 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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