The Essence of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the Ten Days of Repentance
By Michael Frummer
Perhaps nothing gives the tone to the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur more than the refrain we find in our prayer books: "Repentance, Prayer and Charity remove a bad decree." These three items are also the manifestation of the "Ten Days of Repentance" as the period of time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known.
We know that Rosh Hashanah is the time that G-d judges the entire world. All pass in front of him. On Rosh Hashanah all of mankind is judged. On Yom Kippur the judgment is sealed. The ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are a period of time in which we can appeal the judgment.
We find that these three things, Repentance, Prayer and Charity, each individually, and all, collectively, are effective devices for changing a difficult and evil decree. Each one is different in the mode in which it operates and therefore worthy of being mentioned separately.
The first is repentance. Repentance is that once a person realizes that he has sinned and acknowledged his error, he takes upon himself never to repeat the sin again. In this manner the person is in effect changing himself and becoming a new person. This is likened to a criminal who committed a crime and is put into jail. If while he is in jail, he changes his character and values, and learns new skills that will prevent him from repeating the crime once he is released, then the authorities are impressed that this man is not the same character that committed the crime. Since now he has changed; therefore his sentence is reduced or commuted.
Similarly, if we repent of our sins in a manner in which we will never return to them, we have changed our character. G-d looks down upon us as if we are a different person, as a person whose character and values would not lead him to sin but one worthy of having the heavenly decree changed. Therefore the heavenly decree is changed in accordance to the "new" person.
The next mode to effect change in the heavenly decree is prayer. Prayer differs from repentance in that prayer causes an effect on G-d, not in the person. Prayer does not necessarily mean that we have changed. It means that we have effected a change in G-d and His relationship to us. This is similar to a person who committed a crime; to avoid punishment he is able to convince the victim not to press charges.
The third item is charity. By giving generously to charity we are able to change the decree from a hard one to a better one. Charity works unlike the other two, repentance and prayer. It works in a different direction. Charity is seeking out the betterment of our fellow men. By helping those in need we are in effect gaining for ourselves more merit to sway the heavenly court's decision. But even more, we are showing that we are willing to give of ourselves (our loss of our money) to advance the causes of G-d. This is similar to a man who is caught doing a crime, but defending his character as a responsible and respected member of the community.
Repentance, Prayer and Charity work for us at all times; both before the decree is signed on Yom Kippur and even after the decree is signed after Yom Kippur. The difference is that during the period of time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it is much easier to effect that change in the heavenly decree.
This is similar to a person who is ill. When he first feels sick, it is easier to treat the illness than when it gets so serious that he must seek out specialists. Or it may be compared to someone, again, who committed a crime. It is easier to work out a deal before he has been convicted than it is after he has been convicted.
However, we cannot rely upon Repentance, Prayer and Charity to help us if we want to commit a sin. We cannot say that since Repentance, Prayer and Charity are accessible to avert a hard sentence, therefore we will sin now and utilize Repentance, Prayer and Charity when the heavenly court convenes. In this case, Repentance, Prayer and Charity become accessories to the crime, since because they exist, they actually cause us to commit the crime. This is like a man who has an uncle who is a judge. Relying on his uncle, he says, 'I will rob and if I am caught, my uncle will be lenient with me.' When he is caught, his uncle is not allowed to judge the case. Therefore if we sin relying on Repentance, Prayer and Charity we cannot draw upon its powers to redeem us.
In our case, we must utilize all three, Repentance, Prayer and Charity, with all of our hearts and might during this period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In this manner we may rest assured that we will be inscribed in the book of life for a good, healthy and prosperous new year.
from the September-October 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine