‘U’Teshuvah, u’Tefilah, u’Tsedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezerah: Repentance, Prayer and Charity remove the evil of the decree.’ These words come at the centre of our Yom Kippur prayers. Repentance, prayer and charity have the power to transform the meaning of our days, save lives, impact entire communities, and potentially even change the world. This is not because they call down miraculous interventions from heaven but because they appeal to our heart. They re-awaken the sacred spark of God within us all.
I’ve tried to write about Teshuvah during the course of this week. The opportunities for Tsedakah are all around us; the synagogue has communicated its priorities and numerous organisations contact us regularly. It is essential to understand Tsedakah not solely as ‘charity’, but as derived from the word’s root meaning: justice. Tsedakah is single-word shorthand for our obligation to work, through our money, time and values, for a less cruel, less unjust, more compassionate world.
What then about Tefilah, prayer? The machzor, the festival prayer book for Yom Kippur, contains thousands of words. Why so many? Why pray at all? I can only offer a personal response, for whatever it’s worth. But it’s an answer deeply rooted in the writings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889 – 1943), subsequently known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw, Ghetto, for whom my utter respect deepens with everything I read.
Of course, we pray for many things on Yom Kippur, forgiveness, healing, a better world; we pray for hope itself. But at heart, the Rabbi writes, we pray simply for ‘tosefet yirah me’ahavah, – more awe from love.’
Simple words are often the most evocative – and bewildering. I’ve puzzled over that phrase ‘more awe from love’ many times. I’ve asked others what they mean to them.
Ahavat, love, is the Rabbi’s most encompassing understanding of life’s purpose. It’s ‘love your God’, ‘love your neighbour’, ‘love the stranger’, ‘love Torah’ and ‘love the world’ all combined into one. It’s the heart’s response to God’s presence in the world; a presence often hidden, hard to disclose, difficult to discover, yet there within everything: in the preciousness, fragility, beauty and sanctity of life, in every person and all living beings.
Yirah can mean fear. But in this context, it should definitely be translated as awe, what Abraham Joshua Heschel called ‘radical amazement’. Awe is our response when we become aware of the wonder and holiness of life. Day by day, worn down by struggles and chores, far tougher in the Warsaw of the 30’s than for most of us today, we forget God’s presence in life. But the High Holydays, with their solemnity, rituals, music and liturgy stir the soul and re-awaken us to wonder.
That’s ‘love’ and ‘awe’. But what about ‘awe from love’? I understand it like this: those whom we love we experience as most special and most precious. We are also most acutely aware of their vulnerability. The very last thing we want to do is to hurt them in any way. This is awe from love, the determination to protect and cherish, honour and appreciate.
The Rabbi’s prayer is that we should experience an increase in such awe from love towards life itself. It’s a prayer that we be filled with wonder and respect before this beloved world, that such wonder doesn’t desert us but grows stronger within us, that it opens our hearts and guides our actions, that it motivates us to honour and love life more deeply. That, writes Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, is the essence of all prayer.
And how do we know if this prayer has been answered? He writes: the sign that our prayers have been listened to in heaven is if they’ve been heard by us in our hearts, if they’ve awoken our spirit to awe.