During the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashanah and the end of Yom Kippur, God examines His Creation and, in particular, the Human Being. He inspects our actions, our intentions and above all what we have done of His Creation. There are two sides to God’s examination: His side and ours. Each and every one of us needs to engage in profound soul searching. These are well known principles of Jewish tradition. We also believe that God is ready to change His severe decree on us if we engage in three actions: Tefilah [prayer], Tzedakah [social justice] and Teshuvah [rectifying repentance].
It is Rabbi Elazar who teaches us that “three things cancel the severe decree: Tefilah, Tzedakah, and Teshuvah” (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 65b / Halakhah 1). He learned this from what God said to King Solomon after finishing the building of the Temple: “if My people, upon whom My name is called, shall humble themselves and pray [this refers to prayer, “tefilah”], shall seek My presence [this refers to social justice, “tzedakah”] and shall return from their evil ways [this refers to rectifying repentance, “teshuvah”], I will then hear from Heaven, forgiving their transgressions and healing their land [this refers to canceling the severe decree]” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
Prayer, tzedakah, and repentance – three acts that profoundly affect our soul if we carry them out truly and sincerely. Sincere prayer implies an intense self-examination, it is a kind of trial of ourselves. We ask God, we acknowledge His power, we confess in front of Him. In this way we become aware of what we have, the good and the evil, and of what we lack. The introspection enclosed in prayer returns unto us and influences our soul. This return unto oneself is implied in the Hebrew verb for praying, which grammatical form is in the reflexive: “l’hitpalel”.
The teshuvah, the rectifying repentance, implies examining of our acts, mending any harm we could have induced to our fellow person, asking forgiveness from the one we’ve harmed and committing not to repeat the transgressions or the negative acts we have done. This is a very tough process for the soul to take. It demands taking full responsibility on our negative acts, as well as the explicit acknowledgement of having done them. This is, perhaps, the most difficult part of the teshuvah, since it requires a complete acknowledgment of our acts without justifying them, totally humbling our souls. If we present justifications to what we’ve done we are actually saying that it was not that negative, since there’s a reason for our deeds. In there is a reason, if there are constraints the responsibility falls, even partly, on someone or something else. The teshuvah demands assuming responsibility without reserves. The profound self examination should lead us to grasp when there actually were reasons or constraints and when there weren’t such.
Of those three acts Rabbi Elazar enumerates, I have found that tzedakah, social justice, is the most difficult for the soul to accomplish. It demands an essential change in human spirit. Why is it so? Because it requires from us to stop considering ourselves as the center and to try and understand reality from the other person’s perspective and experience. It demands we declare “it is not me who understands other’s affliction, but it is rather the sufferer who makes me understand his or her grief”.
You might say: “But tzedakah means giving money to the needy. Nothing could be easier!”
Just giving money is not tzedakah – it is charity. I’m giving someone else something that I think he lacks and that I can spare. Yes, it is a great act to do – but this is not tzedakah, social justice. It doesn’t cause me to change; it doesn’t cause me neither to really understand the other person, nor to access his distress, to experience reality through his soul. Charity briefly mitigates the tribulation of the feeling; the needy’s feeling, perhaps, but mainly that of the giver. Charity is the consequence of the giver’s woe regarding the indigent person. It is a positive consequence since we help, albeit shortly, somebody in need of money, clothing, or a meal. Charity is undoubtedly a great act – but it is not tzedakah.
Our Sages taught us that real tzedakah means to give needy people what they lack: “If he has no clothes, clothe him; if he lacks housewares, buy them for him; if he or she haven’t got married, help them to do so; even if he used to ride a horse with a servant running in front of him and then he became poor, buy him a horse to ride on and have a servant to run in front of him.” (Maimonides, Hilkhot Matnon Aniim 7:3).
Tzedakah means to restore dignity to those who have lost it; to restore trust to those who have lost their trust in others, as well as to restore to others the trust in that person; to help those with no jobs find their livelihood; to restore self-confidence to the weakened; to restore the smile to the sad; to help those who hold back their tears weep; to restore our capacity to compliment others.
We have to withdraw from ourselves, from considering ourselves as the center, so as to understand what comes from the other’s place and affliction. Because tzedakah means helping the other one to attain what HE or SHE lacks and not what WE think they need. The difference is huge, because needy is not only one who looks like indigent. A needy person may be wealthy or poor, happy, or sad, someone who looks like needy, as well as someone who seems to be doing fine… doing fine until we truly understand his and her soul.