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    Penitence, prayer & charity – a mini-anthology

    My first, extensive anthology on the great themes of the High Holydays was published by the United Synagogue, London (later re-issued by the Great Synagogue, Sydney) – see here. This new anthology is shorter and more modern, and I hope readers will find it helpful.


    We must begin with ourselves, but not end with ourselves.

    “Turning” (t’shuvah) means something greater than repentance and acts of penance.

    It means that by a reversal of his whole being, a man who had been lost in the maze of selfishness, where he had set himself as his goal, finds a way to God, that is, a way to the fulfilment of the particular task for which he has been destined by God.

    Repentance can only be an incentive to such active reversal.

    He who goes on fretting over repentance, he who tortures himself with the idea that his acts of penance are not sufficient, withholds his best energies from the work of reversal. It is written: “Turn from evil and do good” (Psalm 34:15).

    You have done wrong? Then counteract it by doing right.

    – Martin Buber.

    Atonement is no mere act of grace or miracle of salvation which befalls the chosen: it demands the free ethical choice and deed of the human being.

    Man is not granted something unconditionally. In his deed is the beginning of his atonement.

    The first step is the return of man. The sinner himself is to turn to God, since it is he who turned away. No-one can substitute for him in his return, no-one can atone for him, no mediator or past event, no redeemer and no sacrament.

    He must purify himself, he must attain his own freedom, for he was responsible for his loss of it.

    Faith and trust alone are not sufficient.

    – Leo Baeck.


    From time immemorial man has prayed.

    He has prayed for help in time of hardship and danger. Not only has he prayed for himself, but for his friends and loved ones.

    Prayers have likewise been on the lips of those desiring to express their thankfulness for deliverance from danger, as well as those awe-inspired by the wonderful panorama of nature.

    Last but far from least, man prays for forgiveness of sin, the capacity to do the right and shun the wrong, and that exalted feeling that sincere prayer brings the pray-er…

    How can prayer, repentance and righteous deeds avert the evil decree, to quote the Un’tanneh Tokef? Is such belief realistic or illusory?

    Most of us, when speaking of a universe governed by law, equate this with iron determinism. The idea of John Calvin that some people are born to damnation and others for salvation is but another version of religious determinism. Judaism has from its very inception rejected this thesis…

    An answer to prayer constitutes not a suspension of the laws by which God governs His creation, but a utilisation of principles inherent in those laws.

    When we act against that which troubles us, we do not abrogate the laws governing the course of events, but try to create conditions wherein they will be more likely to produce that which we need.

    The religious life, indeed life itself, makes sense only on the thesis that events are governed by laws that operate in terms of causality, yet are possessed of a sufficient degree of flexibility to allow us to change their course in our favour.

    – David Jacobs, “Jewish Life”, 1967.


    “Charity” is from a root that means to love. Another verb comes with it: to give.

    Loving and giving are partners. If you love you must give – not necessarily of your means but of yourself.

    “I love you” is never enough.

    Remember what Tevye asks in “Fiddler on the Roof”: “Golda, do you love me?”

    He does not get a straight answer. There is no simple, “Yes, I love you”. Instead Golda tells him all she has done for him for twenty-five years. And she adds, “If that’s not love, what is?”

    Golda has it right. What is loving? Loving is giving.

    The other way round is also important. There can’t be giving without loving.

    You can give with a scowl, you can give grudgingly, but that’s not giving. Give – with love. If love is not there – yet – don’t hold back: give, and the love will follow.

    This is why the third arm of the High Holydays is charity.

    Did you sin by being selfish and putting yourself first? Change your ways by bringing others into the loop – by loving, by giving.

    Result? Loving and giving will become true living.

    – Raymond Apple.

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