The Talmud writes that when King Ptolemy of Egypt commanded the Jewish sages to translate the Torah into Greek, it was like “a lion had been imprisoned in a cage.” Why was it considered such a sad day in Jewish history? Shouldn’t we have been happy that the Torah would now become accessible to all the masses, both to sages and simpletons alike?
The reasons given for the great sadness of the Jewish sages were due to the complexity of the Hebrew language, in which no translation, no matter how detailed, can accurately convey the intricacies of each Hebrew word and adequately translate its meaning. When dealing with the Hebrew language, certain notions and ideas can get “lost in translation” and be misconstrued, thus losing their core Jewish interpretation. As we draw nearer to Yom Kippur, the examples of such mistranslations come to mind concerning the three central themes of the day, Teshuvah (Repentance), Tefillah (Prayer) and Tzedakah (Charity).
1- Teshuvah- ‘Repentance’
The Oxford English Dictionary defines repentance as, “one feeling or expressing sincere regret or remorse about one’s wrongdoing or sin.”
However, per Judaic interpretation, this “translation” is far from the central idea of Teshuvah.
In Hebrew, the word Teshuva is derived from the word “Shuv”, which means “to return”, thus highlighting a stark mistranslation between the English interpretation of “repentance”.
Repentance underlines the individual’s regret for his previous actions and their wish to begin a new path and way of life.
However, the actual word Teshuvah emphasises that a person has never truly left their connection to G-d and abandoned their internal good.
This explanation of the word Teshuva indicates that no matter how broken our relationship with G-d may seem, we are always able to return to Him. We have an everlasting connection with G-d, and thus through Teshuvah, we can strengthen and reaffirm our relationship and eternal covenant with Him.
In the month of Tishrei, even the holiest and most righteous individuals are commanded to do Teshuvah. This is because even the most righteous amongst us can improve themselves and forge deeper relationships with G-d.
2- Tefillah- Prayer
When one contemplates the idea of prayer in the general sense, they think of the act of requesting and petitioning G-d for something specific. In Judaism, this simplistic definition is not the true and sole significance of the act of Tefillah.
Our Tefillah services in Synagogues and by ourselves contain personal and communal requests intermingled with petitions to G-d for our physical and spiritual wellbeing. However, that is not the sole reason to pray, as the fundamental reasons for Tefillah are to connect to G-d, a higher deity who looks after our every need. Our prayers reach the heavens, intermingling with the cosmic forces above, and thus causing our souls to become spiritually elevated to G-d who hears and answers our prayers.
Thus, we can view Tefillah not only as some sort of action to ask G-d for things we want, but rather as a type of meditation, an escape from the monotony and confines of our physical lives. We connect with G-d, humbling ourselves before him through our prayers. In this way, we remind ourselves that we are only on this earth for a short time, and we must, therefore, try to create a Tikkun Olam-repairing the world through acts of kindness, so that we can all live in peace, harmony, and prosperity.
Prayer is not simply reading off a ‘shopping list’ of personal requests from G-d. Rather we attempt to cleave to Him, enhance our lives spiritually, and therefore simultaneously improve our physical lives.
3- Tzedakah- Charity
The idea of charity is synonymous with acts of goodness, kindness and compassion.
While the translation of Tzedakah elicits such associated ideas, the root of the word in Hebrew is ‘Tzedek’, which translates to justice and law. This leads to the emphasis for us to give Tzedakah, which thus spreads righteousness, honesty, and justice to all.
The fundamental differences between the English word Charity and the Hebrew equivalent Tzedakah are that, the act of Tzedakah not only encourages us to be charitable because we are compassionate, but to give charity because it is the just thing to do per the concept of Tzedek.
\Emotions can be fickle and changing, but justice and righteousness are everlasting.
Through Tzedakah we recognize that our wealth is a gift from G-d, and despite the predicaments or our current feelings, the less fortunate and needy have a shared part too in our prosperity.
May our Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah be heard this Yom Kippur, and let us all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a Happy and Sweet New Year.