The late Billy Graham once said of his Jewish brothers and sisters in faith: “Every year during their High Holy Days, the Jewish community reminds us all of our need for repentance and forgiveness.” These words are lessons everyone can learn and be a reminder for Christians and Jews, especially as this sacred time of year approaches.
The High Holy Days are a time of introspection and soul-searching, not just to begin the new year, but to prepare for the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. On Yom Kippur, the Bible says, “atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins” (Leviticus 16:30).
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As the Jewish people prepare for God’s cleansing atonement, they employ three pillars to ready their hearts. These three pillars Repentance (Teshuvah), Prayer (Tefillah), and Charity (Tzedakah) are lessons we can learn and can be applied to Christians’ lives, too, to remind all of the need to repent and be forgiven.
The first pillar is repentance. To better understand this biblical concept, one so important to Jews and Christians alike, we must first look at the Hebrew word for repentance, teshuvah.
The root of the word teshuvah is shuv, which in Hebrew means “return.” According to the Bible, the prophet Joel said, “Return (Shuvu) to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (2:13). To repent is to return to our loving God.
But the word teshuvah means “returning to one’s self,” so repentance involves turning away from evil and returning to God and to our true (pure) selves. As King David wrote, “Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14). By returning to God, we are also returning to our true selves as He created us.
Christians and Jews alike can share in the serenity and joy that comes from making peace with others and with God. We must seek out those we have wronged and ask their forgiveness. And we must ask God’s forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed against Him. Then we can feel like true selves again— the people who God designed us to be— free of sin and at peace with God and those around us.
Prayer, the second pillar, is the foundation of our relationship with God. Through prayer we develop our love for God and experience His love for us. As in any relationship, we need to make our relationship with God a priority, dedicating time and putting in effort to nurture our connection. The entire purpose of prayer is to deepen our relationship with our Creator.
Jewish prayer is made up of three components: praising, thanking, and requesting. When we praise God, we are humbled before Him. When we thank God, we are grateful for His many blessings. And when we ask God for the things that we need, we are forced to take account of what is truly important. By asking God for what we want, we appreciate that He is the ultimate provider. And by talking to God about our lives, we grow closer to Him.
Remember, God does not “need” our prayers. He already knows what we want and what we need. What He wants is our hearts. He says, “My son, give me your heart and let your eyes delight in my ways” (Proverbs 23:26). The High Holy Days, for Jews, is a time to renew our relationship with God, and to step into the New Year together. Lessons Christians can learn is, for Christians, this reunion with our loving God through tefillah, prayer, is not about what we need from God, but about our connection and communion with Him.
The work of our hearts and souls culminates in the work of our hands in the third pillar, charity. By giving charity, we put our thoughts into action.
In Hebrew, the word for charity is tzedakah. It is comprised of two Hebrew words: tzedek (justice), and kah, a name of God. Together, these words describe charity as “the justice of God,” and as “righteous giving.”
Giving to the needy is not only an act of mercy, it is an act of righteousness, something we do as God’s servants not only because we want to, but because He wants us to. When we give tzedakah, we testify that everything in the world belongs to God. If we have been blessed, it is so we might bless others. The Bible tells us, “The silver is mine and the gold is mine” (Haggai 2:8). Nothing is really ours. It all belongs to God. When we give others what we have, we show our faith in Him as Christians and Jews.
Tzedakah demonstrates our trust that God will sustain us according to His promise that, “Those who give to the poor will lack nothing” (Proverbs 28:27). Not only will God pay us back, He will increase what He gives us, as He promises to, “open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it” (Malachi 3:10).
When we give charitably, tzedakah, we take the faith that is in our heart, and the faith that we speak with our mouths, and turn it into action. Jews focus on charitable giving during the High Holy Days because the poor and needy are God’s children. And as Jews and Christians turn to God for their needs, He expects us not to turn from those who need our help.