Hovering Over the Red Line
Chapter 3, Law 1
"Every single human being has merits and transgressions. A person whose
merits are greater than his transgressions is [considered] a righteous
person ('tzaddik'). One whose transgressions are greater than his merits is
[considered] a wicked person ('rasha'). [A person whose merits and
transgressions] are exactly equal (lit, 'half to half') is an average person
('bai'noni'; lit., 'a betweener'). The same is true regarding a country. If
the merits of all its residents are greater than their transgressions, it is
righteous, and if their transgressions are greater, it is wicked. And so too
the entire world."
We are now beginning a new chapter of the Laws of Repentance. This chapter
deals primarily with G-d's criteria for judging mankind. There are a lot of
fascinating concepts throughout this chapter. Although how G-d judges the
world is primarily His own affair, equally binding whether we understand it
or not, as we'll see in this and future weeks, there are many important
practical lessons to be gained from understanding the process.
The Rambam discusses three levels of G-d's judgment -- the personal, the
national, and the universal. In each, whether the party in question is
deemed righteous or wicked depends upon the majority its deeds.
One simple question which comes to mind immediately is why is it necessary
for G-d to judge the world on three levels? Wouldn't it be sufficient to
judge every individual according to what he or she deserves? Why group
people into nations, even though clearly some will fall far above and far
below the curve? (G-d for example does not judge a family as one unit. Each
member gets what he deserves in his or her own right.)
The answer is that certain issues are clearly national in scope. The Talmud
states that "parnassa" -- literally, "livelihood" -- is determined on a
national basis (Ta'anis 9a). The meaning is that G-d determines the overall
state of the economy nationally -- for reasons which are quite clear to us
today. Generally speaking (and this is not at all my field, so very
roughly), if one sector of a nation's economy is depressed, it will have
ramifications throughout the system. If housing starts slump, fewer workers
are employed, less raw material is required, there is less money to be
invested in other parts of the economy, consumer confidence goes down, etc.
Sure, there are always individuals who may have the ready cash to take
advantage of downturns in the economy -- to buy when everyone else is
selling, but in the overall picture, when there is a recession -- or
expansion -- everybody is affected.
(Interestingly, the same passage in the Talmud states that unlike
livelihood, rain is granted on an individual basis, meaning if a single
deserving person needs rain for his field, a storm will come in his merit
alone (see Rashi there). Rain in general is viewed by the Sages as a force
much more tightly coupled with G-d's will -- and a much more open
manifestation of His providence and power.)
And to be sure, this is not only an issue of economics. As we'll see G-d
willing next week, G-d may well visit retribution on a wicked nation --
although there are bound to be pious innocents within.
This serves to remind us of the importance of living in a worthy country. In
the Laws of De'os (6:1) the
Rambam discussed this from a different perspective -- how we are profoundly
influenced by our surroundings and the great importance of living with
decent neighbors. But even apart from that, practically speaking a wicked
country is a dangerous place to live. G-d may at any moment decide to strike
it with natural disaster. Will you personally be spared? Perhaps, but not
necessarily. You may not be evil enough to deserve a hurricane at your
doorstep but will G-d go out of His way, so to speak, to save you if one is
coming because your compatriots? And you will certainly be affected by the
disruption of wealth, law and order, and services.
We sometimes think if we're around people worse than us we'll really shine
and G-d will appreciate us all the more. Even if there is some truth to such
an argument (in itself questionable), that is simply not our job. Our
purpose in life is not to "impress" G-d. It is to live the most meaningful
lives we can and towards that end ensure that we're exposed to the best
This same basic premise holds true on a global scale. Certain aspects of
G-d's judgment are rendered on the world as a whole. Which we do not
necessarily know. Yet we must never view the evil and depravity of the world
around us as someone else's problem. The state of the entire world is our
concern. As little as we may be able to do about it (although praying always
helps), we must realize that we all share this world together -- and at
least in some ways, G-d is looking down upon all of us as one.
There is a second important issue with this law. According to the Rambam, a
person is judged based on a simple majority of his deeds. If a person is
50.1% good, he is deemed "righteous" by G-d, whereas a person rated at 49.9%
is "wicked" -- although there's not a whole lot of difference between the
two. Now obviously G-d does has to draw the line somewhere. But we would
actually expect more of a continuum. The better you are, the more G-d
considers you one of His loyal servants. How close you are to G-d we would
hardly consider a yes-or-no question. There should be an infinite number of
possible degrees of closeness to and of distance from G-d.
Furthermore, is a person really "righteous" if he's just over 50%? Assuming
he's had a busy life, 49% wicked implies he's done a heck of a lot of sins
in his days as well. Where did they go? Is such a person considered
righteous -- case closed -- everything else being swept under the carpet?
Doesn't G-d's exact justice dictate that every single good and bad deed must
be measured and compensated accordingly?
The answer is that the Rambam here is not discussing reward and punishment
in the Word to Come. G-d's ultimate justice is far more precise and
exacting. Rather, the Rambam is discussing how G-d deals with a person in
this world (generally speaking of course -- obviously many more factors
enter the Divine justice system). In this world -- before the ultimate
justice sets in -- if you're a little bit more good than bad you are
considered righteous. A little bit the other way, you're considered wicked.
This, however, merely backs up the question. Why is G-d's justice system in
this world so black and white? Shouldn't here too it be a continuum,
depending more upon our precise level of commitment to G-d?
In truth, as we'll see in future weeks, it is. There is far more to G-d's
relationship with us than just "righteous" versus "wicked". This week,
however, the Rambam is discussing a much more simple issue: live or die.
There's an ongoing -- or at least a yearly -- decision going on in Heaven:
should a person, nation -- or the world -- continue to exist or not? Is he
or it the sort of entity G-d wants in this world? And that depends on one
very simple basic issue: Is he a positive or negative force in this world?
If a person is slightly more good than bad -- all else being equal -- he is
an asset. It is in G-d's best interests to keep him around. Overall, he is
bringing the world forward, closer to its fulfillment. If, however, a
person is even slightly more bad than good, he is a liability. Even if
imperceptibly, he moves the world away from G-d. And according to the Divine
scheme, such a person should not continue to be.
This is an idea we will revisit and examine more closely in future weeks --
and so, I'll leave it at this for now. I will just wrap this up with one
final thought. In a sense this is very reassuring. In the Divine scheme, it
is really not that hard to stay alive in this world. To be sure, most of us
need lots of improvement, but I'd like to think few of us are doing more
harm than good in the universe. But then again, our goal in life is not just
to dodge the bullet and stay alive. We're here to perfect ourselves and make
the world a *wonderful* place, not a mediocre one hovering just above the
red line. So let us keep in mind that although G-d loves us as beings who
*are* a positive force in this world, that is only the very beginning. It
merely gives us the opportunity to truly accomplish and to truly make the
world a beautiful place.
(Second part of class based in part on ideas heard from my teacher R.
Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu & www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig).)
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org