Who Will Live and Who Will Die
Chapter 3, Law 2
"A person whose sins are more numerous than his merits dies immediately in
his wickedness, as it is stated, 'for your many sins' (or: 'for the majority
of your sins') (Jeremiah 30:14). So too a country whose sins are more
numerous immediately perishes, as it is stated, 'The cry of Sodom and
Gomorrah is great' (or: 'in the majority') (Genesis 18:20). So too if the
entire world's sins are greater, it is immediately destroyed, as it is
stated, 'And G-d saw that much (or: 'more numerous') was the evil of man on
the land' (Genesis 6:5).
"This weighing [of merit versus wickedness] is not according to the number
of merits and sins but according to their magnitude. There is a merit which
is equal to many sins, as it is stated, 'for there was found in him a good
matter ' (I Kings 14:13). And there is a sin equal to many merits, as it is
stated, 'and a single sinner will destroy much good' (Ecclesiastes 9:18).
The weighing is solely according to the understanding of the G-d of
understanding. He is the one who knows how merits are measured against sins."
In this law the Rambam continues the basic theme of the previous law. The
Rambam previously stated that G-d judges man based on a simple majority of
his deeds. One who is 50.1% good is deemed a tsaddik ("righteous
individual"), whereas one 49.9% good is "wicked". We explained that the
issue under discussion was not G-d's ultimate justice in the World to Come
-- in which man's every deed is carefully weighed and judged, but in this
world. If someone is a slightly positive force in the world, he deserves
life. He is bringing the world in the right direction. He is far from
perfect, but G-d has reason to keep him around. If he is even slightly
negative, he is a liability. He deserves no existence in this world.
This week the Rambam continues the same thought, writing more explicitly
that the issue at stake is existence in this world. If a person, nation or
the world is considered righteous he or it will continue to exist. If not,
destruction is visited upon him or it -- totally and immediately.
There is an extremely obvious question on this week's law, one which
virtually all the early commentators to the Talmud ask. (The Talmud (Rosh
Hashanah 16b) makes a very similar statement to the Rambam, discussing the
judgment of Rosh Hashanah.) We do not have to look very far to realize that
there are many wicked people doing quite well in the world today. They most
certainly do not immediately self-destruct as the Rambam here writes.
Likewise, righteous people die all the time, many living far shorter
lifespans than their wicked counterparts.
The simplest answer -- which really seems the intent of the Rambam -- is
that G-d's method of measuring merit versus liability is impossible for us
to fathom. The world may seems a pretty awful place today, but perhaps most
of its inhabitants do not truly know who G-d is and what He wants of them.
They perhaps are not truly "guilty" -- just ignorant. By contrast, the
generation of the Exodus, which virtually *saw* G-d and certainly did know
better, were several times on the brink of Divine annihilation for much
smaller infractions had not Moses intervened on their behalf.
Thus, goodness and wickedness as they appear to us may be little indication
of how worthy or unworthy a person is on the Divine scale. As I always point
out, the simple Jew who was not blessed with a religious upbringing but who
brings himself to order fish rather than pork at a not-kosher restaurant may
well be more precious to G-d than the fully-observant Jew (who would never
*dream* of entering a MacDonald's) who is really not doing his job very well
-- at least not up to the potential to which he is capable.
So too, the Rambam concludes this law by stating we cannot possibly know
G-d's criteria for measuring good versus evil. What appears to us one way
may be something entirely different on the Divine scales. Thus, although the
Sages share with us the basic parameters of G-d's justice, there is very
little practically we may conclude from it. As always, G-d's ways are not
really ours to judge -- nor question. (And just as well for us, since we
would think of the world as much more guilty than G-d, in His infinite
wisdom, has determined.)
There is another basic approach to this question. I don't believe it is the
intention of the Rambam, but it provides us a very important practical guide
for understanding G-d's relationship with mankind.
As I wrote above, the Talmud makes a similar statement to the Rambam --
although it is referring more specifically to the judgment of the High
Holidays. To it, the commentary Tosafos poses the same basic question we
raised above. ("Tosafos" (lit., "additions") is a commentary on the Talmud
authored by schools of scholars who resided primarily in 12th-13th Century
France (though there were German and British ones as well). Several of the
most prominent were sons-in-law or descended from the great Bible and Talmud
commentator Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki).)
When the Talmud states that every year on Rosh Hashanah the righteous are
decreed for life and the wicked for death, Tosafos asks the obvious: there
are many undeniably righteous individuals who die every year and wicked who
live. Tosafos notes further that elsewhere the Talmud states quite clearly
that G-d often deals very mildly with the wicked (and harshly with the
righteous) in order to truly do them justice in the next world.
Tosafos answers this question very cryptically -- an answer which merely
begs further questions: When the Talmud states that the wicked are destined
for destruction and the righteous for life it is only in the World to Come.
In other words, every year on the High Holidays it is determined whether or
not such people will merit the hereafter.
The difficulty with this too is obvious. Why would G-d judge a person right
now, in this world, regarding his share in the World to Come? After 120,
when he goes upstairs, they can decide what to do with him! What relevance
is there to deciding *today* where it looks like he will go after his death?
When the time comes, let them decide! Being that according to Tosafos a
person is *not* being judged regarding life and death in this world, he will
quite likely live many more years -- and much will change during that time.
So seemingly, nothing is achieved with this advance decision regarding his
My teacher R. Moshe Eisemann of Ner Israel Rabbinical College (Baltimore,
MD) explained as follows. There is great relevance to deciding today if a
person deserves the World to Come. If a person does deserve the hereafter,
G-d will deal with him entirely differently even today. He's one of us! He
*cares* about G-d and wants a relationship with Him. He's heading in the
right direction. And G-d in turn will want a relationship with him. He will
be more attentive to such a person's prayers, look more closely after his
needs, and prod him towards the good with much more finely-tuned Divine
providence. Such a person is alive with G-d, and G-d will have a much more
living and dynamic relationship with him.
G-d does not judge us entirely in this world; far from it. He seems to
permit much injustice, saving the true Judgment for the hereafter. But one
thing -- which the Talmud refers to as life versus death -- is determined
right here and now: will each of us have a living relationship with his
Creator, or as far as G-d is concerned, is he already dead.
To be honest, I do not believe this is the intention of the Rambam (although
I've heard people try to read this basic approach into his writings as
well). If you'll notice, the Rambam here quotes supporting verses which all
discuss actual death in this world. The Rambam appears to take the Talmud
more literally, merely concluding that we cannot possibly know the
particulars of G-d's inscrutable justice.
Regardless, the message of Tosafos' approach is so critical a life lesson
for us. On the High Holidays (and truly all year) G-d judges us -- not
necessarily regarding life versus death: we know too well that the good do
not live forever and the wicked often prosper -- but regarding true Life
versus Death. Will we be *alive* with G-d this year? Will we have a living,
caring relationship with Him? If yes, then we can and will see G-d involved
in every aspect of our lives. He will help us, carry us through our
difficult times, and gently cajole us to be better. If we slip, He will warn
us, perhaps punish us, and help us rise up after. And if we grow, He too
will be there with us, continually providing us more opportunities for
growth and fulfillment. If, however, we live without G-d, we will be left in
darkness, in the emptiness of a cruel and apathetic world, ignored by G-d
and left to the mercy of nature's uncaring elements.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org