Hanging in the Balance, Part I
Chapter 3, Law 4(a)
"Even though the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Biblical decree
(lit., 'the decree of a verse'), there is a hint in it (meaning, a readily
discernible reason behind it), as if to say: 'Wake up, wake up, [you]
sleepers from your sleep, and awake [you] slumberers from your slumber.
Search your deeds, repent, and remember your Creator.' Those [referred to]
are they who forget the truth on account of the vanities of time, and who
waste (lit., 'err with') their entire year with vainness and emptiness which
neither help nor save. 'Look to your souls and mend your ways and your
deeds, and let every one of you forsake his evil way and his improper thoughts.'
"On account of this, every person must view himself the entire year as if he
is half meritorious and half guilty. and so too the entire world is half
meritorious and half guilty. If he has sinned a single sin, behold he has
inclined himself and the entire world towards guilt and caused its
destruction. If he performs a single mitzvah (good deed), behold he has
inclined himself and the entire world towards merit, causing its deliverance
and salvation. This is as it is stated, 'And the righteous one [is] the
foundation of the world' (Proverbs 10:25), [meaning], this one who has made
himself righteous has inclined he entire world [to merit] and has saved it.
"Because of this matter, the entire House of Israel is accustomed to
increase its [giving of] charity and [its doing of] good deeds, and to
involve itself in mitzvos (good deeds) from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur,
more so than the entire year. And all are accustomed to rise up at night
during these ten days and to pray in the synagogue with words of
supplication and submissiveness until the light of day."
In the previous law, the Rambam began discussing the judgment of the High
Holidays. As we saw, although man is in a constant state of judgment -- and
if he is found wanting he instantly self-destructs, on Rosh Hashanah we are
judged by entirely higher standards. It is not the pass-fail judgment of the
rest of the year but the infinitely more precise examination of whom we
This week the Rambam continues to discuss the High Holidays. He makes
several somewhat distinct points; it is not even that clear if and how all
the ideas mesh. The Rambam begins by discussing the meaning behind the
Shofar (ram's horn) of Rosh Hashanah, then talks about the significance of
our every deed to tilt the balance on the Divine Scales, and finally
discusses the universal custom to improve our ways during the High Holiday
In truth, each point deserves a discussion on in its own; we could easily
spend several classes on this law. I would like, however, to broaden this
discussion, addressing the topic of Rosh Hashanah on an entirely more
fundamental plane. Let me begin by posing a single question on the Rambam's
wise words -- one which will hopefully shed light on the real issue at
stake. The question was posed by (guess who?) my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig
(www.talmudicu.edu & www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig).
The Rambam's final point is that we act much more religiously during the
High Holidays, taking care to give extra charity and perform more good deeds
than usual -- presumably in order to swing the scales of justice in our
favor. The problem is as follows. On Rosh Hashanah, say of year 5771 (the
current), what are we being judged for? Presumably for the previous year,
5770, which *ended* on Rosh Hashanah! If so, how does performing a few more
mitzvos (good deeds) in 5771 help influence our judgment? They enter a new
reckoning -- for the *coming* year!
In fact, if we look more closely at the previous law, the Rambam first
stated that on Rosh Hashanah of every year we are judged (again, presumably
for the year which just ended). Afterwards he stated that the judgment of
the average individual is suspended until Yom Kippur. If he repents he is
sealed for life; if not he is sealed for death. Why did the Rambam there
state that the only way for the average individual to alter his judgment is
through repentance? Why not through the performance of more mitzvos? And
again, the answer is supposedly because *new* mitzvos will not help last
year's judgment. They enter a new account. Thus, the only means -- at the
start of year 5771 -- to influence the judgment of 5770 is to repent over
past mistakes. If so, once again why does the Rambam emphasize the custom to
do extra good deeds during the High Holidays? Certainly it's always nice to
do extra mitzvos but such would not seem to influence 5770's judgment for
the better in the slightest?
The answer is a critical one to understanding our relationship with G-d, but
I need to back up slightly first. Last week we discussed a related question.
The Rambam first stated (Law 2) that man is in a constant state of judgment.
As soon as a person slips below 50% righteous, he immediately perishes. In
Law 3, however, he stated that we are judged every year on Rosh Hashanah.
And the difficulty is that if we are constantly judged by G-d, what is left
to happen on Rosh Hashanah? Everyone sinful is destroyed *immediately* -- he
wouldn't have even made it as far as Rosh Hashanah! Thus, presumably
everyone still alive on Rosh Hashanah is righteous -- so who are the wicked
being sealed for death on the High Holidays?
Last week we answered one way -- that the ongoing judgment is a simple
majority pass-fail decision. On the High Holidays, however, we are
scrutinized much more piercingly and precisely. Although a person may have
been 55 or 60 percent good most of the year, he may be dubbed "wicked" (that
is, hopelessly mediocre) and sentenced to death in the infinitely more
exacting judgment of Rosh Hashanah.
There is a different approach to this question. It is one we discussed
earlier (3:2) but which
warrants a careful review now. The judgment of Rosh Hashanah is not over
life versus death literally. Such a judgment occurs constantly in our lives.
It is firstly a more exacting judgment as we explained last week. But
secondly, it is not a judgment over literal life and death at all. That is
decided on a separate basis, constantly. Rather, it is a judgment over Life
versus Death. Let us explain.
On Rosh Hashanah G-d judges us not simply in terms of if we will live and
our hearts will beat for another twelve months. He decides if we are "alive"
or not in the cosmic sense, meaning if we will have a living and dynamic
relationship with our Maker. If G-d determines that a person deserves
"life", the meaning is that he will have a warm, close, active relationship
with his G-d. G-d will involve Himself more actively in his life, watch over
him more carefully, spur him to growth with tailor-made challenges, and be
more responsive to his prayers. If, however, G-d decrees "death" on a
person, he will be ignored and abandoned by G-d. He will be resigned to a
cold, distant relationship with G-d. He will not be a beloved child before a
merciful Father but a pathetic lackey of a distant King.
What does such a decision depend upon? Why would G-d decree a warm and
caring relationship with one person and a cold, distant one with another?
The answer is that it depends on how "alive" the person was with his G-d in
the previous year. If you showed by your actions that you *cared* about G-d
-- not just that you obeyed His will as a servant, but that you truly cared
about your G-d and your relationship with Him, then you have shown your
willingness for a living and dynamic relationship with the L-rd. And this is
what G-d is looking for in His children. If you were alive with Him, He will
be alive with you -- and grant you a year of "life" on Rosh Hashanah.
This, as we will see, holds the key not only for answering our original
question, but for understanding the underlying theme of this law and the
true significance of the High Holidays. G-d willing we'll develop this
further next week.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org