September 18th-19th, 1998
28 Elul, 5758
We wish all our readers a k'siva v'chasima tova, and a good, sweet, happy and healthy new
The Talmud, in tractate Rosh Hashanah, tells us that a great judgment takes place on the
Jewish New Year. The Master of the Universe looks into the hearts of all people,
scrutinizes the state of their souls. For some, a final verdict is reached
immediately, while others enjoy a 10-day reprieve--ending on Yom Kippur--until final
R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Johanan: Three
books are opened [in heaven] on New Year, one for the thoroughly wicked (reshaim gemurin),
one for the thoroughly righteous (tzadikim gemurin), and one for the intermediate
The thoroughly righteous are forthwith inscribed
in the book of life; the thoroughly wicked are forthwith inscribed definitively in the
book of death; the fate of the intermediate is suspended from New Year till the Day of
Atonement; if they deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of life; if they do not
deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of death. (Rosh Hashanah 16b; Soncino
I think most people understand the book of life and the book of death as referring to our
physical life in this material world; our earthly fate and fortune for the coming year are
being decided. Indeed, this is quite true, as evidenced by the haunting words of the Rosh
Hashanah (Musaf) service:
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass
from the earth, and how many will be created...who will die at his predestined time and
who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by
famine, who by thirst, who by storm...Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in
harmony and who will be harried... who will be degraded and who will be exalted.
(Artscroll Machzor, p. 483)
Whether floodwaters will wipe out a coastal village or not; whether the Stock Market will
crash or not; whether your novel will be accepted by a publisher and help catapult you to
literary celebrity, or be scornfully rejected (causing you to decide to apply for law
school and make your parents happy)--all of this is determined by the King of Kings on
Rosh Hashanah. As we watch the President totter, how can we not take the truth of
this divine judgment deeply to heart: "...who will live in harmony and who will be
harried...who will be degraded and who will be exalted."
Yet, there is a deeper meaning to the book of life and book of death as well.
Tosafos [the collective name of explanatory notes on the Talmud of the French and German
rabbis in the 12th and 13th centuries, printed next to the text of the Talmud itself,
opposite Rashi's commentary] explains that life and death here refer to one's existence in
olam ha'ba, the world to come. Simply put, this would mean that we are judged on
Rosh Hashanah as to whether or not we are spiritually worthy of eternal life.
Ultimately, that's the more important judgment, no? It's better--in the final
analysis--to have good standing in the world to come, even if one suffers a bumpy journey
in this world, than to have smooth sailing here with pain and tzaros there.
While we all certainly want peace, health and
prosperity for the coming year (and should pray for them with all our hearts), we should
realize that attaining them is not necessarily a proof that G-d's essential judgment -
which is of our spiritual state, remember--was favorable. After all, it's a
well-known idea in Torah that Hashem sometimes pays the wicked all their reward in this
transitory world...only to destroy them in the world to come. And He sometimes gives
certain righteous people great difficulties as an atonement in this world...in order to
allow them perfect bliss in the next life.
In short, our main focus on Rosh Hashanah should be the LIFE of our souls. If our
marks are good there, there's really not much to worry about.
That also may be the best insurance that we'll be given a good and sweet year in this
world, as well. Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva, Chapter 9) writes that those who loyally
follow the Torah are given physical blessings in this world not as an ultimate reward, but
as an incentive to progress in their service of G-d. If G-d sees, then, that we want
life for a noble purpose--in order to grow as Jews and as human beings, and not just to
eat more hamburgers--, then He will be more likely to grant us what we want.
This is exactly what we say in one of the additions to the Shemoneh Esrei for all the 10
Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah toYom Kippur:
"Remember us for life, O King Who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of
Life--for Your sake, O Living G-d."
For Your sake, grant us life--so we can serve You and follow Your Torah. (Each of us
progressing at his or her own pace, of course...but headed in Your direction!)
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, zt'l, one of the most profound
Torah thinkers of our time, writes that the will (ratzon) of a person is his essence
(Michtav Me'Eliyahu: II, pp. 62-66). Whether or not we are put in the Book of Life
is not merely the outcome of a numerical tallying of our sins versus our good deeds,
though that is part of it; the nature of our basic will and desires--the present state of
our heart--is the decisive factor.
Do we want to be connected to G-d and spirituality--to
true life--, or are we content to remain among the living dead, who Rav Dessler describes
as clinging singlemindedly to the Imaginary (dimyon)--i.e., the transitory pleasures of
this world. (Enjoying permitted physical pleasures in this world is, of course,
encouraged by the Torah; we're supposed to be happy people. The basic question,
though, is: What's the focus of our lives?)
It's probable that many (if not most) of us will be
judged neither completely righteous, nor completely wicked; we are the beynonim--those in
the middle, as stated by the Talmud. Rav Dessler explains that we are the folks
whose ratzon (will) wavers back and forth: sometimes we yearn to be in the camp of the
righteous (when the parsha sheet is a winner, when we finally do a certain mitzvah and it
feels good, etc.)...and sometimes we cling to the Imaginary (I'll let you fill in your own
examples of non-righteousness). We beynonim want true life...but not all of the
We need to make use of the precious 10 Days of
Repentance, to make an extra effort in that time to cling to spirituality: set aside time
for introspection, do more mitzvos, study more Torah, avoid anger and pettiness of all
sorts. And, of course, do teshuvah--making amends to those we've wronged, feeling
true regret for our transgressions, confessing them to Hashem and sincerely
resolving--without a vow--to try to avoid repeating them in the future. (Am I
sounding like the President, or what?!)
10 days to pay close attention to your heart.
And to take to heart the words of this week's parsha, which not coincidentally is always
read during this High Holiday period:
"See--I have placed before you today the life and
the good, and the death and the evil...choose life!" (30, 15 and 19)
It's completely up to us which book we get inscribed
May Hashem inspire us this Rosh Hashanah to wholeheartedly accept Him as the Supreme King,
and turn back to Him during the 10 Days of Repentance. He's certainly rooting for
AND SHANAH TOVAH!!!
Insights Into Genesis
Insights Into Exodus
Edelstein is Director of the Savannah Kollel/ Savannah Torah Education Project. Phone:
fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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