20 Sep 2017

Rosh HaShana 5778: On Purpose | WITH AUDIO READING 

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Please click HERE to listen to this week’s audio recording read by Rabbi Joseph Dweck.

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” 

 Friedrich Nietzsche

In Judaism we are often taught that on Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, there are two books open before God, the Book of Life and the Book of Death[1]. And it is on this day, the first of the seventh month, that God determines who is to be inscribed in which book for the year[2]. This symbolism permeates the season as people traditionally wish each other Ketiba veHatima Toba – ‘A good writing and sealing’, meaning that we wish people to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.

This is a metaphor of course, because God being non-physical, does not write nor does He use books. The idea behind the metaphor is that in Judaism we believe that there is a day each year that God assesses His entire creation. He determines how it is proceeding and which elements within it are viable and which are not. Human beings are equipped with free choice and thus have the ability to govern their lives and, to a degree, determine their own success or failure[3].

There are those who spend their days building a path of viability for the future and although they experience failures of all kinds along the way, they continue to strive to live lives that are productive and develop towards a fuller and more wholesome and holistic existence. We call these people tsadikim (righteous ones).

There are also those who consistently choose otherwise, and make choices that are, in the long run, counterproductive to a viable and sustainable life and usually harmful in varying degrees to themselves and those around them. They often fail to take into account the past and future and the full consequences of their choices and actions. We call these people resha’im (impious ones).

There is yet another category of people identified by the sages; one comprised of the largest constituency: those that oscillate between viable, productive life choices and non-viable counterproductive ones. They do not lean overwhelmingly to either side, but rather tend to even-out between positive and negative choices and behaviours. They are, by definition, average. These people are called benonim.

Defining someone as a tsadik, rasha or benoni, is the determination of God alone, but we are prompted to consider in which category we might place ourselves. If we had to make an educated guess, how might we make the determination?

There is one crucial question that we can ask ourselves that can begin to clarify in which direction our moral compass is pointing. Do I have a comprehensive purpose by which I live my life? If so, what is it? If not, why not? Why we live overwhelmingly defines how we live.

It is not easy to live life as a tsadik or rasha. Both require conviction and consistency. One must be committed to being either impious or righteous. A true rasha must resist the natural urges to do what is right the majority of the time. A tsadik must do the same with immorality. They must live deliberately.

Raba said the world was only created for the fully impious or the fully righteous.
(Berakhot, 61b)

While it is true that the rasha tends to disregard virtue, it is because virtue inhibits his goal. He does not see life as a work in progress but as a series of opportunities to enjoy and pursue for his own sake. What will his life look like when it ends? Whose lives he will affect, what damage he might cause? He cannot afford to care too much about these things, as his prime goal is to enjoy, fill and feed his desires and to have and own all he wishes. While this lifestyle ends in oblivion due in no small part to its focus on taking rather than giving, it is nonetheless a life lived with purpose.

The tsadik builds his life on virtue. He rarely loses sight of the fact that in living his life he is authoring a story and that he is developing it day by day. He knows that in order to achieve a life of faithfulness, integrity, truth and beauty he must painstakingly weigh his desires against what his life and the world require of him in order to succeed. He believes in God, his soul, gratitude, grace and goodness and lives accordingly. This too, is a life of purpose.

The benoni, however, does not consider a path because the benoni has no consistent recognition of purpose. There are only local questions of ‘what should I do now?’ At times, he might be inspired to act virtuously while at others he may not be bothered to put forth the effort. But there is no ultimate motivating factor that drives and defines his life. The benoni lives life from one decision to the next.

As the tsadik and rasha live their days, they will perform the majority of their deeds in tandem with their purpose. The benoni will choose as per the moment. The tsadik and rasha will see actions that are at odds with their plans and avoid them. The benoni will dabble in both. The tsadik and rasha will examine and recalibrate their actions, circumstances and tactics and will do what they deem necessary to ensure their ultimate success. The benoni will do what he feels he can afford at the time.

By default, human beings are prone to live a benoni life because it is the path of least resistance. If we are not driven, we do not resist or push past deterrents. To truly live a life with a ‘why’ as Nietsche put it, we must consciously choose our purpose in life and live by it. This means choosing a path, rather than a selection of isolated deeds[4].

In assessing His creations on Rosh HaShana God looks to see the state of humankind both individually and in aggregate. The question is one of the nature of our existence: are we righteous, impious or average?

We come to find the answers to these questions together with God on Rosh HaShana. We hear the sound of the shofar to help awaken and encourage us to care and question our purpose.

For the tsadik and rasha, if they are aware and intellectually honest, issues are relatively straightforward. Their verdicts are as forthright as the lives they lead:

On Rosh HaShana…If one is found righteous, his [verdict] is sealed for life.
If one is found wicked, his [verdict] is sealed for death. (Rambam

But what of the ambiguous life of the benoni? What are we, the average human being to do with Rosh HaShana? It seems that even God leaves things open:

A Benoni’s verdict remains tentative until Yom Kippur… (ibid.)

The verdict of one who is determined average is left pending. God looks to see if he will return to purpose or not. Will he return to caring about his own life and live deliberately? Will he do teshuba? If nothing changes, the unexceptional does not stand out against the overall background of Creation and therefore does not register as being productive and alive before God. But if he chooses to return, to do teshuba and to care about his life, he is enlivened and his newfound conviction for his life stands before God.

…If he returns, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If not, his [verdict] is sealed for death.

On Rosh HaShana we are meant to choose a path upon which we will lead our lives and live each day with the determination to successfully navigate it with all the surprises and challenges its twists and turns may bring. To commit to a path of righteousness is to commit to being a tsadik. As a nation likely comprised of many a benoni, we nonetheless come together on the day, sound the shofar, and say in unison:

Remember us for life, O King who desires life! (Standing Prayer, Rosh HaShana)

We wish to live deliberately and purposefully. We encourage each other and we say to our Creator that we want a life of meaning. It is not a mere coincidence that the Jewish cheer is Lehayim – to Life! In our hearts, with all of the lassitude, ennui, apathy and indifference with which we struggle, on the anniversary of the world’s first day when we are asked, ‘do you want life?’ We all answer an emphatic ‘yes!’     

And Your people, all of them righteous….(Isaiah, 61:21)

As individuals we are meant to take our inspiration from this national outpouring of care and commitment towards living our best lives and creating the best version of ourselves. We are to infuse our own lives with greater purpose and, in determination, live our days on a path of righteousness with all we have in us.

Tizku Leshanim Rabot — Many Years!

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] Rosh HaShana, 32b. Cf. ibid. 16b where three books are mentioned: the Book of the Righteous, the Book of the Impious and the Book of the Average.

[2] Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean actual clinical life or death. Rather it is in the sense of relationship with God for that year. Is the person registered as alive and productive or for all intents and purposes, dead and non or counterproductive. The implications relate to how Divine providence manifests for the person. Cf. Mishne Torah, Teshuba, 3:1; Tosafot, 16b sv ליום הדין.

[3] Mishne Torah, Teshuba, 5:1-2.

[4] Cf. Mishne Torah, Teshuba, 5:1.

[5] Mishne Torah, Teshuba, 3:3.