23 Aug 2015

The True Judgement of the High Holy Days – 5776

The True Judgement of the High Holy Days 5776 – By Rabbi Danny Kada

Elul is the time of the year when our children come home from school with all sorts of designs and pictures of scales depicting the upcoming judgement of the High Holy Days. The one whose upright deeds outweigh his wicked deeds supposedly merits to emerge from the judgement with a verdict for a sweet and happy new year and conversely, one whose wicked deeds outweigh his upright deeds is destined for a challenging year ahead.

Unfortunately, we often to tend to grow in age and build (and white hairs) but not in intellectual capacity. Conceptions and notions which we were taught so well in our youth accompany us year in year out, with us failing to ‘outgrow’ them. One of these concepts is the aforementioned scale. To go through our adulthood with this shallow idea would be a colossal mistake.

Judaism teaches that each thought, speech or action of a person – for the good or for the bad – receives exact retribution. In Devarim (10:17) G-d is described as ‘great, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.’ One needs a creative imagination to conjure the vision of G-d taking a bribe. How would G-d supposedly accept a bribe? The Sifrei explains that this verse does not mean a monetary bribe rather a spiritual bribe – a bribe of ‘mitzvoth’. In the words of Ramban (Nachmanides 1194-1270) on this verse: ‘even a complete and pious individual who commits a sin, G-d will not take one of his mitzvoth as a ‘bribe’ to atone for his sin; rather He will punish him for that one sin and will give him full reward for all his good deeds’. However many good deeds one has will not cancel out even the slightest sin a person has. This idea is echoed by other commentators such as Me’iri (1249-1310) in his commentary to Pirkei Avot (4:29).

Clearly then, our children’s’ scales needs an explanation! What difference does it make which side of the scale is heavier – either way one receives full retribution for one’s sins and reward for his good deeds?

Perhaps, the true judgment of the High Holy Days is not about how many mitzvoth and aveiroth we have. It is about how much they weigh to us. How important to us is our religion. Our mitzvoth. Our good deeds and actions.

The Hebrew words for value and casualness consist of the same letters – kuf, reish and yud. Something precious and valuable is referred to as ‘yekar’ (yud, kuf, reish) whereas something coincidental and spontaneous is referred to as ‘keri’ (kuf, reish, yud). It is possible for two Jews to be doing the same actions; for one it is an action of ‘yekar’ and preciousness and for the other it is an action of ‘keri’ and fortuity.

We are sometimes guilty of living ideals without idealism – we perform many good acts but our appreciation and significance of these acts are lacking. Rabbi Yosef Babad of Ternopil, Ukraine (1800-1874) in his classical Minchat Chinuch (364:1) even ventures to say that the classification of ‘tsadik’ and ‘rasha’ is not dependent on the respective mitzvoth and averoth one has. He proves this from the Talmud (Kiddushin 49b) that teaches that if a wicked man betroths a woman on condition that he is a tsadik she is betrothed for perhaps he had a thought of repentance at the moment of betrothal. Maimonides (1138-1204) however, codifies that repentance without verbal confession is not classified as repentance whereas the Talmud seems to imply that a mere thought of repentance would suffice to classify the man betrothing as a tsadik. As a result, Minchat Chinuch explains that the title of ‘tsadik’ of the Talmud is not dependent on the amount of good or bad deeds one has. It is about the value and weight one gives to his deeds. Consequently, even if the ‘rasha’ did not verbally confess his sins it is still possible for him to be a tsadik, for perhaps his perspective of the mitzvoth he does have, dramatically changed to the extent that the appreciation and value of his mitzvoth is that of a tsadik.

Clearly, it is possible for one to have many sins and still be called a tsadik, and conversely it is possible for one to have many mitzvoth and be called a rasha. For mitzvoth and aveiroth is what one does, and being a tzadik and a rasha is who one is. This is what the judgment of these days is all about. And this is the true meaning of the concept of the scales – what weighs more to us, our mitzvoth or averoth?

With heartfelt blessings for a happy, healthy and sweet new year.