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Rosh Hashana: Judgment Days

Rosh Hashanah (Day 1: Genesis 21; Day 2: Genesis 22 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

This Shabbat is Rosh Hashanah and we shall all be called to the Heavenly Court to stand trial for our lives. It would certainly help us greatly if we understood what exactly is being weighed and judged; the sorts of considerations that influence the deliberations of the Heavenly Court; how much input we are allowed to contribute to the proceedings. We shall explore these areas of interest in this essay by developing some of the basic ideas expounded by Rabbi Dessler in his work Michtav Mieliyahu.


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The very first point that must be emphasized is that contrary to popular belief, Rosh Hashanah is not about reward and punishment. The Talmud informs us that mitzvot cannot be rewarded in this world (Kiddushin 39b). The commentators explain that the physical world simply does not have the resources to deliver the amount of joy required to compensate the performance of even a single Mitzvah.

Only people who do not have the merit to make it to the World to Come are written into the Book of Life to compensate them for their past good deeds; we certainly hope that none of us are in this position, The conclusion: when we stand before God and pray for a good life in the coming year, we are not asking Him to provide it for us as a reward.

But if the judgment we face on Rosh Hashanah does not concern reward, what exactly is being weighed? According to Rabbi Dessler, the model we should study as an aid to understanding the deliberations of the Heavenly Court on Rosh Hashanah is an economic investment model; the judgments of Rosh Hashanah are the heavenly equivalents of earthly investment policy decisions. On Rosh Hashanah it is decided how much Divine energy God will invest in the world in general and in our own lives in particular in the course of the coming year.


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The most fundamental tenet of Judaism is that this physical world we inhabit is not our final destination but is merely a workplace. Each of us is sent to this world by God to develop ourselves spiritually and earn our entry to the World to Come, the place we regard as our destination where we shall receive our reward. God's policy regarding the manner of setting up the conditions we that we encounter in our working environment, this world is summed up in the following passage:


"Whoever undertakes to purify himself, we shall assist him. Whoever undertakes to shut himself to spirituality, we shall provide him or her with the opportunity to carry out this design." (Talmud, Yuma 39b)


The direction we choose to follow in our lives and the levels of intensity with which we pursue our spiritual objectives are evaluated annually. If we have made use of the inputs we were given in the previous year and progressed towards perfecting ourselves, the Heavenly court will generally decide to increase its investment in us. Our circumstances for the coming investment period, the New Year, will be arranged in a manner that ensures that we encounter the opportunities we require to progress even faster toward our goals.


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For example, let us imagine a person who has spent the year since last Rosh Hashanah working intensely on his devotion to Torah study. Through his efforts, his attachment to his studies has grown to such an extent that it has become painful and frustrating to invest any time in any other endeavor no matter how important it may be to physical survival. The Heavenly court may very well decide on Rosh Hashanah that he should receive a substantial financial windfall so that he may be in the position to hire other people to assume his everyday physical burdens.

But not only does the Court decide what we shall receive in the coming year on Rosh Hashanah, it also decides on the manner we shall receive the things that were prescribed for us. Suppose for example that our budding scholar had purchased a cheap startup stock, Microsoft. The Court might arrange to deliver the windfall by increasing the value of Microsoft stock so rapidly, that our frustrated scholar is able to solve all his financial worries for the foreseeable future by selling his holdings.

Of course, choosing this method of delivering the windfall to the scholar means that other owners of Microsoft stock will prosper as well, but that is all to the good. There is nothing the Heavenly Court enjoys more than the opportunity to distribute largess. They are glad to allow other people to hitchhike on the Torah scholar's prosperity.

On the other hand, if he already enjoys substantial wealth and it is the time and attention that he must devote to his business that is the major source of his distraction, it may very well be decided that the best way to give the Torah scholar more time to immerse himself totally in his studies is to bankrupt his business. A life of poverty might be far more conducive to Torah study than living with the distractions of wealth and luxury. Let us imagine that the revolving bank loan that his business needs to function is secured by his holdings of Microsoft stock. The Court might arrange a crash of the Nasdaq, so that Microsoft stock loses its value so rapidly that the banks would be forced to call in the revolving credit business loan, driving the business into bankruptcy.

Once again this will affect other people's lives, this time negatively, but as the other people who are affected are only written into the Book of Life in the merit of the Torah scholar, this outcome is not considered unjust by the Heavenly Court.

In fact we have stumbled upon an entirely different category of judgment. For there are people who are written into the Book of Life for themselves and there are others who are written into the book in the merit of others.


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Let us attempt to develop the origins of such states of dependency from first principles. Reading through the Rosh Hashanah prayer book conveys the idea that the Members of the Great Assembly, the Sages who compiled these prayers over three thousand years ago, conceived of Rosh Hashanah as a sort of Divine Coronation day. The Machzor, the High Holiday prayer book, is full of prayers requesting the establishment of God's Kingdom over the entire world. All the prayers we recite on Rosh Hashanah are about the need to submit to God's rule in some fashion. The Talmud refers to this phenomenon as Malchiyot, or Enthronement prayers.

In order to gain the correct perspective on these prayers we must first comprehend the idea of God's Kingdom. Our own conception of kingdom is political. A new kingdom is established, when either by popular consent or through the power of conquest, a group of people establishes hegemony over a portion of the earth and its inhabitants; the people who become the subjects of the new kingdom already belong to a particular culture or cultures. The human king does not create his kingdom. He merely reorganizes a given part of creation under his banner.


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In contrast, the entire creation is called God's Kingdom because it is an expression of His Will. The conceptual foundation of Rosh Hashanah is that a created universe has no inertia; it consists entirely of Divine Energy whose input comes up for renewal annually. Each year, God in effect recreates the world by renewing and redistributing the Divine Energy of creation. This renewal of creation is referred to in our prayers as the establishment of a brand new Kingdom.

This new kingdom isn't merely forests and trees; it is also people and events. The people of the world and the events in which they will be involved in the coming year are powered by Divine energy just as much as the physical environment they inhabit. The energy that keeps people alive and the energy they must expend in the course of their lives must also be renewed.

In fact, the annual renewal of God's kingdom is only significant in terms of the changes that take place in people's lives and the developments of human history. God is perfectly happy with the physical universe as is, just as He brought it into being in the Six Days of Creation. When He finished creating the physical universe and all its creatures, He declared, "And God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). There is no need to tinker with what is already very good.

The only aspect of the creation that requires readjustment and therefore comes up for review is the arrangement of the forces of nature in terms of the manner in which they impact on people's lives. The Heavenly Court will rearrange the world according to the dictates of the fundamental principles of Divine policy: "whoever undertakes to purify himself, We shall assist him. Whoever undertakes to shut himself to spirituality, We shall provide him the opportunity to carry out his designs."

The world will be recreated in a manner that will place every individual in the circumstances that are precisely appropriate to his situation following these two guidelines.

People's lives are so intertwined and intermeshed that in practice, readjusting the circumstances of a multitude of people amounts to the recreation of the entire universe. Let us remember that the universe was created by a series of Divine speeches (Avot 5,1). This means that creation is really an expression of God's will; it is formed and shaped by commands expressed in speeches.

As the created universe is nothing more than the concretization of God's Will, it is the ultimate in kingdoms. Unlike the kingdoms of human beings, who can only issue commands to peoples that already exist, and control territories that are already in place, God's Kingdom extends over creatures who are themselves the expressions of His will and occupies territory that is created for the express purpose of supporting the Divine Kingdom. Existence itself is God's Kingdom.


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Because the world is recreated every Rosh Hashanah, the day marks the occasion of the establishment of a brand new Divine Kingdom. Jewish tradition maintains that God informed us about Rosh Hashanah to allow us to have some input into how this new kingdom is to be fashioned. The purpose of creation is to allow man to actualize his spiritual potential. As I stand before God on Rosh Hashanah, He is waiting to hear from me about what I plan to do to actualize my spiritual potential in the coming year.

If all that issues form me is my desire to live on in prosperity and good health for another year, I am actually informing God that I do not require the renewal of His Kingdom at all. I am perfectly happy with the world just as it is. But God did not intend this world to be a comfortable place where I merely keep living on and on. He created the World to Come as the place of enjoyment and living the good life. The sole reason for the existence of this world is to provide man with a place in which he can work. If my main interest in being in this world is to live well and enjoy myself, I don't need to be here at all.

On the other hand if I sincerely resolve to invest my energy [really the Divine energy that I am asking God to renew out of which I am fashioned] in the coming year into developing my spiritual potential, not only do I need this world to be recreated, I also need it to assume the particular shape that will maximize my ability to work efficiently, and develop as much of my potential as possible.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah God only considers the cases of the people who are sincerely committed to developing themselves spiritually. It is they who offer Him investment opportunities, because it is they who require the renewal of His Kingdom. After carefully assessing the seriousness and feasibility of the proposals that are submitted, He determines the inputs that each individual whose case is being deliberated requires to actualize his ideas in the coming year, and weaves all these individual requirements into a common tapestry and recreates a world that will correspond exactly with the combined requirements.


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But what of all the good, solid people who do not fall into the category of those dedicated to developing themselves? What of all the good Jews who may not be very interested in spiritual development, but who are loyal to tradition, who are excellent spouses, dedicated parents, solid reliable people. How do they fit into the new world? They are what the second day of Rosh Hashanah is about. It is not difficult to explain how there could be two days of Passover or Succot. Passover celebrates the freedom from the dominance of physical circumstances. You can always use an extra dose of freedom. Succot is the season of our joy, and you certainly cannot get enough of that! But Rosh Hashanah is a Day of Judgment. Who wants a second day? Moreover, the Heavenly Court does not function in the manner of its earthly counterparts. It has no backlog of cases. God can finish judging the entire world all in one day. There should be no judgment to celebrate on the second day!

The cases of all the people who did not pass muster on the first day are judged on the second. After God maps out the dimensions of His new Kingdom on the first day based on the requirements of those who were judged worthy of investment, on the second day He considers all the lives that need to be renewed to make His new Kingdom function.

Even if we focus only on religious requirements the new world requires a large population. The people for whom the world was recreated on the first day need synagogues in which to pray; this means that you will need a quorum of people to be written in the Book of Life even if there is only a single member who passed muster on the first day. They will need Talmudic academies in which to study; a functioning academy must have a large student body, teachers, administrators, maintenance people etc.; hundreds of people can be written into the Book of Life in the merit of the few students who actually require the academy for their spiritual growth. First day people require Kosher food to eat; thousands of people can be written into the Book of Life to make sure that there is a functioning food industry. If you think about it there are literally millions of functions that must be filled in order to keep the spiritual world functioning.

There are other sorts of spiritual needs that must be filled as well. Those who are working seriously on themselves are constantly being tested. In practice, a great percentage of these moral tests, if not the majority, involve interactions with other people. People provide the opportunity for the giving or withholding of charity, for testing patience, for expressions of concern and demonstrations of kindness, for the display of humility; the human character is tested constantly in every interaction with others.


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The vast majority of the people who would not have the world renewed for their sakes are sorely needed to make it function and are perfectly qualified to serve as moral testers. The lives of all these people are renewed on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. The reason the second day is also called a day of judgment is that even the renewal of life on the grounds of one's usefulness to others requires surviving judgment.

The deliberations and considerations before the Heavenly Court on the second day obviously differ from those on the first. People aren't judged on their potential for spiritual growth, but in terms of their necessity to society and their ability to cooperate with others. The question being considered is whether they are the best choice to fill a required social slot within the Jewish people, or whether they are necessary to keep the world functioning.

Needless to say, there is a vast difference between the manner in which the world functions for those for whom it was renewed, and the way it functions for those who were allowed to live in order to keep it working smoothly. The people who have the world renewed for them are placed under the guidance of Hashgacha Pratis, Divine Providence. God will monitor their progress constantly throughout the year, ensure that they are protected from harm, and undergo precisely the experiences they need to bring out their potential. Their circumstances undergo daily and even hourly adjustments. In other words, there is a Divine guiding hand that is constantly rearranging the world for their benefit.

Those who are inscribed in the Book of Life on the second day are placed under an altogether different sort of regime. As they inhabit a world that was renewed for others, the guiding hand of Providence is only concerned with them in terms of the function for which they were given life. Their lives are arranged in terms of the benefit their circumstances bring to others, not in terms of the things they may require to encourage their own spiritual development and growth. As they live in a world that really belongs to others, they are forced to adjust to the conditions of the lives of the people they are living to support.

Nevertheless they are alive. They have free will. They can change and grow. As long as there is life there is hope and opportunity. By next Rosh Hashanah these people could also become first day people. They will certainly do many good things in the course of their ordinary lives and increase their share in the World to Come.


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We can employ these ideas to unravel a strange dispute in the Talmud about how often people are judged. The Talmud presents four different opinions; R' Meir and R' Yehuda both take the position that judgments are annual, but R' Yosi maintains that people are judged daily, while R' Noson maintains that they are judged constantly. R' Dessler explains that all these positions are valid, and there is no dispute between these Rabbis. Each of them is referring to a different level of Hashgacha Pratis. On the highest level, people are monitored constantly and the world never ceases to be rearranged around them. On the lowest level, people are fixed in place for the duration of the present reality, the annual renewal of the universe, the establishment of God's new kingdom.


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The annual renewal of Rosh Hashanah presents all of us with a unique opportunity. As Rosh Hashanah concerns the level of Divine investment, not reward and punishment, it is possible to surpass one's spiritual level without the need to put oneself through the drastic changes demanded by true repentance. When you are facing investors, your moral standing is relevant only in so far as it contributes to your productivity. Investors are focused on higher returns; they really don't care much about just deserts. They are looking out for enterprise, determination, intelligence and foresight. They are future oriented; the past doesn't really interest them.

Rosh Hashanah is a time for imagination, for the formulation of daring new ideas regarding spiritual progress. If you have imaginative proposals to submit concerning contributions you are willing and able to make toward the successful establishment of God's Kingdom, and you can persuade the Heavenly Court of the sincerity of your intentions, they will increase their investment in you regardless of your past performance. A junior executive can walk out of a director's meeting on a much higher rung up the corporate ladder than he entered if he manages to persuade the directors to invest in his ideas. Rosh Hashanah offers us all the opportunity of dramatic promotions in our level of involvement with God.

We can move overnight from a world that belongs to other people to a world that is created specifically for us. We can pass from a state of relative obscurity where we live in other people's shadows to creatures that are literally held in the palm of God's hand, His attention focused on us constantly. We can define our own reality. May we all succeed in making a huge spiritual jump this Rosh Hashanah. A happy, healthy and peaceful year to all Israel!



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