However, if you do not obey the voice of God, your God, and observe
all of His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, then the
following curses will come upon and affect you. (Devarim 28:15)
This time of year makes me feel rather uncomfortable. Some of it goes back
to my childhood, when spending a lot of time in shul was terribly boring.
Sometimes it was so painful that I thought it was the real source of
atonement for a year’s worth of sins. And, even though now, I welcome the
opportunity to put everything aside and truly focus on my connection to God,
that little boy in my closet seems to still be able to express his feelings
in the matter on some level.
I wish it was the fact that I am going to be judged that made me shudder. I
wish I truly felt concern for life, and was real with the idea that I could
be sentenced to death in the upcoming year. Hey, there are still 27 days
left to Rosh Hashanah, b”H, enough time to take care of such business even
before Judgement Day.
Unfortunately, judgment is not what scares me, at least emotionally. It’s
the disruption of life, the seriousness of the mood, and the overeating that
seems to concern me, at least when I’m not focussed. I love my daily
schedule, which I find quite peaceful even when storms rage around me. I
love chilling out, and I hate overeating, and both seem to distant realities
during the Aseres Yemai Teshuvah—the Ten Days of Repentance.
Fortunately, once Rosh Hashanah comes in, I get serious. It’s a powerful
time, and I feel its effect immediately once Ma’ariv begins, if not before.
The prayers speak to me, and having the time to really think about their
meaning, I get into it. Once that happens, thank God, the mood usually stays
with me the entire 10 days, and by the time Yom Kippur leaves, I have the
reverse feeling: I am sad to see it all end. Relieved, but sad.
“Where am I coming from?” I have asked myself each year around this time.
“Why don’t I feel the awe of this time like Jews used to, when all you had
to do was say, ‘Elul Zman!’ and people broke out in tears, fearing for their
judgment and their lives?” It was time for self-analysis.
One of the most frightening things about a nuclear bomb is how much
destruction can result from as a single device. Conventional bombs also make
a lot of noise and destroy much, but are much more commensurate to their
size. But, a nuclear bomb takes advantage of a different explosive process:
A nuclear weapon is an explosive device that derives its destructive
force from nuclear reactions, either fission or a combination of fission and
fusion. Both reactions release vast quantities of energy from relatively
small amounts of matter. The first fission (“atomic”) bomb test released the
same amount of energy as approximately 20,000 tons of TNT. The first
thermonuclear (“hydrogen”) bomb test released the same amount of energy as
approximately 10,000,000 tons of TNT. A modern thermonuclear weapon weighing
little more than 2,400 pounds (1,100 kg) can produce an explosive force
comparable to the detonation of more than 1.2 million tons (1.1 million
metric tons) of TNT. Thus, even a small nuclear device no larger than
traditional bombs can devastate an entire city by blast, fire and radiation.
(Wikipedia, Nuclear Bomb)
What is there to learn from this, aside from the obvious lessons? As the
Chofetz Chaim explained, everything in the material world functions the way
it does to teach us about how the invisible and often elusive spiritual
world works. The former mimics the latter one, since it is derived from it,
and this allows us to reverse-detect, a little like researching deceased
parents through their children who are still alive.
To answer this question, we need to first know a fundamental from the Talmud:
Reward for a mitzvah cannot come in this world. (Kiddushin 39b)
The Talmud comes to this conclusion based upon a verse, but the truth is,
logic itself dictates this truth. The true reward for the mitzvos that we do
in this world can only come in Olam HaBah—the World-to-Come—just like the
real punishment for the sins that we commit can only be atoned for in
Gihenom, unless the person does sincere teshuvah while still alive, and even
that’s a miracle.
Why? For the same reason that remaining indoors at the blast site of a
thermonuclear weapon is a futile attempt to protect oneself from its impact.
Just as there is no way for the roof and walls of a house to withstand the
blast even a little, likewise is there no way for our physical bodies to
withstand the punishment necessary for even a single sin. Therefore, the
punishment, which is really a refining process, is saved for a time when our
bodies are far more spiritual, and therefore far more capable of persevering
the punishment for past sins, what we call Gihenom.
It’s not a matter of overkill. It’s not that Heaven overreacts to our sins.
Rather, it is that we do not appreciate the incredible destruction to
Creation that results from what we might call even just “a little sin.” Like
people who treat a nuclear weapon carelessly because they have no idea of
the amount of damage that could result from its explosion, we drop spiritual
nuclear bombs all over the place when we sin, oblivious to how much
catastrophic destruction is resulting and for which we will have to answer
at some point in the future.
Thus, we also take teshuvah for granted. Teshuvah is small, yet extremely
powerful, because it can mitigate the destruction from sin. So little is
required of us to do teshuvah, but if it works, it does so much, like
pouring a single glass of water on a parched field, and watching an entire
field of wheat growing on the spot, and then some.
And, as the rabbis point out, if this true for punishment, then it is even
more true when it comes to the reward for mitzvos. In our mind, even the
greatest of mitzvos can only bring back so much reward. For example, if
reward was measured in dollars, how much money could one possibly earn for a
day’s worth of learning? One hundred dollars? Five hundred dollars? A
“No way!” we’d have to say.
On the other hand, ever wonder why people like Bill Gates and Steven Jobs
got to become billionaires? Who knows for sure, but it is interesting that
the two of them have been responsible for so much Torah being learned and
taught over the last two decades. And, who knows what their inventions will
do for the learning of Torah over the next two decades?
“But,” you will argue, “they have no mitzvah to do so, per se, and they more
than likely had little or no intention to further the cause of Torah and
redemption in the first place, so why reward them!”
Because that is the way God works. He let Egyptians become Jews after only
three generations because they “hosted” the Jewish nation for 210 years. As
ungrateful as we may have felt towards our oppressors, God still found
something good in all that they did to warrant their receiving some kind of
How much more so, then, Gates and Jobs, and all the other entrepreneurs out
there using genius, technology and lots of money to make our Torah lives
work better, even if it is unintentional. How much more so, then, will Jews
who are commanded to keep the mitzvos and intend to do so, receive great
reward. How great? There aren’t enough billions of dollars in Creation to
pay even a single Jew for a life of Torah and mitzvos!
Hence, that is why it is irrelevant for a Jew to receive any of the reward
for his mitzvos, or any of his punishment for his sins, in this world. At
this stage of history, or bodies are completely incapable of handling
either, and would explode early from either the ecstasy of the reward or the
unbearable suffering of the punishment.
However, from Yemos HaMoshiach onward, our bodies begin a transformation
process that eventually turns them into soul-like realities by the time we
get to the World-to-Come (6000 onward), with a much greater capacity to
either receive Divine reward or suffer through Divine punishment. Then we’ll
be able to see just how great the reward is for a single mitzvah and, just
how destructive even a single sin really was.
Knowing this alone is good preparation for Rosh Hashanah. The Aseres Yemai
Teshuvah is about course-correction, a time of year when we are supposed to
come to terms with, at least a little, how much greater the spiritual world
is than the physical world. It is the time of year when we try to get real
with the reality of this little story from the Talmud:
Rebi Yehoshua’s son became weak and his spirit left him. When he returned,
his father asked him, “What did you see?”
He answered him, “An upside down world: the esteemed were down, and those
who were down were esteemed.”
He told him, “My son, you saw a clear world!” (Pesachim 50a)
Another way of saying this is that what is small over here is big over
there, and vice-versa. In this world, 40 billion dollars commands complete
attention, as do big houses, large salaries, and lots of popularity. In such
a world, a tzaddik and the mitzvos he performs count for very little, if
anything at all, and do not compete at all with a popular movie star or
Not in the next world, the real one, the eternal one. In that world, not
only are righteous people the only ones who count, they are the only ones
who are there. The rich and famous, unless they were righteous too, aren’t
even invited to the main banquet, being left behind here in the corridor
that leads to it:
This world is like a corridor before the World-to-Come. Rectify yourself
in the corridor in order to be able to enter the Banquet Hall. (Pirkei Avos
To give us a taste of this course-correction, the Talmud shares the
following projection into the future:
In the time to come the Holy One, Blessed is He, will bring the Evil
Inclination and slay it before the righteous and the wicked. To the
righteous it will have the appearance of a towering hill, but to the wicked
it will have the appearance of a hair thread. Both the former and the latter
will weep; the righteous will weep saying,
“How were we able to overcome such a towering hill!”
The wicked also will weep saying, “How is it that we were unable to conquer
this hair thread?!” (Succah 52a)
The answer is simple. The righteous are those who appreciate the value of a
mitzvah, and the destructive power of even a single sin. Not, perhaps, on
the actual level, something that can only be comprehended in the time to
come. But, on enough of a level that performing mitzvos becomes
all-important, and avoiding sin becomes all-necessary.
Not so the evil. For them mitzvos are as important as the dust on the
ground, and performing sins is no big deal, especially when doing so is so
much fun. They never course-correct, and by the time they wake up to the
reality of the meaninglessness of their lives, they are long over, and all
they can do is stand in shock, as they prepare for the final opportunity of
course-correction, one in which their increased capacity to suffer will
reveal to them, at last, just how destructive even a “little sin” can be.