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By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld | Series: | Level:

Even though the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Biblical decree (lit., ‘the decree of a verse’), there is a hint in it (meaning, a readily discernible reason behind it), as if to say: ‘Wake up, wake up, [you] sleepers from your sleep, and awake [you] slumberers from your slumber. Search your deeds, repent, and remember your Creator.’ Those [referred to] are the ones who forget the truth on account of the vanities of time, and who waste (lit., ‘err with’) their entire year with vanities and emptiness which neither help nor save. ‘Look to your souls and mend your ways and your deeds, and let every one of you forsake his evil way and his improper thoughts.’

On account of this, every person must view himself the entire year as if he is half meritorious and half guilty, and so too the entire world is half meritorious and half guilty. If he has sinned a single sin, behold he has inclined himself and the entire world towards guilt and caused its destruction. If he performs a single mitzvah (good deed), behold he has inclined himself and the entire world towards merit, causing its deliverance and salvation. This is as it is stated, ‘And the righteous one [is] the foundation of the world’ (Proverbs 10:25), [meaning], this one who has made himself righteous has inclined he entire world [to merit] and has saved it.

Because of this matter, the entire House of Israel is accustomed to increase its [giving of] charity and [its doing of] good deeds, and to involve itself in mitzvos (good deeds) from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, more so than the entire year. And all are accustomed to rise up at night during these ten days and to pray in the synagogue with words of supplication and submissiveness until the light of day.

In the previous law, the Rambam began discussing the judgment of the High Holidays. As we saw, although man is in a constant state of judgment — and if he is found wanting he instantly self-destructs, on Rosh Hashanah we are judged by entirely higher standards. It is not the pass-fail judgment of the rest of the year but the infinitely more precise examination of who we truly are.

This week the Rambam continues to discuss the High Holidays. He makes several somewhat distinct points; it is not even that clear if and how all the ideas jibe. The Rambam begins by discussing the meaning behind the Shofar (ram’s horn) of Rosh Hashanah, then talks about the significance of our every deed to tilt the balance on the Divine Scales, and finally discusses the universal custom to improve our ways during the High Holiday season.

In truth, each point deserves a discussion on in its own; we could easily spend several classes on this law. I would like, however, to broaden this discussion, addressing the topic of Rosh Hashanah on an entirely more fundamental plane. Let me begin by posing a single question on the Rambam’s wise words — one which will hopefully shed light on the real issue at stake. The question was posed by (guess who?) my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig.

The Rambam’s final point is that we act much more religiously during the High Holidays, taking care to give extra charity and perform more good deeds than usual — presumably in order to swing the scales of justice in our favor. The problem is as follows. On Rosh Hashanah, say of year 5780 (which is about to begin), what are we being judged for? Presumably for the previous year, 5779. But that year ended already! Any good deeds we now perform will go into 5780’s reckoning. If so, how does performing a few extra mitzvos (good deeds) after Rosh Hashanah help influence our judgment?

In fact, if we look more closely at the previous law, the Rambam first stated that on Rosh Hashanah of every year we are judged (again, presumably for the year which just ended). Afterwards he stated that the judgment of the average individual is suspended until Yom Kippur. If he repents he is sealed for life; if not he is sealed for death. Why did the Rambam there state that the only way for the average individual to alter his judgment is through repentance? Why not through the performance of more mitzvos? And again, the answer is presumably because new mitzvos will not help last year’s judgment. They enter a new account. Thus, the only means — come year 5780 — to influence our judgment for 5779 is to repent over past mistakes. If so, once again why does the Rambam emphasize the custom to do extra good deeds during the High Holidays? Certainly it’s always nice to do extra mitzvos but such would not seem to influence 5779’s judgment for the better in the slightest?

The answer is a critical one to understanding our relationship with G-d, but I need to back up slightly first. Last week we discussed a related question. The Rambam first stated (Law 2) that man is in a constant state of judgment. As soon as a person slips below 50% righteous, he immediately perishes. In Law 3, however, he stated that we are judged every year on Rosh Hashanah. And the difficulty is that if we are constantly judged by G-d, what is left to happen on Rosh Hashanah? Everyone sinful is destroyed immediately — he would never have made it as far as Rosh Hashanah if he were wicked! Thus, presumably everyone still alive on Rosh Hashanah is righteous — so who are the wicked being sealed for death on the High Holidays?

Last week we answered one way — that the ongoing judgment is a simple majority pass-fail decision. On the High Holidays, however, we are scrutinized much more piercingly and precisely. Although a person may have been 55 or 60 percent good most of the year, he may be dubbed “wicked” (that is, hopelessly mediocre) and sentenced to death in the infinitely more exacting judgment of Rosh Hashanah.

There is a different approach to this question. It is one we discussed earlier (3:2) but which warrants a careful review now. The judgment of Rosh Hashanah is not over life versus death literally. Such a judgment occurs constantly in our lives. It is firstly a more exacting judgment as we explained last week. But secondly, it is not a judgment over literal life and death at all. It is a judgment over Life versus Death. Let us explain.

On Rosh Hashanah G-d judges us not simply in terms of if we will live and our hearts will beat for another twelve months. He decides if we are “alive” or not in the cosmic sense, meaning if we will have a living and dynamic relationship with our Maker. If G-d determines that a person deserves “life”, the meaning is that he will have a warm, close, active relationship with his G-d. G-d will involve Himself more actively in his life, watch over him more carefully, spur him to growth with tailor-made challenges, and be more responsive to his prayers. If, however, G-d decrees “death” on a person, he will be ignored and abandoned by G-d. He will be resigned to a cold, distant relationship with G-d. He will not be a beloved child of a merciful Father but a pathetic lackey of a distant King.

What does such a decision depend upon? Why would G-d decree a warm and caring relationship with one person and a cold, distant one with another? The answer is that it depends on how “alive” the person was with his G-d in the previous year. If you showed by your actions that you cared about G-d — not just that you obeyed His will as a servant, but that you truly cared about your G-d and your relationship with Him, then you have shown your willingness for a living and dynamic relationship with your L-rd. And this is what G-d is looking for in His children. If you were alive with Him, He will be alive with you — and grant you a year of “life” on Rosh Hashanah.

This, as we will see, holds the key not only for answering our original question, but for understanding the underlying theme of this law and the true significance of the High Holidays. G-d willing we’ll develop this further next week.

A wonderful new year to all my readers!

Text Copyright © 2016 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and