And Moshe went, and he spoke the following words to all Israel. (Devarim 31:1)
WHEN A PERSON goes to court in the world of people, it is usually perfectly clear why to all parties involved. They know the basis of the court case, and what it means to win or to lose.
Rosh Hashanah is somewhat different. We know in general what it is about, and every year people get up to define the day of Rosh Hashanah and the judgment that is handed down to give people a better idea about how to use this opportunity. You’d think that after thousands of years we’d already know EXACTLY what to focus on, besides just wanting to be a better Jew.
Interestingly enough, in spite of all the drashos I have heard on the topic, and all the different thoughts that they have offered, I am surprised that none ever referred to this:
Rava said: When man is led in for judgment he is asked, “Did you deal faithfully [i.e., with integrity], did you fix times for learning, did you engage in procreation, did you anticipate redemption, did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom, did you understand one thing from another. Even so, if ‘the fear of God is his treasure,’ then it is good, if not, then not.” (Shabbos 31a)
True, this section of Talmud is talking about a person’s FINAL day of judgment, after they have left this world for the next one. But why should every Rosh Hashanah not be a discussion about the same issues, especially since, as the Leshem explains, Heaven evaluates whether or not a person is already “Ben Olam HaBa,” that is, destined for the World-to-Come?
Second question. If fear of God is the most important thing, why not just state this? Why go through the list of six activities first, only to emphasize the importance of fear of God at the end? And what’s WITH this list…why have these six things been singled out for Heavenly evaluation?
A similar question can be asked on Parashas Aikev. After Moshe Rabbeinu basically finished teaching all of Torah, all 613 mitzvos, he comes back and says, “After all, what does God want from you, but that you should fear Him!”
That’s it? Just fear of God? Only ONE of the 613 mitz-vos, so we can forget about the others?
Not so fast. Do we still have to do ALL 613 mitzvos? So what did Moshe Rabbeinu mean when he said, “only to fear God”? And certainly THAT, as the Talmud points out as well, is no small feat to achieve, and to keep!
The answer to ALL the questions is the difference between “goal” and “means.” Fear of God is certainly the goal, and the rest of the mitzvos are the “means” and the measure of fear of God as well. The extent to which a person puts themself out for a mitzvah, especially when it comes to understanding it and the intention they have while doing it, is the extent to which they are real with the reality of God.
And this particular list of mitzvos is mentioned because they are kind of like group leaders. Each one is a mitzvah that comes to fight back a certain human tendency to play God. For example, why does a person cheat in business, if not because they feel God does not have their back, and isn’t giving them all they need through legal means.
What about fixing times for learning? Well, if you really like spending time with someone, you don’t leave it to chance. You don’t leave each other this time without suggesting a next time. Some people even set up a time to meet each week on a regular basis, just to make sure they don’t miss each other.
We learn Torah to meet with God. It’s our “common ground.” If a person approaches Torah on a casual basis, they act as if they don’t really care much about meeting with God, as if they don’t NEED Him. Not enough fear of God there.
Procreation is a Godly act, for sure. But playing God when it comes to birth is a common thing, as genetic engineering shows. There is one particular account in the Talmud that is exactly about this, the story about Chizkiah HaMelech:
What did The Holy One, Blessed is He, do? He brought suffering to Chizkiah and then told Yeshayahu, “Go and visit the sick,” as it says, “In those days Chizkiah became ill to the point of death; and Yeshayahu son of Amotz, the prophet came and said to him, ‘So says God, Lord of Hosts: Command your house for you shall die and not live.’ ” (Yeshayahu 38:1).
“Why do I deserve such a severe punishment?” asked Chizkiah.
“Because,” answered Yeshayahu, “you did not have children.”
“But I saw through prophecy that I would have evil children.”
“What business have you with the mysteries of God?” (Brochos 10a)
Birth may be common, but it is also a great mystery. It is also hard to balance between what WE, as PARENTS want for our children, and what GOD Himself wants. And since God does not share His plan with us, we tend to only see things through our own eyes, creating all kinds of tensions and clashes, many of which are quite destructive to both child and parent.
Anticipating redemption is easy when one’s life is being threatened on a regular basis. Anticipating it when life is “good” shows that a person realizes that as “good” as exile is for Jews themselves, it is never good for the Shechinah while the nation is scattered, the Temple is unbuilt, and Torah is not official government policy. Then the anticipation of redemption is clearly for, as the Vilna Gaon explains, for the sanctification of God’s Name, and not just for personal relief.
“Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom, and did you understand one thing from another?” Wisdom is important for many things, but it is most important for being able to look at Creation and see God everywhere. As one pursues increasingly deeper levels of Torah, they are really pursuing God Himself. Climbing the wisdom ladder takes a person from one level to a higher one, on top of which is Ohr Ain Sof, God’s Infinite Light.
It’s not about being smart. That’s just a side benefit. It’s not about getting honor from people less bright. And it is not about getting ahead materially in life because of personal genius. It is about being spiritually sensitized so that a person does not lose track of God in their life. This is true fear of God, and this is what we’re evaluated for each Yom Kippur.