Message from the Rabbi 5778

10/13/2014 07:18:59 PM

Oct13

Bs”d

Rosh Hashanah 5778

 

Dearest Kehila,

 

Rosh Hashanah is a very auspicious time. It marks the beginning of the new Jewish year. It’s a happy time. A joyous time. A time to celebrate. But it’s also a time of resolution and commitment. A time for forgiveness, reconciliation and closure.

 

On Rosh Hashanah we recite the emotionally stirring Unetanneh tokef prayer attributed to an 11th-century sage named Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. It is recited immediately prior to and as an introduction for the kedusha prayer, during which the angelic sanctification of God is mentioned. Unetanneh Tokef adapts this daily praise to the specific elements intrinsic to the High Holidays, namely the Divine judgment of all existence.

 

The prayers reads:

 

"All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict. On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severe Decree."

 

The theme of a divine decree described above is derived from the following Talmudic teaching:

 

On Rosh Hashanah, three books are opened [in Heaven] – one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for those in-between. The thoroughly righteous are immediately inscribed clearly in the Book of Life. The thoroughly wicked are immediately inscribed clearly in the Book of Death. The fate of those in-between is postponed from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, at which time those who are deserving are then inscribed in the Book of Life, those who are undeserving are then inscribed in the Book of Death. (Babylonian Talmud Tractate, Rosh Hashanah 16b)

 

How do we understand the concept of divine punishment? Isn’t punishment counterproductive to real change? Can we really teach our children to become better people by employing tactics of fear and intimidation?

 

At the moment of death, we catch a glimpse of the Divine. We are let in on the grand design and grasp what this world and universe was all about. The implication is clear: when life ends we are given the gift of a crystal clear vision of the purpose of all of creation, the world and man who inhabits it.

 

It is this brief experience that provides meaning to all of our lives. We suddenly “get it.” We instantly realize the depth of our actions or failure to act. We instantaneously behold the gravity and full weight of our deeds.

 

The Kabbalists add a small but very important piece to the story. It is not only God who judges us. As we disembark from this world and journey into the next world we are witnesses to every moment of our fleeting days on Earth as they pass before us faster than the speed of light. And as we watch our own story unravel, there are times when we recoil with shame; others when we smile with happiness and jump with joy. Our failure to live up to our potential causes us tremendous pain and anxiety; our ability to tap into that which makes us human and defeat the inclination to succumb to pride and prejudice evokes a sense of spiritual triumph. It is then that we realize in hindsight that it is we who are actually the greatest judges of our own lives. What happens after death is that we gain the perspective and prism through which to evaluate our own life by the standards of Heaven.

 

A fundamental tenet of Judaism is that human beings have free choice and have complete  liberty when it comes to making moral or immoral decisions. Choosing between right and wrong, good and evil, honorable and unbecoming  is ours. Every time we chose integrity and honesty over cheating, loyalty and faithfulness over betrayal, beneficence and charity over selfishness, or kindness and love over obliviousness we improve and refine ourselves.

 

The moment after death, we are nothing but the person we’ve become through the collective choices and decisions we made during our short existence. Jewish literature is filled with accounts of the heavenly tribunal,” a place every soul goes to as the choices it made during its lifetime are reviewed, evaluated and scrutinized. The flames of Hell” are the burning regrets, the blazing remorse that the soul feels when, from its newly found perspective and vantage point in the World of Truth, it recognizes the tremendous opportunities it failed to seize and the terrible choices it made.

 

Ordinary, simple people can choose between transcendental good and reprehensible and contemptible evil. Obviously, extreme choices, of virtue or villainy, are not made in a heart beat. Each time you surrender your pleasure and give up your convenience to help someone in need or admit the truth at the cost of your pride, you gravitate towards good. Every time you justify and rationalize hurting and antagonizing someone, you move toward evil. You create yourself and become the person you are by these ongoing, ever present and inevitable daily choices.

 

We must constantly be aware of the reality that our days will be examined by a Higher Authority, that there will come a time of reckoning of our deeds and misdeeds, a time a reconciliation - and that we ourselves will be part of that process and join in the Divine judgment by contrasting our prospect and potential against the backdrop of reality, the reality we ultimately created by either tapping into the gifts we've been so graciously endowed with by G-d or by wasting away this most precious commodity on futility and hopelessness.

 

There is no greater Hell and disappointment than to be forced to acknowledge our disgraceful  actions and our unethical shortcomings for eternity until forever. And there is no greater paradise in Heaven than the pride and satisfaction of acts of goodness, charity, benevolence and morality. The righteous are guaranteed rewards commensurate with their good deeds, and the wicked will rue the evil they perpetrated.

 

So what is Hell? It’s the shame you will feel when coming to terms with your dishonorable discharge. It is the deepest realization that our life, or part of it, has been recklessly splurged.

 

The good news is that God – in His infinite kindness – established a cleansing process, where all the negativity can be washed away. That process is known as Teshuva; repentance, reflection, introspection. Something we all should work hard at to achieve during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because whatever actions we take on Earth must be within the context of their eternal ramification.

 

Perhaps it's best reflected in the following story:

 

A very wealthy man not known for his piety stood in a long line of those waiting to have their lives assessed by the heavenly court. He listened attentively as those who were being judged before him recounted both their spiritual failings and achievements. A number of them seemed to have the scales weighted against them until they suddenly remembered acts of charity they had performed, which dramatically tipped the scales in their favor. The rich man took it all in and smiled to himself... When it was his turn, he confidently said, I may have committed many sins during my lifetime, but I realize now what has the power to override them. I am a very wealthy man and I will be happy to write out a very large check to whatever charity you recommend.” To which the court replied, We are truly sorry, but here we do not accept checks – only receipts.”

 

The tragedy of death is that it’s comes after the last act, the closing curtain of our performance,  rendering our ability to do Mitzvot obsolete; passé. It's what we do here and now that truly makes a difference. The choices we make today and the way we choose to govern ourselves create the person we are when we stand in judgment on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

 

Yes, there is life after death, but more importantly there is life before death! The greatest achievement is by focusing on how we can maximize, optimize and potentiate our life before our story reaches its final chapter.

 

My wife and I and our children wish you all a Shanah tova umetukah!

 

Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun

 

Thu, December 14 2017 26 Kislev 5778