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 YK 5784 | Rabbi David Wolkenfeld 

01/26/2024 10:27:03 AM

Jan26

Qualitative & Quantitative

Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah. The fully righteous are written and sealed immediately for life. The fully wicked are written and sealed immediately for death. And those in the middle have their judgment suspended until Yom Kippur. If they merit, they are sealed for life. If they do not merit, they are sealed for death. 

This baraita, an ancient rabbinic teaching, quoted by the Talmud is perhaps the central story that animates this season. For many,  the highlight of our liturgy on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is singing the words from the Unetaneh Tokef “B’Rosh Hashanah Yikatevun, U’B’Yom Tzom Kippur Yechateimun” on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is Sealed. And, our greetings for this season “Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah” and “Gmar Hatimah Tovah '' are direct allusions to this tradition.

Yet, when Rambam, Maimonides, quotes this teaching in Hilkhot Teshuvah, his treatise on repentance, he changes a word. The “beinoni” , the person in the middle, the person whose fate hangs in suspension between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is saved, according to the Rambam, if he does teshuvah. Why does repentance save this person and not any other action that could bring him merit. If someone is evenly balanced between merit and demerit as Rosh Hashanah ends, let him place a dollar in the tzedakah pushke, tip his balance towards the side of good, and then spend the rest of the asseret yamei teshuvah in bed lest he do something wrong to shift the balance back in the other direction. Why does Rambam insist that only teshuvah can save the beinoni on Yom Kippur?

Rav Yitzhak Hutner (Pahad Yitzhak, Rosh Hashanah, Ma’amar 18) explains that the merits and demerits, that push the scale in one direction or another for the  judgment of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,  are not quantitative. Even if we posit that God has methods of evaluating the weight of each mitzvah and of each sin, how can our fate on Yom Kippur hinge on something so arbitrary as a momentary majority for one side or the other. Imagine that two women, each in that beinoni, middle category, set off for shul on Yom Kippur. One woman encounters a lost child on her way to Neilah, helps the child find its parent, and earns a mitzvah point to tip the scale towards merit while her friend takes a different route to shul and never has that serendipitous encounter with a mitzvah opportunity and loses out on the chance for life? God’s evaluation and judgment must be more holistic than the simple tabulation of merits and demerits. 

God’s judgment on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur  is a qualitative judgment that takes into account the orientation of our characters towards good or towards evil. If someone is truly neutral, and is living their life with neutrality  between good and evil, adding an additional dose of merit to the positive scale is not going to be enough. Even adding many significant mitzvot will not, on their own, change who this person is. But teshuvah, as a holistic process of self-creation, can change who this person is and earn them a place in the Book of life. But that sort of teshuvah process is one that cannot be confined to just one season.

Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, was punished with the task of pushing a large and heavy boulder up to the top of a hill, each time he reached the top of the hill, the boulder would slip from his hands and roll back to the bottom where he would begin again. 

The Jewish version of Sisyphus will be all of us as soon as Yom Kippur ends and our sins have been forgiven and the shofar blast has announced the end of this sacred day, we will rise for Maariv and recite “VeHu Rahum YiChaper Avon..” as we do each on weekday night when Maariv is preceded by a brief prayer for forgiveness. But what could we possibly have done wrong between the conclusion of Yom Kippur and the Maariv that begins seconds later? My wife shared with me that as a child this moment always frustrated her because it seemed as though we had not accomplished anything on Yom Kippur. But the 20th century philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz thought this moment, the post Yom Kippur Maariv, was among the most significant Jewish moments of the year because it demonstrated our relentless pursuit of goodness and our commitment to avoiding complacency, self-righteousness, and self-satisfaction. This moment too shows that the change and transformation of this season is one of holistic self-creation that cannot be confined to just one season.

The Tur, one of the great medieval codes of Halakhah breaks form and in the middle of a legal discussion about reciting Selichot prayers, quotes and extensive midrash form the Tanhuma that is ostensibly about Sukkot

במוצאי י"ה עוסקים במצות סוכה ולולב ואין עושין עונות לכך קורא י"ט ראשון ראשון לחשבון עונות

Sukkot can be understood, he writes,  as the beginning of our annual tally of sins  ראשון לחשבון עונות because it comes at the end of a full season during which we are too busy to sin. We say Selichot prayers for weeks and we fast on Yom Kippur, and then we are very busy with the task of building a sukkah and acquiring a lulav and etrog and only on Sukkot do we have time to sin. If there is an annual cycle of sin and repentance the season of sinning begins on the first day of Sukkot, which, the midrash quoted by the Tur says is why the Torah itself refers to Sukkot as the “first day” even though Sukkot occurs on the fifteenth day of Tishrei. 

This is a strange way to relate to Sukkot! And the Taz, one of the great scholars who comment on the Shulhan Arukh notes how illogical it seems that preparing for Sukkot by building a sukkah and acquiring a lulav and etrog somehow provides more protection than actually sitting in the sukkah and taking the lulav and etrog!

The Sefas Emes, the great Hassidic thinker of the late 19th century leans into that illogical dynamic and says it is precisely preparing for mitzvot that provide protection and define our character. A mitzvah can be over in an instant. Preparing for a mitzvah can take a lifetime. 

With the mitzvah of lulav and etrog, it is almost comical how quickly we can fulfill the mitzvah. It is such a quick, almost instantaneous, mitzvah that we go through contortions to pick up the lulav and etrog so we can say a berkahah without already having performed the mitzvah of taking up the lulav and etrog. We get around that conundrum by picking up the etrog upside down and only after we have said the berakhah do we turn it rightside up. But even a mitzvah whose duration can extend for longer periods of time, still comes to an end. 

Our first grader came home last week with a mitzvah sticker chart and we were supposed to place a gold sticker on the chart every time he does a mitzvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Pedagogically this is very sweet and a lovely way to build character and a love for Judaism. But too many of us adults also think of mitzvot as stickers we get in God’s giant mitzvah chart. The point of Judaism is not how many mitzvot we observe but to become the type of person who does mitzvot. The individual mitzvot need to fit together into a holistic vision of virtue and holiness and a good life lived with family and community and in relationship with God. If we can’t connect the dots and form a larger picture, the mitzvot that we do, even if they are numerous, will not define our character. This is why Rambam insists that teshuvah, self recreation is needed to change one’s fate on Yom Kippur. An additional mitzvah or two or twenty will not on their own change our attitude towards good or towards evil. And we are judged by our characters in a holistic way. Do we pursue good or do we pursue evil?

Rabbi Dr. David Mirsky z’l, a scholar and academic, and a cousin of mine through marriage, explained that, fundamentally, there are two ways to look at a life of mitzvot. We can see an observant life of mitzvot as a fence to wall ourselves off from bad influences and from the bad parts of ourselves - in which case the fence can never be tall or forbidding enough, but as long as I'm inside the fence I can feel that at least  I'm OK.  Or, he explained, we can see the mitzvot as constitutive of a way of life, a way of moving through time, space, of living with others and with ourselves, of confronting the mysteries of being and of our mortality and of God's eternity and presence in the world. He concluded that the halakhah is the same halakhah and the Torah is the same Torah in both perspectives. But if we can see mitzvot as being, not bricks in a wall, but as the constitutive elements of a holistic way of life, everything is different.

The questions that we need to confront today are not primarily the questions of how many mitzvot I performed and how many mitzvot I neglected. The most important evaluations and judgments are not quantitative but qualitative and holistic. Therefore the crucial questions to confront are: 

Who am I? What is the story of my life? What are the priorities around which I orient my life? Do I pursue the good and spurn evil? Do I inspire others around me to be the best that they can be? Is my life an unrelenting pursuit of virtue and holiness or am I content to collect stars in a mitzvah chart? Do I prepare for the mitzvot that I observe because each one is a sacred opportunity for transcendence and a connection to the Holy Blessed One? 

And, not only do we ask these questions about ourselves, but we can answer these questions on behalf of those who are no longer alive.

The power of Yizkor is that through our memory and the dedications we make to do good in the world inspired by those who are no longer alive, we, in turn, shape the meaning of their lives and add chapter after chapter to the stories of their lives. This is both a paradox and something that makes absolute sense: Our loved ones made us into who we are today, and then, when they are no longer alive, if we go out into the world and make a positive difference by their example and in their merit, we increase the concentric circles of their positive impact on the world long after they have died. Because they made us into who we are, we can define and redefine again each year the meaning and impact of their lives.

This Yom Kippur is the fiftieth anniversary of the Yom Kippur War and Israelis and Jews around the world have been sharing recollections and reflections of the war in the weeks leading up to today. Just yesterday afternoon I read a story about a young Israeli soldier named Yaakov who found himself in heavy fighting on Hoshanah Rabbah, just days after the outbreak of the war. In the course of battle a tank was struck by a missile and Yaakov managed to rescue the injured soldiers from inside the burning tank. One soldier turned to Yaakov, the only religious individual on the battlefield and said, “Yaakov, say Birkat Ha’Goel with me.” There is no such thing as Birkat HaGo’el but there is Birkat HaGomel which is recited when one has survived a dangerous situation. Yaakov, who was a 23 year old yeshiva student when he was not serving as a soldier, understood right away what was being asked of him. But he didn’t say Birkat HaGomel with this man because he remembered that there was a halakhic dispute about whether or not Birkat HaGomel can only be said in the presence of a minyan and the Mishneh Berurah, the great halakhic commentary from a century ago advocates a cautious approach. So instead Yaakov made a neder, a vow, that as soon as the opportunity presented itself, he would organize a minyan so that this soldier, who didn’t even know the correct name of the blessing,  would have an opportunity to recite Birkat HaGomel. 

However, the soldier was killed in combat the next day. 

Yaakov has recited Yizkor for this fallen soldier at every holiday over the past fifty years and this year he shared that his feeling of guilt has never left him for having stolen a berakhah from this soldier, perhaps the last berakhah he could have recited (perhaps even the first berakhah he would have ever recited). The feeling of guilt has not left him but it has transformed him. “Yaakov” is now Rabbi Yaakov Medan, a rosh yeshiva and a substantial Torah scholar. And he shared this week that he came to understand that a dispute in the Mishneh Berurah about how to say a blessing in an exemplary way has to be brought into dialogue with broader questions about serving God and living with integrity. Rav Medan concluded his recollections by declaring “I strive to stay within the bounds of halakhah as much as I am able to, but I say here today, in full confidence, that if the Mishneh Berurah himself, Rabbi Kagan from Radin, were to have been beside me on the battlefield, he would have told me, “say birkat ha’gomel along with him.”

Yizkor is not just another item on our holiday checklist. During these prayers we commit ourselves to specific actions that keep someone’s memory alive in particular ways through our deeds and through the tzedakah that we give in their merit. And, along with everything we say and do today, Yizkor can help us define who we are and who we want to be in the world. 


Everyone is invited to stay in shul for Yizkor. In addition to the opportunity to recite memorial prayers for relatives, we will recite collective tefilot to remember victims of the Holocaust and for fallen soldiers If you are blessed with living parents and they would like you to leave shul, please leave quickly and silently and stay close by so we can invite you back into shul efficiently without unnecessary  disruption. .

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784