Rosh Hashanah 5779

Will you be judged like sheep, steps, or soldiers?[1]

ונתנה תקף קדשת היום כי הוא נורא ואים וכו’ וכל באי עולם יעברון לפניך כבני מרון
Unesaneh Sokef, let us relate the might of the holiness of this day, as it is astonishing and powerful…all of the word’s inhabitants will pass before You like benei maron[2]

Our Sages teach us[3] that on Rosh Hashanah, every individual on Earth passes before Hashem for judgement, like benei maron. What does benei maron mean? The gemarra provides[4] three explanations: like a flock of sheep[5], like the steps of the House of Maron, or like the soldiers of King David. A flock a sheep refers to when a shepherd wants to count his sheep, he counts them one-by-one as they pass through a narrow entrance[6]. The steps of the House of Maron was a narrow path that not even two people could walk up side-by-side[7]. The soldiers of King David’s army would be counted one-by-one as they went out to wage war[8]. These three explanations seem to all be saying the same thing: Hashem judges every individual on Rosh Hashanah one after the other. There are two obvious questions on this teaching: Why does there need to be a parable of benei maron? Just teach simply that Hashem judges each individual one-by-one. Further, why is this even so? Surely, it’s not beyond Hashem’s capabilities to judge every individual simultaneously. Why indeed is it done one after the other?

In reality, there is a very deep idea being conveyed with this teaching. Hashem acts with this particular mode of judgement due to His great compassion and mercy upon us. Hashem decreed that His Heavenly Court act in the same manner as any Earthly Court. If an Earthly judge had a court case with thousands of criminals who all committed heinous crimes, the guilt would compound tremendously and all of them would be judged harshly. So too with the Heavenly Court. If Hashem judged every individual on Earth simultaneously, the communities’ sins would be too great to bear. Everyone would be judged harshly. Therefore, Hashem decreed that every individual be judged alone, one after the other.

However, the way of the world is that if a judge has a series of court cases where every individual committed heinous crimes, it is likely that the judge’s wrath will increase with each proceeding court case. The previous cases will make their mark, and the judge will rule harsher on the latter cases. So too Hashem. Even though He knows the thoughts and actions of all those who will be judged[9], before he even does so, they don’t make their mark until the court case actually occurs. Therefore, those who are judged earlier have the upper hand[10]. But who merits this tremendous opportunity to be judged earlier rather than later?

This is why the Sages used benei maron to teach their lesson. It isn’t a simple parable expressing that people are judged one after the other. This could have been conveyed explicitly. Rather, it’s teaching the order of the judgement; who merits to be judged earlier, and who later. Obviously, we can say that in general, those who have found merit in Hashem’s eyes will be judged earlier, ensuring that they will be meritorious in their judgement. However, on an individual basis, there are three types of people who will merit to be judged with life: those who are deserving according to the strict letter of the law, those who receive Hashem’s compassion due to some prior merit of theirs, and those without any known reason, other than simply being Hashem’s will; even though they aren’t deserving.

We are also taught[11] that there are three books that are open before Hashem on Rosh Hashanah: the book for the completely righteous, for the completely wicked, and for the intermediate people. Completely righteous individuals are instantly written and sealed for life, completely wicked individuals are instantly written and sealed for death. Intermediate individuals however, have their judgement suspended from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. Then they have their final judgement. It would seem that the difference between these individuals is the righteous have more merits than transgressions, the wicked have more transgressions than merits, and the intermediate are exactly fifty-fifty[12]. However, this is a problematic interpretation. By this definition, there are many righteous people who die throughout the year, and many wicked people who indeed live!

Rather, the proper interpretation is that the Sages aren’t referring to righteous and wicked people. They’re referring to what they are judged as[13]. Meaning, those who are ruled as righteous, due to some merit that they have, are referred to as completely righteous. This is because this is their judgement, despite the fact that they may have more transgressions than merits. So too righteous individual, who have more merits than transgressions, if they are ruled as wicked because of some even minor infraction, they are in this regard called completely wicked. The intermediate are those whose ruling is yet to be determined, as it looks even on both sides. Their judgement is delayed until Yom Kippur, where their recent actions will decide their final fate. However, righteous people who are ruled for death, or wicked people who are ruled for life, are surely outside the norm. The judgement of Rosh Hashanah is undoubtably built on the majority of one’s actions[14].

The first group that are meritorious in their judgement are those that are completely righteous. Within the strict letter of the law, they definitely deserve to be judged for life. These are individuals that totally love and fear Hashem. Hashem’s eyes are on these individuals, and in order to secure their fate, He judges them before all others. The more righteous they are, the earlier their judgement. This is what is alluded to in the first explanation of benei maron. When a small opening is created for sheep to escape, they all simultaneously rush to the exit. Who are the first to exit? Those that are the strongest and healthiest. They are consequently able to push their way to the front without any interference. The weaker sheep get left to the back of the line. The strong sheep represent the righteous[15], and the weak sheep represent the wicked[16].

The second group are those whose transgressions outnumber their mitzvos, yet are judged for life because of some merit they have. These individuals need to take the time before Rosh Hashanah to prepare for their judgement. If they had an Earthly monetary case, they would start their preparations many weeks prior to ensure that they get a favorable ruling. So too before their Heavenly ruling. They should read books on personal growth and repentance. They should work on their character traits and get out of their rote of transgression[17]. All this preparation, even though it won’t make their merits greater than their transgressions, could awaken Divine Mercy to give them a favorable ruling. Not so if they completely forget about what period they are in and ignore their upcoming judgement.

This second group is represented by the second explanation of benei maron, the steps of the House of Maron. The way of the world is when people gather together for some purpose and have to line up, those that want their objective the most will rush to get to the front of the line. They will try to get there as early as possible. This is represented by the steps of the House of Maron, where the path is so narrow that two people can’t go up simultaneously. Rather, they have to line up, and try to get there as early as possible. So too all those who know their life isn’t assured, will make every effort possible to have their judgement occur earlier. This is accomplished through their preparations during the month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah.

The third group are those who logically shouldn’t be judged for life, yet for some unknown reason Hashem has mercy on them. This group is represented by the third explanation of benei maron, the soldiers of King David’s army. Every army has a general who decides for one reason or another who should go out to war in which order. No one really knows the general’s reasoning, but there is always a calculation behind the decision. So too with mankind. Hashem is the general, who for some unknown reason decides these individuals are judged first.

Definitely the most relatable group is the second one. Only very special individuals are guaranteed to have more mitzvos than transgressions. Hopefully most people aren’t completely devoid of merit, such that they have to rely on Hashem’s Will if they are judged first in line. The average person might see themselves as potentially having more transgressions, but also some merits that may help them. We see then from our Sages that for those of us who are part of that group, our job leading up to Rosh Hashana is to prepare. If Hashem sees that we take this day seriously, and we want to be better people, Hashem may yet bump up our judgement to be one of the first. This way, we may have a fighting chance.

Good Shabbos and Kesivah VeChasima Tovah

[1] Based on Ohr Yisroel Kochavei Ohr § 4, by Rav Yitzchok (Peterburger) Blazer

[2] From the Unesaneh Tokef prayer in the Mussaf section of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers

[3] Rosh Hashanah 1:2

[4] ibid 18a

[5] Rashi ad. loc. s.v. בר”ה כל באי עולם כו’ כבני אימרנא

[6] ibid

[7] ibid s.v. כמעלות בין מרון

[8] ibid s.v. כחיילות של בית דוד

[9] Psalms 33:15, the source for the above mishnah

[10] Rav Blazer proves this from Rosh Hashanah 8b

[11] ibid 16b

[12] Ran ad. loc. (3b in the pages of the Rif) s.v. צדיקים גמורים

[13] The Ran loc. cit. brings this from Rav Yitzchak of Trani, who also says this in his Tosafos Rid ad. loc. The Ramban also says this in Toras HaAdam Sha’ar HaGemul

[14] As is clear from Kiddushin 40. See Rashi ad. loc. and Mishneh Torah Hilchos Teshuvah 3:5 with Kesef Mishnah

[15] See Berachos 17b

[16] See Rashi to Deuteronomy 25:18 s.v. כל הנחשלים אחריך

[17] See http://parshaponders.com/aseres-yemei-teshuvah-5778