Rosh Hashanah 5780


Tipping the scales[1]

דרשו יקוק בהמצאו קראוהו בהיותו קרוב
Seek out Hashem when He is to be found; call out to Him when He is close[2]

Every person has a mix of merits and transgressions. We are taught that someone who has more merits than transgressions is considered a tzaddik, a righteous person. Someone who has more transgressions than merits is considered a rasha, a wicked person. Someone who is exactly 50-50 is considered a beinoni, someone in the middle[3]. On Rosh Hashanah, everyone’s status is determined. Someone who is ruled as a tzaddik is sealed for life. Someone who is ruled as a rasha is sealed for death. Someone who is a beinoni has their judgement stalled until Yom Kippur. If they repent, then they will be sealed for life. If not, they will be sealed for death[4].

This is the Rambam’s formulation. His source is the gemarra, which says[5] that there are three books open on Rosh Hashanah. One for tzaddikim, who are sealed for life, one for reshaim, who are sealed for death, and one for beinonim, who have their judgement stalled[6]. However, the gemarra finishes by saying that if the beinoni is meritorious by Yom Kippur, they will be sealed for life, and if not, not. Since a beinoni is exactly 50-50, describing them as meritorious implies they simply have to tip the scales. If they do a single mitzvah in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they’ll be sealed for life. Any mitzvah should seem to suffice[7]. Why then did the Rambam specify if they repent, they will be sealed for life?

Besides the calculation of a person’s merits and transgressions, there’s something else that is taken into account. A person could be held accountable for not repenting; for not bothering to fix the relationship with their Creator[8]. A person has a way to spare themself from the consequences of their actions, and they maintain their rebellious nature? This is the epitome of chutzpah. Our Sages gave an excellent parable to demonstrate this[9]: Imagine a person is in prison with a group of criminals. The criminals dig themselves an escape tunnel, and this person remains in their cell. The jail guard comes and sees the lone prisoner, and can only think what a huge fool this person is for not taking the opportunity to escape. So too Hashem says to the wicked: “Repentance is before you, and you don’t take advantage?!”[10]

If a person is held accountable for delaying repentance, all the more so during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Especially if they don’t repent on Yom Kippur itself. While repenting throughout the year is the proper thing to do, on Yom Kippur itself there’s a specific mitzvah for all to repent[11]. This is such an important mitzvah, that neglecting it is a greater affront. As well, the reward for mitzvos is determined by their difficulty. The harder the mitzvah, the greater the reward[12]. The inverse is true as well. The harder the mitzvah, the smaller the punishment for neglecting it. That means the easier the mitzvah is, the less its reward, and the greater its punishment for transgression[13].

The gemarra brings[14] a contradiction between two verses. One verse says: “For which nation is so great to have G-d so close to it like Hashem, our G-d, whenever we call to Him?”[15]. Another says: “Seek out Hashem when He is found”[16]. This sounds like He is not always to be found. The gemarra answers that Hashem is close to a community whenever they call out to Him, but not an individual. When is an individual close to Hashem? During the Ten Days of Repentance. What does this mean? It means our repentance is more readily accepted during this time[17]. Therefore, since Hashem is so to speak making Himself available to accept sincere repentance, a person who neglects to do so greatly increases their transgression[18]. For sure on Yom Kippur, where there is a bonafide obligation to repent.

Now we can answer our question on the Rambam. The gemarra just says a beinoni needs to be meritorious after Rosh Hashanah to get a good judgement. This sounds like they simply have to tip the scales and perform a single mitzvah. Why did the Rambam specify that a beinoni who repents will be sealed for life? As we have seen, the Ten Days of Repentance are an auspicious time for repentance. Hashem makes it easier to repent. Someone who neglects to do so is committing a grave crime. As well, someone who doesn’t repent on Yom Kippur is transgressing the obligation to do so. Even if a beinoni were to perform a single mitzvah while his judgement is stalled, it wouldn’t help. The negative effects of failing to repent will override any merit they gained. Therefore, the Rambam is advising someone who is a beinoni to repent. Not only will this prevent any transgressions, it will earn the person the necessary merit. Besides, this is the easiest time to repent!

May everyone have a kesivah vechasima tovah, and a sweet new year!

[1] Based Ohr Yisroel Kochavei Ohr § 5

[2] Isaiah 55:6

[3] Mishneh Torah Hilchos Teshuvah 3:5

[4] Ibid § 3

[5] Rosh Hashanah 16b

[6] See the Ran ad. loc. who has a unique approach to this gemarra, since the literal words of the gemarra are hard to accept. We see tons of wicked people who live after Rosh Hashanah, and many righteous people who die. The Rambam loc. cit. however seems to take the gemarra literally. See Ra’avad and Kesef Mishnah ad. loc.

[7] See Kiddushin 40b and Rashi ad. loc.

[8] See Sha’arei Teshuvah 1:2 and Reishis Chochmah Sha’ar HaTeshuvah Chapter 1

[9] Koheles Rabbah 7:32, brought in Yalkut Shimoni Kesuvim § 906

[10] See Yevamos 48b that even delaying conversion to Judaism is worthy of punishment, all the more so someone who is obligated to repent

[11] Mishneh Torah loc. cit. 2:7; Sha’arei Teshuvah 2:14

[12] Avos 5:23

[13] See Menachos 43b

[14] Rosh Hashanah 18a; Yevamos 49b

[15] Deuteronomy 4:7

[16] Isaiah loc. cit.

[17] Mishneh Torah loc. cit. § 6

[18] See Yoma 87a for a story which demonstrates this principle