Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 1 October 2016 / 28 Elul 5776

The Books of Life and Death

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
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Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashana. One [book] for the completely wicked, one for the completely righteous, and one for the intermediate. The completely righteous are written and sealed right away for life, the completely wicked are written and sealed right away for death, and the intermediates are held in balance from Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur. If they merit, they are written for life, and if they don’t merit, they are written for death. (Tractate Rosh Hashana 16b)

At face value, the above gemara is problematic. After all, we see many righteous people who don’t live out the year, and many wicked people who do. How should we understand this gemara? Tosefot addresses this question, and answers that the gemara here is referring to life in the World-to-Come — and not to life in this world.

This explanation answers our original question on the gemara. However, according to this new understanding, we are faced with a few other questions. First of all, the gemara tells us in many places that the judgment of Rosh Hashana is with regards to this world as opposed to the World-to-Come.As the gemara says: Rav Nachman Bar Yitzchak said regarding judgment, it (the verse) says, “From the beginning of the year until the end of year,” (this means) from the beginning of the year there’s a judgment about what will be at the end (of the year) (Rosh Hashana 8a). There are also other inferences elsewhere, such as “The income of a person (for the upcoming year) is set from Rosh Hashana”(Beitza 16a),that clearly indicate that the judgment of Rosh Hashana is with regards to this world. How are we to understand Tosefot’s answer that the judgment of Rosh Hashana is for the World to Come?

Furthermore, why is it that a person is judged for his share in the World-to-Come on Rosh Hashana? After all, as long as a person is alive he can lose his good deeds by regretting having done them, or, conversely, rid himself of his bad deeds by doing teshuva. Wouldn’t it make more sense to delay one’s judgment for the World-to-Come until after a person dies? What, then, is the purpose of being judged for the World-to-Come once a year?

Chazal tell us that a person’s spiritual standing has the power to determine how G-d will deal with him in this world. For example, at times G-d may let a wicked person live out a prosperous year to repay him for the good deeds he performed in this world so that he will be left without reward in the World-to-Come (Kiddushin 40b); as it says in the pasuk: And He [G-d] repays His enemies to their faces in order to destroy them (Devarim 7:10). Similarly, G-d may decree that a righteous person should suffer for his transgressions in the upcoming year so that in the World-to-Come he will have only merits. The opposite may be true as well. At times G-d may decide that a wicked person should suffer for his evil deeds while a righteous person should prosper in order to allow him to continue in his righteous ways. All these decisions are made by G-d’s detailed, meticulous, and mysterious calculations. (See Mishnat Rabbi Aharon, Ma’amarim v’sichot Mussar II, p. 179, “Shelosha Sefarim”.)

The amount of spiritual help that is given, or the lack thereof, is also determined based on one’s spiritual standing. For example, G-d may save a righteous person from accidental sin, or give him opportunities to improve himself even more, while on the other hand making it harder for the evil person to do teshuva; as the gemara says: In the way that a person wants to go is where he is led. Furthermore a person’s spiritual standing can also determine the outcome of a person’s actions. For example, Chazal tell us that when G-d wants to bring good things into the world He uses the righteous as the conduit through which the good will flow. The same is true about the opposite, as the Gemara says: From the wicked sprout wickedness (Maccot 10b).

Based on the above, the Ba’al HaLeshem says that the reason why there is judgment on Rosh Hashana for one’s share in the World-to-Come is because the results of that judgment affect what the person will get in this world for the upcoming year. Based on this we can understand why it is relevant to be judged for the World-to-Come on Rosh Hashana. Really, as implied in many places, the main judgment of Rosh Hashana is for life in the upcoming year in this world. However, for that to be determined, G-d first judges whether we will merit having a place in the World-to-Come. Based on the outcome of that judgment, G-d then decides our fate for the year to come in this world. This is the essence of the judgment that takes place on Rosh Hashana.

May we all merit being written for life in this world and in the World-to-Come, and live to see the coming of Mashiach speedily in our days.

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