Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 28 September 2019 / 28 Elul 5779

Awakening mercy in judgment

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
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Chazal tell us that from Rosh Hashana until Shemini Atzeret there are different aspects of judgment that take place which determine one’s upcoming year. Certainly, everyone wants to leave these holy days with a good judgment. With the High Holidays on the horizon, how can we increase our chances of a good judgment? Let’s start with a seemingly peculiar statement from the Gemara.

The Gemara teaches: Rabbi Yitzchak says three things recall a person's sins: a person who walks under a shaky wall that is about to fall (or other dangerous places – Rashi); or one who is sure that his prayer will be answered because he had good concentration; or one who asks Hashem to punish someone because of what that person did to him. (Berachot 55a; Rosh Hashana 16b)

The commentaries explain that in all these cases the Heavenly Court analyzes his actions: to see if he is indeed worthy of being saved in a dangerous place, or having his prayer answered, or having his fellow punished for what he did to him. However, the commentaries also say that when his actions are scrutinized to see if he truly deserves these things, he may also get punished for any transgressions he has. Therefore, when a person does any of the three things mentioned in the Gemara, he may actually cause his own “book of actions” to be reviewed for any transgressions (see Rashi). For this reason, Chazal tell us to refrain from performing these actions.

At first glance, this idea appears problematic. What does it mean that the Higher Court recalls his sins? Hashem certainly doesn't forget in the first place! Also, why was his book of actions ignored until now? Finally, why do these three particular behaviors instigate punishments for previously overlooked sins?

Earning One's Reward

To begin, we must address some ideas about the purpose of the world’s creation. Even though this topic is quite complex and deep, we will nevertheless attempt to give a very short and simplified introduction, which will help us address the above questions. Our Rabbis tell us that since Hashem is the epitome of goodness, and since it is the way of the good to bestow good, Hashem created the world to bestow of His own goodness to His creations. Since the ultimate good that exists in the world is Hashem Himself, it follows that the ultimate pleasure a person can attain is closeness to Hashem. This closeness to Hashem is the ultimate pleasure that awaits us in the World-to- Come. Human relationships are strengthened based on common goals, likes, personalities, etcetera. Likewise, the way to earn closeness to Hashem is through emulating Hashem’s actions in as many ways as humanly possible. This is the purpose of the Torah and mitzvahs, which are given to us in this world to prepare us for the closeness we earn for the World-to-Come.

The reason why Hashem decided to give us this goodness only after earning it in this world, and not “for free,” is because goodness that is bestowed on a person without his earning it is not perfect goodness — and of course, Hashem does everything perfectly. Why wouldn’t this be perfect goodness? Because when a person is given something for free he feels a certain amount of shame, which takes away from the ultimate goodness that Hashem wants to bestow. Therefore, Hashem requires a stage of our earning our place in the World-to-Come, rather than being given it for free (see Derech Hashem 1:2). (It is beyond the scope of this article to explain why Hashem didn’t create us with a nature to not feel shame when being given things for free).

Contribution of Mercy

With this introduction, it follows that the purpose of this world is to earn our reward for the World-to-Come, and not be given it for free. However, we are still left with a question: How can there be rachamim (mercy) in this world? After all, by definition, mercy is something that is not earned but is out of the kindness of the one bestowing it.

The commentaries say that one reason for mercy in this world is to delay punishment to give the transgressor more time to do teshuva in this world. However, eventually everyone will be repaid in the World-to-Come exactly and precisely according to his deeds. Therefore, in the World- to-Come, everything we receive will be a result of our actions and it will be without shame. (See Mesillas Yesharim, perek 4, and Michtav M’Eliyahu, vol. 3, pp. 220-226.)

With this we can understand one reason why sometimes Hashem withholds His mercy. When Hashem sees that a person has reached a point where he is not likely to do teshuva, then mercy is removed. An example of such a case is a person who sees no faults in what he does. His pride and lust make him justify his transgressions, leaving him no room for self-criticism and, ultimately, no room for teshuva. For such a person there is no point of offering mercy.

Now we can understand the Gemara we started with. The commentaries point out that the three things mentioned all stem from a person's pretentiousness, and confidence in his actions, to the point where he doesn’t see any reason why he would not get saved in a dangerous situation, or have his prayer unanswered, or shouldn’t cause his friend to be punished in return for something he did to him. Based on this we can suggest that while Hashem never forgets anything, Hashem does sometimes deal with a person through mercy, and doesn’t punish him immediately for his sins, to give him time to do teshuva. But for a person who sees no wrong in his actions whatsoever, the extra time granted through mercy for teshuva is not worth much. Therefore, Hashem takes His mercy away and now deals with him according to his actions, repaying him immediately for any wrongdoing. This is perhaps what the Gemara means when it says that these things can cause one’s sins to be “recalled.”

Awakening Hashem’s Mercy

Since Hashem bestows mercy on us so that we may have more time to do teshuva, the way to merit a good judgment is by increasing one’s chances of doing teshuva. How can one do that?

Firstly, one must learn halacha, since, after all, if one doesn’t know that something is forbidden he won’t do teshuva for it. Secondly, one must set specific times to constantly review his day-to-day actions to see if they are in line with the halachas learned and with what Hashem expects of him. Thirdly, one must also learn mussar, which will inspire and uplift him to live up to what he knows is the right thing to do without being distracted by his desires and the trivialities of this world.

In addition to the above one must also rid himself from haughtiness as much as possible, since this character trait leads to an instinctive reaction of justifying his transgressions and not accepting reproof. This is essentially a major deterrent to a person changing his ways and thus causing Hashem to remove His mercy from him. In fact, this is one reason why we say viduy, confessions of one’s sins, because the first step to teshuva is accepting that one has performed transgressions, which will lead to teshuva.

With these aspects, one can increase his chances of teshuva and thereby increase meriting Hashem’s mercy, through which one can have a favorable judgment. May we all merit making the most of this time, do teshuva, merit having a good judgment and ultimately see the coming of Mashiach, speedily in our days. Shana tova!

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