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Yom Kippur 5760-1999

“How does G-d Judge?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

How does one prepare for Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment, when our deeds of the past year, and especially the past week, are evaluated by a heavenly tribunal? Could it be possible that our fate is determined by a retinue of heavenly judges placing our merits on one side of a scale and our transgressions on the other side? And yet, even the great rationalist philosopher, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), depicts our judgment in this manner.

When faced with judgment, most nations of the world are consumed by fear and trepidation, dress in black and constantly moan and groan. Jews, on the other hand, dress in white, begin the penitential period with two days of feasting (Rosh Hashana) and face the Day of Judgment with joy and optimism. After all, we are being judged by a Judge who desperately wants to grant us a decree of life! That is why we even sing the list of sins based on the entire alphabet — “Asham’nu, Ba’gadnu” with a joyous melody, secure in the knowledge that if we only begin the repentance process faithfully, G-d will grant us full forgiveness.

My father of blessed memory, Moshe Buchwald, would tell a story concerning Divine Judgment that made a deep impression on me.

There was once a peasant, a wicked peasant, who despised Jews, and at every opportunity would persecute and ridicule them. In fact, his whole life was dedicated to evil. He hardly ever did anything redeeming.

One Friday afternoon, a wagon load of Jews was traveling in the forest. In the middle of this wilderness, far from habitation, the wagon got stuck in the mud, in the muck, and couldn’t be extricated. The desperate Jews got out of the wagon and began to tug at the horses and push the wagon. The more they pushed, the greater their effort, the deeper entrapped became the wagon.

The peasant stood on the side watching the Jews in their predicament, laughing, and mocking and cursing. Finally, after he could no longer tolerate the spectacle, he derisively chased the Jews away, unhitched the horses, and lashed himself to the wagon. With one great heave, he pulled the wagon out of the mud. As he departed, he cursed the Jews one last time. The Jews got back on to the wagon, and continued to their destination, arriving just in time for Shabbat.

When the evil peasant died, those special angels that are assigned not to the “Pearly Gates,” but to the “fiery gates,” were delighted to see his soul arrive. At long last, here was a bonafide candidate for perdition and destruction, for the fiery furnaces, who truly deserved eternal damnation. And with great fanfare, accompanied by a brass band in full regalia, they ushered the peasant’s soul to the fiery gates.

Just as he was about to be thrown into the fiery furnace, a voice was heard. A tiny little angel shouted from a distance. “Wait, wait, wait!” he said. “You can’t throw him into the fiery furnace without a trial.” The other angels scoffed. “What do you mean a trial?” they said. “This man is evil incarnate. There’s no question.”

The little angel stood his ground, insisting on a trial. The heavenly scale was brought forth. All the peasant’s evil deeds were placed on one side of the scale, while the other side remained empty–absolutely empty. Gathering courage, the little angel said, “Don’t you remember, don’t you recall, the one Friday afternoon when the peasant rescued a wagon load of Jews who were stuck in the muck?” The other angels responded impatiently, “Come on. How can a single good deed outweigh a life of such evil? Forget it! Leave him to us!”

“We must perform the actual measurement,” said the little angel. “Even though you think it’s insignificant, I insist that this good deed be placed on the scale!”

The one good deed is put onto the scale, and all the evil deeds on the other side. No contest! The angels joyously grab the peasant and prepare to burn him to a crisp.

Again the little angel shouted, “Wait, wait, wait. You have to add to this good deed all the observances that the Jews kept on that Shabbat on account of his deed, as well as all the transgressions that he saved them from committing. You must put them on the scale as well.”

To avoid additional unpleasantness from this increasingly obnoxious angel, the others agreed to put those deeds as well on the scale. But as everyone already knew beforehand, it was useless. The evil far outweighed the good.

“Wait, wait, wait! You must put the instrument of the mitzvah on the scale, you have to put the wagon on the scale.” They put the wagon on the scale, but even this heavy weight could not tip the balance. They even put the horses on the scale, and yet the weight of the sins prevailed.

Finally, the little angel acknowledged that his battle was lost. The Angels of Destruction took the peasant, and stood ready to cast him into the fiery furnace.

At the very last moment the little angel had one final desperate idea. He screamed, “Wait, you have to put the mud on the scales!”

And it balanced out.

This is a somewhat puzzling story. It seems to presume that a person can live an extremely sinful life, and yet be redeemed by a single meritorious act. As strange as this may seem, it is true, since we never know the value that the Divine tribunal ascribes to a particular deed or misdeed. We mortals need to be constantly aware that what may seem in our eyes as a trivial or simple transgression, may appear in G-d’s eyes as a very serious breach or violation. That’s the challenge of Teshuva.

While all sin is grievous, sin also represents a great opportunity. Saadia Gaon, the 8th century Jewish philosopher, said that even evil has a positive side. It provides an opportunity for the violator to grow, to strengthen oneself, to get closer to G-d and to humankind! The Talmud in Sanhedrin tells us that “Makom sheh’baalei Teshuva om’din, ain tzaddikim g’murin y’cholim la’amod.” In the place where penitents stand, even the most righteous can not stand. The act of Teshuva, the challenge of acknowledging one’s shortcomings and overcoming them, raises a penitent’s stature beyond that of even the totally righteous, who feel no temptation to sin. Some explain this Talmudic statement with a metaphor: Every human being is a attached to G-d with a spiritual tether, an umbilical cord. When we sin grievously, the connection is severed. When we repent, the bond is reconnected, but with a knot. Now the bond is shorter, and we are, in effect, closer to G-d than we were before the sin.

May the new year 5760 be a year in which we all get closer to G-d. May it be a year of blessing for all, a year of peace in our homes, and in our homeland, Israel. May it be a year of health and happiness for all.

May you be blessed.