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Yom Kippur 5780-2019

“How does G-d Judge?”
(Updated and revised from Yom Kippur 5760-1999

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 (the Ten Days of Penitence), 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? Sounds simplistic. And yet, even the great rationalist philosopher, Maimonides depicts our judgment in this manner.

When faced with judgment, would-be penitents of most nations of the world are consumed by fear and trepidation, dress in black and constantly moan and groan in anticipation of a possible ominous fate. 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 long list of sins that are reflected in every letter of the Hebrew alphabet–אָשַׁמְנוּ בָּגַדְנוּ —“we have sinned and rebelled,” with a joyous melody, secure in the knowledge that if we only begin the repentance process faithfully, full forgiveness will be granted by the Al-mighty.

My father of blessed memory, Moshe Buchwald, would tell a story concerning Divine Judgment, which left 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 rarely did anything redeeming.

One Friday afternoon, a wagonload 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 dire 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 returned to the wagon, and continued to their destination, arriving just in time for Shabbat.

When the evil peasant died, those special angels who are assigned, not to the “Pearly Gates,” but to the “Fiery Gates,” were delighted to see his evil soul arrive. At long last, here was a bonafide candidate for perdition, destruction and 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 through the fiery gates.

Just as he was about to be thrown into the fiery furnace, a voice was heard. A diminutive 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 about the fate he deserves.”

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 wagonload 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, and weighed against his sins!”

The one good deed was placed on to the scale, and all the evil deeds on the other side. No contest! The angels joyously grabbed the peasant and prepared to watch him burn to a crisp.

Again, the little angel shouted, “Wait, wait, wait. You have to add to this one good deed all the observances that the Jews kept on that Shabbat on account of his help, 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 conflagration.

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!”

They did, and it balanced out.

This somewhat puzzling story 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, according to Ethics of the Father 2:1, 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 insignificant 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. R’ Saadiah 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 Brachot 34b tells us that, מָקוֹם שֶׁבַּעֲלֵי תְּשׁוּבָה עוֹמְדִין אֵין צַדִּיקִים גְּמוּרִין יְכוֹלִין לַעֲמֹד , in the place where penitents stand, even the most righteous cannot 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 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, with a knot. Now the band is shorter, and we are in effect closer to G-d than we were before the sin.

May the new year 5780, be a year in which we all draw 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.

Wishing you a Shana Tovah and a Chatima Tovah, a very Happy and Healthy New Year.  The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed next Wednesday, October 2nd from dawn until nightfall. May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, and may all our prayers be answered favorably. Yom Kippur will be observed this year on Tuesday evening, October 8th through nightfall on Wednesday, October 9, 2019. Have a most meaningful fast.

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, October 13,14 and 15, 2019. The intermediary days [Chol HaMoed] are observed through Sunday, October 20th. On Sunday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Monday, October 21st. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Monday evening, October 21st and continues through Tuesday, October 22nd.