Our Merits: Are they in “Safe Storage”?
“Dead flies putrefy the perfumer’s oil; a little foolishness outweighs wisdom and honor”. (Koheles, 10:1)
Two weeks ago we explained this to mean that one’s values and actions are relative. One might have obtained honor and wisdom, but if at the present, he selects the life of sin, he may forfeit all he has done. It appears as an imbalance: one might live a Torah life 70 years, and if in his final few years he disregards Torah, and abandons God, he forfeits all his prior good deeds. Why is all the good he has done lost? How is a person judged, in that this results in such tragic loss?
Reexamining the verse above, there appears to be an inconsistency between the first part and the second part. The first part discusses two things that coexist in one point of time: the dead flies and the oil. In this case, we understand how flies might come in contact with the oil creating a putrid batch: they coexist. But how is this parallel to the second case, where I have done so much good over passed years, and ‘now’, I sin? How do my current sins contaminate my ancient merits, which appear in safe storage, and out of reach of my sins today? They appear not to coexist, that one might affect the other. Let’s review another verse.
Ezekiel 18:24 states that a righteous person, who turns to sin, might lose all prior merits. Quoting the Rabbis, Metsudas Dovid qualifies this truth, as true only when the righteous person who now sins is remorseful on all his previous good deeds. How do we understand this? What is the difference between people who turn to sin, whether or not they regret their prior good? Both people are currently sinning! How do we distinguish between the natures of both individuals; when remorse exists, and when it does not?
God’s Evaluation of Man: Current Attitude, not Previous Deeds
The person who does not regret his previous good actions supports Maimonides’ position, that all man’s deeds are weighed on Rosh Hashanah. Meaning, although he has sinned in the latter half of the year, for example, his good deeds from the beginning of that year are not lost…they are “all” weighed. Thus, his good deeds are “intact”. But if one is remorseful of his good, how does this remorse forfeit all he has done?
My actions must be understood, not in terms of a storehouse of all deeds in “safe keeping”, but as a reflection of my core values and beliefs, which define me now. And there is always only one “me”: my current state.
It appears that God evaluates a person as a summation of his current values: what does he value now? If a person regrets his life of mitzvahs, then those actions for all those decades do not stand behind him in defense. The person as he is “now” defines him. Metsudas Dovid states that his entire prior good was not sincere. This is why it is of no value. And this is sensible, for if one can turn to sin in his latter days, all his good could not have been truly good: it was lip service, and he was never truly convinced of what he did. But one who sees truth, cannot ignore it, and will not abandon a life lived correctly. This explains why we see the great Rabbis dying in their convictions, and not veering from the truths they beheld. This is equally applicable to the Einsteins, Newtons and Freuds of the world. Those who witness truth, are awed by it, and never abandon its rapture. If however, one turns to sin, but does not regret his prior good deeds, this is a reflection of someone “caught in the moment”. A Rabbi once taught that one who sins dues to a sudden impulse, or an overwhelming emotion, is not judged as severely as one living this way on a daily basis. The former is not corrupted in his thinking, but rather, in his momentary control over his urges. He has not completely abandoned what he holds true.
Earlier, we read, “Bichol aise, yyihyu bigadecha levanim”, “At all times, let your clothing be white”. (Koheles, 9:8) This means that one should constantly review his actions to insure he is not carrying any sin. The Rabbis teach that one should view himself as always “on call”: perhaps the King will summon him (God will terminate his life). Therefore, one should not live improperly, lest he be summoned (die) and be found guilty, since he dies in a state of sinning. (What a crucial lesson) This implies that one’s status is regularly summated, stamping the person with a current evaluation as “righteous” or “wicked”. We learned similarly that Ishmael was saved “Ba-Asher Hu Sham”, “As he was there”. He was evaluated “at that moment” as righteous. The angels inquired of why God sought to save Ishmael, who would eventually become a destroyer of Jews. God’s response was that right now, Ishmael was righteous, and justly saved from his severe thirst.
God judged Ishmael at some point in the year. It appears He will do this with all others, regardless of what day it is. We therefore ask what practical worth or significance is a yearly judgment on Rosh Hashanah? In fact, Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16a records the 3-way argument as to when man is judged: whether it is each moment, each day, or each year. This teaches that no single position held that God judges man “both” yearly, and daily: it’s either or. This makes sense, for why should man be judged under more than one framework? “Judging” means that God assesses each person’s level of perfection and corruption. What more is there to judge? We can therefore suggest that although God saved Ishmael mid-year, this was not a “judging” of Ishmael. Ishmael was already judged for the whole year, and now, God was merely carrying out that judgment in a single case. This of course complies with only one of the views recorded in the Talmud.
We might venture an initial explanation of the dispute as to “when” man is judged. This dispute might be unveiling how man takes stock of himself, and thus, how he is held responsible. Is man responsible minute-to-minute: can we operate with such a high level of self-awareness, with such sustained focus? Is man judged daily: meaning that a shorter interval is an unjust assessment, since man needs a full day to review his actions and retune his thinking? Or, is man too feeble to withstand judgment, except once yearly?
Now, according to the Rabbis who say that we are judged daily or every moment, how do they understand the existence of Rosh Hashanah? Why is there a second judgment? We might suggest that mankind is gifted with a yearly judgment day to force us back to a proper lifestyle. This judgment for good or bad can be changed throughout the year, but a Rosh Hashanah that focuses man on God’s role as King, helps steer us back to a proper path.
Rabbi Reuven Mann suggested the following: according to the view that man is judged daily, Rosh Hashanah is not a “judgment day”, but merely a day to reflect on God’s role as King, without any judgment whatsoever. And the view that holds man is judged each moment simply means that there is no real “judgment” per se, but that man receives God’s providence based on his current state, which is Maimonides’ view in the Guide for the Perplexed. And the view that holds man is judged yearly can be understood as cited above, that man requires a yearly focus on the truth that God assesses our actions. This does not mean that we cannot change our decree later in the year, but it does mean that it is more difficult after the decree was pronounced.
Rabbi Mann’s words are supported by this Talmudic portion as it continues (17b-18a) with distinctions in God’s judgments between a individual, or the nation; one who is focused in prayer and one who is not; whether before or after God’s “Gzar Din” – His final decree. So although a decree is set on Rosh Hashanah to guide us once yearly, it is not a decree that is set in stone. Just as Ishmael was judged “as he was there” mid-year, we too are judged based on our current values.
How vital it is then, that we should assess ourselves and determine whether we are carrying any sin, or worse, harboring wrong notions about God. It is most vital that each one of us consult with a wise individual to determine a path of Torah study as we forge ahead; a plan of study that commences with Torah fundamentals about what God is, how He works with man, and His intended perfections via the mitzvos. We must be diligent in the law to read the weekly Parsha twice and study a commentator. We must study the patriarchs and matriarchs and derive a clear understanding of their unique perfections, which earned them such a close relationship with God. The Torah teaches that those great founders of Judaism did not subscribe to the voodoo amulets of today’s Jewish communities, like red threads, Rabbis’ blessings, letters in the Western Wall, checking mezuzos, segulas, or dressing differently than other Jews as seen in Yeshivish circles. Radak actually rejects the practice of donning distinct clothing as a means of presenting one’s self as more righteous. Radak calls this “evil”. (Zephaniah, 1:8 last “Yaish Omrim”) And this is taken to such a harmful extreme where matches of young single men and women are rejected simply because of clothing and other prohibited nonsense. I say, “prohibited”, as it is the sin of Sinas Chinam, baseless hatred. If one sees no flaw in a prospective match or shidduch, one must not reject them based on clothing style or other stupidities. And if one does reject based on clothing, then they are a fool, but they do perform one good: they save the young man or woman from wasting his or her time with superficial families. Yes, this area of social approval and egomania pervades so many Jewish communities, and completely ignores God’s words and the perfections of our forefathers and matriarchs. The exact opposite is what Abraham displayed: a love for his fellow “human”. Not the rejection of Jews based on garb, or the avoidance of “goyim”, gentiles.
In the end, King Solomon’s verse is consistent: just as dead flies coexist with the oil in the realm of “time” and thereby contaminate the oil…our former good deeds coexist with our current actions in the realm of “values”. If we abandon a Torah lifestyle, we contaminate our former deeds in as much as we clearly show our real values, and unveil former acts as lip service. In physical entities, contamination may only occur when there is proximity. But in the realm of human perfection, it matters none that we performed much good over the years. Koheles is correct in 9:18, “…one sin destroys much good”.
We learn a valuable lesson: our merits do not stand by us if we regret them, but only if we still value all those earlier deeds. This means that man must seek understanding for the Torah’s commands, for how else will we appreciate later in life, the good performed earlier? It is only possible if we grasp intellectually the many perfections of these laws. Similarly, abandoning our continued fulfillment of Torah law and study, relying on former deeds, will not insure God’s continued favor. For this attitude clearly reflects that we don’t value the ideas of Torah law, but simply feel that those actions have some magical power to preserve our reward. This cannot be further from the truth. This attitude unveils the notion that a lazy life of leisure without Torah obligation is more preferred than earnest study and performance. It unveils the true value we place on mitzvos, that being none at all. We simply want reward, and view mitzvos as a necessary evil to obtain that reward.
God judges us “as we are now”. Therefore, it behooves us to continually improve our knowledge, which is the only path to realizing and valuing what is real and true, and thereby earn God’s favor to insure the best life. We must abandon pop-Jewish cultural norms, and draw sharp distinctions and lessons when compared to our leaders. How did they act? This is how we must act. Forget about the foolish practices of today’s religious Jews. Use your mind to dictate your values and actions; do not cower to your need for social approval.
The Torah system is not akin to a bank. We do not place mitzvos in storage, and increase our reward with every additional mitzvah, if we don’t understand the mitzvah, or if we go through ‘pain’ performing them. If underneath, what we really want is to indulge in lusts, wealth, fame and hedonism, but go through the ‘motions’ of mitzvahs, we are wasting our lives, and earn no reward. If you truly desire the ultimate reward, you must immerse yourself in Torah study, minimize all other pursuits, and sit at the feet of great teachers who will open your mind to amazing truths. Slowly, you will start to realize true joy, you will realize the foolishness of others, and naturally, you will desire nothing else but what is sensible…what God desires. Then…you will earn the greatest reward.