Rosh Hashanah: God’s Decrees
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
“All man’s needs are decided for him, from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, except for his expenditures for Sabbath, for Holidays, and for his son’s Torah study: in these, if he spends less, these funds will be detracted; if he spends more, he will receive more [for these] (Talmud Betza 16a, top of page).”
A number of questions arise: why are not “all” of our needs decided…why these three ongoing exceptions? What is the significance of these three mitzvahs? And in general, why is there a yearly decree at all…such long-lasting effects? That is, why must there be a yearly decree that remains unchanged until next year? Nonetheless, for some reason, it is necessary that God decree for man in these two fashions: yearly, and regularly. Can we determine why this must be?
The plain understanding of this Talmudic portion teaches that man receives a monetary judgment for the coming year. During the10 Days of Repentance, we accept that we are being judged, so we act our best. This is the purpose of being informed of the judgment: God wants our judgment to be the best. So He warns us to be on guard and act in pristine style, and our actions will determine our sustenance, since how we act during these days, is truly a display of our innermost values. Thereby, God is judging us not based on a distracted lifestyle, but a manner of living that truly conveys what we feel is most vital. God is generous with this judgment, by not viewing our actions year round as a sampling of our values, but we are judged based on these 10 days alone.
So the question arises: why are there three exceptions? We also wonder why the response to our generous spending on Sabbath, Holidays and our son’s Torah study, is met with a reimbursement. Why that specific response?
It would appear that God is relating to us, according to how we relate to Him. If we are not cheap with our spending on these three mitzvahs, then we demonstrate a proper relationship to our wealth: its primary purpose is in service to God. If this is how we act, then God will grant us more wealth for next Sabbath, and other holidays. We should not worry that spending our earnings on these mitzvahs will in any way detract from what we need for rent, mortgage, clothes, etc. This is a justifiable concern, that we might exhaust our funds long before the year is over. So God responds by reimbursing expenditures on these three mitzvahs. But why these three mitzvahs in specific? Why are we not reimbursed for purchasing beautiful Tefillin, Tzitzis, Mezuzos, and other objects of mitzvah?
Sabbath celebrates the idea of God as Creator. Holidays recall His intervention…His providence. And providing not for our Torah study, but our children’s, we show a concern that future generation benefits from receiving the Torah transmission. And this transmission’s content is concerning the fundamentals of God – the Creator, and God as the One who remains involved in human affairs, as He expressed in our salivation celebrated on the three Festivals. Thus, Sabbath and Holidays focus on the “knowledge of God,” while providing for our son’s Torah insures this knowledge is transmitted to the “next generation.”
Inasmuch as we demonstrate a correct relationship to our wealth by giving generously to these fundamental mitzvahs, God guarantees us that we will not lose anything thereby, and He will reimburse us, so we are not concerned about lacking anything else. God does not wish that these three mitzvahs were tempered in enthusiasm, by our monetary considerations. Therefore we are promised His reimbursement.
Perhaps also significant, is that Sabbath and Holidays are not momentary actions, as are Tefillin, Mezuza and other commands. These are “days,” large units of time requiring a sustained attitude. These days are opportunities to revamp our very lifestyle. The drive of the Torah, is that man alters his orientation away from personal, emotional and infantile interests, redirecting himself towards God’s wisdom and virtue. Sabbath and Holidays have Torah wisdom as their target…as does our son’s study. Mitzvahs of such duration can offer the greatest impact on our perfection. But there is more…
As we said, God judges us all in two spheres. From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we are judged for the next year to come. But we are also judged throughout the year, at many intervals. We are judged each week regarding our generosity in creating a beautiful Sabbath. And we are judged on how we beautify the Holidays. Finally, we are judged on how we respond to our son’s Torah study. Do we forgo personal pleasures to insure our sons have the best teachers? Let’s understand this distinction…why two spheres of judgment?
Man’s Two Worlds
I believe God is responding to the two spheres in which man lives.
We are first, Earth-bound creatures. How do we relate to this existence? Are we money-hungry, gluttons, egomaniacs, and lustful? Or are we charitable, kind, and sympathize with others? Are we interested in the well being of all God’s creations, now…and future generations?
If we take care to recognize God’s relation with man: His Creation (Sabbath), and His sustained providence over us (Holidays), then we are living correctly. And if we take care to provide the next generation with Torah – securing our son’s learning – then we are not only in full agreement with God’s will, but that His will should endure on Earth…for others. That is perfection on the loftiest level: when the self is not the concern, and we spend money to insure that others realize God’s will.
This is our Earthy perfection, on which we are judged at these intervals: at securing beautiful Sabbaths and Holidays, and instilling in the next generation – our sons – a fear of God, and His teachings, although we will be long gone. In these three areas, God metes out a type of reward and punishment throughout the year. Our perfection of spending our money on Sabbath, Holidays and the next generation’s Torah education is enhanced by God’s providence of replacing our expenditure, so we might continue. Thereby, God increases our perfection. Such a person realizes the true value and purpose of wealth, and therefore, he receives more. But if a person does not spend on these three areas, which express God’s relationship with man, then God removes our monetary means. He does not wish that we are successful, if our monies are not spent well. For that would encourage a wrong lifestyle.
So this reimbursement is not our final reward, but since life by definition has duration, God regularly attends to our choices. God intervenes so as to secure our growth in these three mitzvahs.
But we also live in another sphere, outside an Earthly existence. We are cognizant of our ultimate existence: the eternal existence of our souls. This is quite literally our true existence. For it is in this final stage of our lives, that we are permanently fixed. Even 1000 years on Earth does not compare. Perhaps the fact we are judged yearly, and judged on whether we live or die as well, is a means through which God generously awakens us to this denied reality of our “mortality.”
God wishes that we don’t ignore the eternity of our souls, but simultaneously, He does not wish we live in morbidity, “Also the world (immortality) has He placed in their hearts (Koheles 3:11).” This, Ibn Ezra says, means that man denies death. But our denial appears to be God’s will, since “He placed the world in our hearts.” Therefore, only 10 days each year, do we focus on a decree with long-lasting effects: the decree that is sealed each Yom Kippur. Realizing this yearly decree, we are now awakened to the ultimate decree: the decree we face at death. But this realization is a gift, to refocus us on our true mission. The yearly decree is to remind us of the truly everlasting decree. If we are wise, we prepare for the final existence, so we might enjoy it thoroughly. As the Rabbis teach, “One who prepares for Sabbath, eats on Sabbath.”
This Talmudic discussion teaches man that in both spheres of our existence, God is providing us with direction. He wishes us to earn the next, final world. So we are reminded once yearly through an Earthly model of a decree for a year. Waking up to the fact that our actions during the 10 Days of Repentance can determine our yearly fate, we thereby realize the ultimate fate that is determined by our lifetime. Thereby, God awakens mankind to our temporal stay, and the dire need for our attention to this vital matter. But the Earth goes on…and we must also realize its significance. So God metes out reward and punishment at many yearly intervals to keep us on track regarding our values, here.
But as we engage life on a day-to-day basis, even more often than once yearly God removes the blinders that convince us all that exists is our physical existence. He reminds us that the physical world is controlled by a higher world: God’s providence. We learn this by seeing that whatever we spend to beautify these three mitzvahs does not diminish our wealth. People who realize this is so, do not become desperate. They do not assess their situations based on observable phenomena alone. They are convinced God can and will assist them. And being judged for the entire year, we are further focused on our true existence that outlives our Earthly stay.
Just as a yearly judgment calls to our minds our eternal afterlife, weekly too, God endorses the man and woman who detach from physical values, and spend generously through reimbursing them.