Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are important times for introspection, Teshuvah (repentance), and overall self-improvement. To me, the high holidays have always seemed to be laser-focused on how we did in our lives the previous year and what will happen to us in the coming year (please G-d for blessings).
However, I recently learned in the book, Rav Avigdor Miller on Olam Haba, that we can expand our consciousness from our yearly judgement during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to our ultimate judgement in the future world. In short, by understanding more about our accounting before Hashem in the world to come (Olam Haba) we can actually learn to live a better and more productive life in this world (Olam Hazeh).
My dear father, Fred Blumenthal (ZT’L), used to say to me:
Whatever you do in life, think of the consequences.
Similarly, on Rosh Hashanah, we understand that we are being judged based on our actions (thoughts, words, and deeds), and that there are consequences for that:
On Rosh Hashanah we are inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
In the broader context, everything we do in this world is captured in the everlasting book of Hashem, and there are consequences for us in the afterlife. As we learn in Pirkei Avot 2:1:
Know what there is above you; an Eye that sees, and an Ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.
Everything is photographed, recorded, and videotaped. Nothing escapes Hashem and the heavenly court, where our life will be replayed before everyone (i.e., we will see our whole life pass before our eyes), and we will feel immense shame and have accountability for everything we did.
So let’s start with life in this world.
It’s a world of free choice. It’s filled with tests and opportunities. In terms of tests, there are trials and tribulations, ups and downs, that test our faith and trust in G-d. These can often be painful life challenges that cause us to reflect, to give us awareness of G-d, and call out to Him. Additionally, in this world, we are tempted to chase every pleasure to fulfill our physical desires. We run here and there, and everywhere, to try to appease our vices, addictions, evil inclinations, and greed for ever more, and yet we are never satisfied.
Alternatively, this world is our great opportunity to rise above the material mundaneness of our physical/animal life and instead focus on making life truly holy. Rather than pursuing our physical desires and material accumulation (which are all lost at the end of this life), we can instead choose to work on our character, build personal integrity, do good deeds, and strive for spiritual growth/perfection of our inner souls, which have eternal life. As we learn, good deeds keep on giving (Pirkei Avot 4:2):
The reward of performing a commandment is another commandment…for committing a transgression is another transgression.
Chasing materialism, as we all end up realizing at some point in our lives (or on our death beds), ends up coming to naught. Whatever we get materially, we always end up finding it empty of real meaning and disappointing compared to whatever we dreamt in our imagination that it would be. Moreover, as we get older and sicker, we lose everything we think we have accumulated anyway. However, with age comes wisdom, and that wisdom tells us that life is not about fun, but accomplishing something for our souls, our connection to G-d, and His light, love, and holiness.
Whatever we do in this world, affects us in the world to come.
According to Rav Miller, there is no doubt that whatever we do in this world will be paid for in the next… and a time will come when all debts will be paid.
Miller relates the famous story from the Talmud (Pesachim 50a) in which a man died and came back to life, and his father asked him what he saw in the future world, and his son replied that he saw an upside-down world in which those that were most important (i.e., those with material success) in this world are nothing in the future world, and those that were not important in this world (i.e., the religiously pious) are most important in the world to come. To which the father replied that the future world is the right-side-up one.
Similarly, a lady in synagogue told me today about how in her younger years, no one ever thought much of her and they continuously belittled and disparaged her. One day, they were looking at the list of her and the other college graduates, but they were reading the list backwards and were calling her the stupidest one in the whole class, when in fact she had been the valedictorian! So we can see that people can easily get the facts of life mixed up.
In terms of seeing the world and life clearly, you have a choice of how to live. You can choose to endlessly chase meaningless material things and the next physical high, or you can live your life with a deeper understanding that this world is just a corridor to the future world, where the “breath of life” from G-d returns to Him for everlasting revelation and reckoning.
A character in a recent action film says that “In war, you must control and never be controlled.” I think that is really the lesson of Rav Miller for everyday life in this world, where we are constantly at war with our evil inclinations and we must never be controlled by our impulses but rather control them. By choosing physical/material self-control and instead pursuing the perfection of our soul, we can be written, please G-d, in the Book of Life in this world and ultimately for everlasting bliss with Hashem and the righteous in the world to come.