The ימים נראים, Days of Awe, are some of the most intense, if not the most intense, days on the Jewish calendar. Days where we look back on the year that passed us by, both the moments we are proud of and those we would rather forget, as well as look forward to the year we are entering with the hopes and dreams we carry. Days where we consider what went wrong, what went right, and what we can change to have more of the latter in the year to come. Days where we turn to God and say please, give me another year to carry out the mission you put me on this earth to do. That being said, the natural perspective most people would likely adopt when thinking about the דין וחשבון, judgment and scrutiny, that takes place on these days is that God bases His ruling on the events that took place in the year that just passed. After all, where else would God acquire the information and data necessary to make an accurate judgment if not from the history of our actions and motivations? A surprising answer is given by a contrary group of Jewish thinkers. God doesn’t care as much as we think about what we have done, He cares more about where we stand right now and if we have learnt from the past what these Days of Awe are truly about.
One notable example of this camp is Rav Wolbe, the author of the prolific book on Mussar, ethics, called עלי שור. In his essay on this time period Rav Wolbe brings a section of the Talmud from מסכת ראש השנה טז:, tractate Rosh HaShana16b, which deals with the story of the Bible where Ishmael is driven away from Avraham’s home:
אֵין דָּנִין אֶת הָאָדָם אֶלָּא לְפִי מַעֲשָׂיו שֶׁל אוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר כִּי שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם
“A man is judged only according to his deeds at the time of his judgment, and not according to his future deeds, as it is stated with regard to Ishmael: “For God has heard the voice of the lad where he is” (Genesis 21:17). Although Ishmael and his descendants would act wickedly in the future, his prayer was heard and answered because he was innocent at the time.”
The Bible recounts how God, knowing that Ishmael would end up being a person who would spawn a nation who historically have rarely been friends to the Jews, still took mercy and helped him live because at that time in history, Ishmael was a person worthy of divine mercy. As Rabeinu Chananel, a commentator on the Talmud, writes based on the Jerusalem Talmud “Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi said, the verse in Iyov says “If you are blameless and upright, He will protect you…”, it doesn’t say if you were that way in the past He will protect you, rather if you are that way right now!” The גמרא here is driving home a very important point, which Rav Wolbe then expands upon. The important factor in the judgment of Rosh HaShana is not how well you have acted in the past, it is how you stand before God on the very day of Rosh HaShana! Rav Wolbe writes that what matters isn’t if one has been naughty or nice throughout the year, what matter is עד כמה הוא כלי לקבל את השכינה, how ready and prepared one is to be considered a place for God’s presence to rest in this world.
However still this begs the question, what does it even mean to be an extension of God in the world? How is that status measured if not by whether or not we have acted as God’s agent in the past? Surely this doesn’t mean that a person can go and act in a way representing the antithesis of what God wants throughout the year and then come to Rosh HaShana and swear to be better. One would hardly call that person someone who honestly is ready to be an extension of God in the world. What is the true meaning behind Rav Wolbe’s words?
In a work titled משנותינו להרמח׳ל, Mishnateinu L’HaRamchal, a compilation and analysis dedicated to organizing and consolidating the thought of Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the order and progression of the Days of Awe is laid out in a manner which highlights and clarifies the purpose of these days and the role each stage plays in the development of that goal. The author writes that the purpose of these days is for a man to encounter God, crown Him as King, realize how we wish we were closer, take the actions necessary to get closer, and finally to enjoy that new found relationship with our Creator. He writes that before any part of this goal can be accomplished, we must first acknowledge that this goal is a worthy one. Before we can repent and acknowledge how the fractures and ruptures in our relationship with God are our fault and work on repairing them, we must first make clear that this is a relationship we value. Rosh HaShana is not a day of classical repentance, there is no asking for forgiveness, there is no crying over our sins, there is just adulation, awe, and reverence for the King who rules over us. The prayers are filled with reference to the acts of majesty that God has taken throughout history, and will still take in the future, in an effort to help us understand who it is we are crowing as King. Only once this day has been approached and experienced with the proper understanding and perspective can we move on to a day of repentance. Only once we reaffirm the importance and relevance of God can we turn to Him and say I’m sorry. However, there is much more to applying that knowledge, there is much more to crowning God king in actuality.
These past two years have been very eye opening for the world. The control, convenience, and security we thought we had in our modern era has been turned on its head. It suddenly became very clear to everyone that what we thought we knew wasn’t a given. During these times people weren’t sure where their lives were heading. In the financial, familial, and spiritual world so much became shaky and so much was lost. Among this chaos one idea became a motto people turned to as a lifeline, “Do the next right thing.”
A phrase often cited, but also used in contexts such as programs for people in recovery from addiction, it carries a tremendously simple yet difficult message. Essentially, when things are complicated, when things are confusing, don’t try and perceive the entire track you need to follow, just take stock of your current reality and ask, what is the right thing to do right now in this moment. This is not only a relevant message when the confusion comes from an outside source, such as a global pandemic, it is still relevant, if not infinitely more relevant, when that confusion comes from within. As Dr. Michael McGee, a mental health counselor with more than 30 years of experience in psychiatry, writes, “A fundamental human challenge is to do what is right in the face of urges to do otherwise.” We all live our lives according to a set of moral values, whether inculcated in us or decided by us. The desire to reach beyond ourselves and live for something more is part of what makes humanity so great. However, part and parcel of that greatness are the challenges and difficulties we encounter while reaching for our own ideals. The hardest part of being human, one might say, is when what we hold to be true as an ideal, conflicts with what we want in the moment. Dr. McGee writes, “Trouble arises when our instinctive urges conflict with a higher set of moral principles and values.” In moments such as those we understand as mature adults that what we want in the moment must give way to what we know to be the ideal, to be a higher and holier desire. “Part of being human is submitting your will to what is best, seeing that what is best is best for you. Integrity comes from experiencing yourself as part of something greater than just yourself.”
Within this perspective, doing the next right thing takes on a new meaning. It is not just about taking stock and choosing the option which will set you up for a better existence, it is about putting yourself in line with the larger ideals and values you believe to be true. It is about stepping outside of what our immature and animalistic parts of us want, and into the perspective of a higher mindset in line with what is truly best for us and those we love. When our next right thing is decided by a system we put above ourselves, such as the will of God, we become people more in line with that system. We become people who bring God into the world, extensions and representations of Him. This perspective can be seen in other sources of Judaism too. The Maharal of Prague echoes this when discussing the means by which a person can incorporate more of God into themselves, thereby becoming more and more שלם, whole.
In the beginning of his work Tiferet Israel, the Maharal addresses mankind’s elevation above the rest of creation. He says in the first chapter that every created thing is meant to have an effect on the world which is reflective of its nature. For example, he says, wind spreads seeds around which causes the seeds to be planted, and animals fulfill their purpose by populating the world. These are the actions which befit their status and nature as created entities. He says though, that man has a special soul, a נפש שכלית the Maharal calls it. Therefore the actions that he is meant to perform in accordance with his nature, are also actions geared towards שכליות, towards holiness and godliness. The Maharal calls them פעולות שכליות ואלהיות, actions of spirituality and Godliness, we call them מצות, commandments.
The nature of man is unique in that he has within himself a Godly essence of some kind, that in turn impacts his role in the world and the kinds of actions which befit his nature. Man, as the Maharal explains in this chapter, is not totally Godly nor totally physical, גשמי or שכלי. He is a combination of both. However, this also means he must choose between them. The goal of the מצות is to provide a way for Mankind to rise above the טבעי, primitive animalistic,side of him and become complete, שלם. To do that, we need Godly actions to actualize our latent Godly nature. The מצות according to the Maharal are there to help put us in line with God, the highest Ideal. For the Maharal, the good associated with the מצות is a good which comes as the result of acting in accordance with them. The Maharal believes as mentioned above, that it puts man more in line with his spiritual ideals. The good that come from מצות then, is in being a person who is more in line with their spiritual ideals.
When we crown God king what are we essentially saying? We are saying He is in control and we look to Him for guidance. We look to God saying I may not know everything that is going to happen this year, but I trust that by putting myself in line with what You think is the next right thing I will come out of this year successful. This perspective may be what Rav Wolbe was referencing. On Rosh HaShana we crown God king, that is an active declaration. We are saying that no matter what happened this past year, right now I am agreeing to do the next right thing as You describe it. I am acknowledging that I will look to You and the spiritual ideals and actions You set to get me through the year to come with all its challenges and opportunities. What is the role of the past year? Not as data points God will judge us according to, rather as data points for us to draw from as we try live up to our spiritual Ideals. Have we thought about our challenges this past year? Have we learnt what is hard for us? What areas we need more of God’s direction? Have we attained the level of self-knowledge which will help us meet the challenges of the year ahead? If that is the attitude we take on the past year, to grow in self-knowledge which will help us learn our next right thing, then of course it is of no relevance to God, it’s only of relevance to us.