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Torah Attitude: Yom Kippur: Preparing for the Banquet
Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah. Why do righteous people die and wicked people live after Rosh Hashanah? The Talmud refers to judgments in the World to Come. Why should the judgment every year on Rosh Hashanah affect a person’s share in the World to Come? There are two judgments taking place. The special inserts in the Amida correspond to these two different judgments. There is a general judgment and a specific judgment. The World to Come is eternal. This world is like a lobby. This world is the only place where we prepare for the World to Come by repentance and good deeds.
Inscribed for life and death
It says in the Talmud, "Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: one for the totally wicked, one for the totally righteous, and one for the intermediate. The totally righteous are inscribed and sealed immediately for life. The totally wicked are inscribed and sealed immediately for death. And the intermediate people are left dependent on the events from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. If they merit they will be inscribed for life. And if they do not merit, they will be inscribed for death" (Rosh Hashanah 16b).
One may question if judgments of life for the righteous and death for the wicked are inscribed on Rosh Hashanah, why are there righteous people who die and wicked people who live every year after Rosh Hashanah? If life and death are inscribed and sealed, then the totally righteous would never die and the totally wicked would never live more than one year?
The World to Come
One of the accepted answers is that the judgments to which the Talmud refers concerns "Olam Haba", the World to Come. In other words, on Rosh Hashanah the totally righteous are inscribed in the Book of Life and the totally wicked are inscribed in the Book of Death in the World to Come.
However, asks Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, "Does not the judgment regarding the World to Come only apply when a person leaves this world? Why should the judgment every year on Rosh Hashanah affect a person’s share in the World to Come if a person has many more years to live?” Another question Rabbi Friedlander asks, “The Talmud on the previous page (ibid. 16a) states, as we say in the Unesaneh Tokef prayer (see Torah Attitude: Rosh Hashanah: “Even one is a multitude”), that everyone is judged on Rosh Hashanah and all judgments are sealed on Yom Kippur. How does this reconcile with the other statement that the fates of the totally righteous and the totally wicked are sealed immediately on Rosh Hashanah?
Rabbi Friedlander quotes the Vilna Gaon who explains that there are two judgments taking place, one regarding this world, the physical/material world, and one regarding the World to Come. Everyone is judged on Rosh Hashanah and their judgment sealed on Yom Kippur with respect to their status in this world. But the difference between the judgment of the righteous, wicked and intermediate person is in regards to their status in the World to Come.
Special Amida inserts
The special inserts that we add in the Amida during the ten days of repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur correspond to these two different judgments. In the beginning of the Amida, we ask to be inscribed for life in general. This refers to the life in the World to Come. Towards the end of Amida, we insert details of blessings for good livelihood and peace. This refers to the physical world.
However, we still need to clarify how can judgment be made for life in the World to Come if a person has many more years to live? To understand this R. Friedlander quotes R. Moshe Chaim Luzatto who teaches in Derech Hashem that there is a general judgment and a specific judgment. The general judgment is whether a person is considered to be generally righteous. The generally righteous is inscribed for life as a “ben olam haba”, a person destined for life in the World to Come. This describes where the person belongs but not where the person is presently. On the other hand, if a person is considered generally wicked, this person will be inscribed in the Book of Death in regards to Olam Haba, and is at the moment not destined to reach the World to Come. With this we can understand what the Talmud says, “The wicked are considered dead even while they are alive” (Berachot 18a).
Change situation in this world
As long as a person lives in this world, this situation can be changed. The generally righteous cannot relax and just assume that everything will be fine. As it says in Pirkei Avos (2:5), “Do not believe in yourself until the day you die.” Neither should the generally wicked give up and think everything is lost. Right until the last day can a person repent and change the status for eternity in the World to Come. As the Prophet Yecheskel says in the name of G’d (18:32), “For I do not want the death of the dead (i.e. the wicked who is considered dead already). They shall repent and live.” We have no way of knowing how we have been judged. Either way, we must constantly try to improve ourselves and mend our shortcomings.
Every Jew has a share
On Shabbos afternoons, during the summer, we say that every Jew has a share in the World to Come (Introduction to Pirkei Avos), but this share can be guarded or thrown away. The righteous people look after their share in the World to Come. The wicked people throw their share away.
Besides the general judgment, there is a detailed judgment of what specifically is a person’s lot in this world for the coming year. Even the righteous people make mistakes for which they must suffer the consequences. For example, Moses was without any doubt a righteous person. But he was denied entry into the land of Israel as punishment for his mistakes. No one would dare suggest that Moses was a wicked person. In general, he was judged to reach the World to Come. In detail, he died before entering the land of Israel.
On the other hand, even a generally wicked person can do good things and will be rewarded. Tosafos (ibid 16B) quotes a verse in the Torah, "And He repays His enemies in his lifetime to make him perish" (Devarim 7:10). In detail, the generally wicked people receive their reward in this world only, and never reach the World to Come, if they do not repent.
The mountain and eternity
Since the judgment on Rosh Hashanah is regarding the World to Come, R. Chaim Volozhiner warns us to investigate our choices and be careful to guard our share in the World to Come. The Mussar exponents remind us that the World to Come is eternal. They provide us with a parable to get some idea of the meaning of “eternity”. Imagine a huge mountain. Once every thousand years a bird takes away one grain in its beak. When the bird has finished moving this mountain, eternity has not even begun to pass. “The days of our years are 70, and if with strength, 80 years” (Psalm 90:10). Even with a life expectancy of 120 years, the longest life in the physical world cannot be compared to eternity.
R. Yaakov said, “This world is like a lobby before the World to Come; prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall” (Pirkei Avos 4:21). No one would be foolish enough to spend all their time decorating the lobby at the expense of missing the opportunity of entering the banquet. The problem is that while living in the physical world, we tend to put all our focus on having a good life here and often we forget about the World to Come. Life in this world is short and fragile. Life in the World to Come is eternal and perfect. If we can develop the proper focus, the choice is obvious!
So why did G’d create the lobby? Why do we not all proceed directly to the banquet? R. Yaakov also said, “Better one hour of repentance and good deeds in this World than the entire life of the World to Come; and better one hour of spiritual bliss in the World to Come than the entire life of this World” (Pirkei Avos 4:22). This world is the only place where we can prepare for the World to Come by repentance and good deeds. Once we reach the World to Come, we cannot change our status. If we did not have the “lobby”, we could not raise our spiritual levels. Although the rewards in this physical world cannot compare to those in the World to Come, it is a necessary stepping stone to maximise our benefits in the World to Come.
May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, both in this World and the World to Come. And may we merit all the blessings that G’d wishes to bestow upon us so that we may use this lobby wisely to prepare for the feast in the banquet that awaits us.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network