With Hearts Full of Faith
Insights into faith and trust in Jewish life - A selection of addresses by Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon
By Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon and Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Reinman
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
We are standing here one week before Rosh Hashanah.1 We see the Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment, looming before us. Everything around us proclaims that we are about to be put on trial. The emotional pleas of the Selichos in the early morning hours. The plaintive call of the shofar every day after Shacharis. The increase in Torah and Mussar. The heightened tension in the atmosphere. No other time of the year enthralls us so powerfully as do these final days before Rosh Hashanah. No other time cries out to us so eloquently, Im lo achshav eimasai? When else if not now?
Take heed of these penetrating words. Im lo achshav eimasai? When else if not now?
There is only a short time left. How we take advantage of it will make a tremendous difference in our lives. It will determine if we are granted spiritual and material success in the coming year. It will determine the course of all things we hold near and dear to our hearts. It can make the difference between life and death. Im lo achshav eimasai? When else if not now? If we dont prepare ourselves during these critical days to have a proper Rosh Hashanah, if we dont take a close look at ourselves and make the necessary changes, then all may be lost.
No human being has any assurance about the future. No human being knows what tomorrow will bring, or if he will even live to see tomorrow. All a person knows is that his time on this earth is limited, and that one day he will die.
The theme to which King Solomon returns again and again in the Book of Koheles (Ecclesiastes) is that the illusory rewards of this world are not worth pursuing; they are all haveil havalim, folly of follies. Remember your Creator during your youthful years, he writes (Ecclesiastes 12:1-5), before the bad times come, when years arrive of which you will say, I have no desire for them. ... For a person is headed toward his place of eternal rest.
Young person, King Solomon advises, take advantage of your youthful years. It is a time that will never return. You will not stay young forever. You will not live forever. There will come a time when you will lose heart, when you will say, I have no desire for these years. Whether this means the troubles of the pre-Messianic era or the feebleness of old age or the day of death, you will not be able to rectify the shortcomings of your life; you will lack the morale and the energy. And then it will be too late. Take advantage of your young years, of your vigorous years. Because tomorrow may be too late.
Earlier, King Solomon writes (ibid. 9:10), Whatever your hand finds the strength to do, do it! For there are no deeds nor calculations nor knowledge nor wisdom in the grave toward which you are headed.
As long as you have the capacity, do something about it. Take control of your life. Fix it. Repair it. For there are no deeds nor calculations nor knowledge nor wisdom in the grave toward which you are headed.
King Solomon is not reminding us about the grave to throw us into a panic. He is doing so to give us perspective. As the Rosh writes in Orchos Chaim, Always keep in mind the day of your death, and prepare provision for your final journey. A faithful Jew does not live with the illusion that this world will last forever. He knows that we are here for only a brief sojourn. He knows that the material pleasures and delights of the world are distractions that can easily divert him from gaining everlasting merit and reward in the next world. He recalls the day of death to remind him that time is short and too precious to be wasted. Because who knows what tomorrow will bring? Im lo achshav eimasai? When else if not now?
The Rambam writes (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 3:3), Just as a persons merits are weighed against his sins on the day of his death, so too are the sins of every person in the world weighed against his merits every year on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. If he is found to be a righteous person, he is confirmed for another year of life. If he is found to be a transgressor, he is condemned to death. If he is a middling person, his verdict is suspended until Yom Kippur. If he repents, he is confirmed for another year of life. If not, he is condemned to death.
The Rambam draws a comparison. Just as a person faces judgment on the day of his death, so too is he judged every Rosh Hashanah. What does he mean to teach us by this comparison?
The point of the comparison is to highlight the focus, the clarity, the truthfulness that are required for a successful Rosh Hashanah. A person on his deathbed is beyond all illusion, beyond confusion. He sees death before his eyes. He knows he is leaving this world behind, and he is completely focused on purifying his soul and repairing as much damage as he can during the last desperate moments of his life.
As we prepare to enter Rosh Hashanah, we must have the same focus and clarity, for we too are not assured that we will live another year. Those who stand before God on Rosh Hashanah and beg for good health and a better livelihood are making a mistake. They think that another year of life is a given, and all they need to negotiate are the terms, the details. But that is not the issue. It is self-delusion. The issue is life itself. Will we live another year? Will we be here tomorrow? We should react to the approach of Rosh Hashanah just as we would react to the specter of approaching death. We should gain the same clarity, the same realization of what is meaningful and what is not, the same inspiration. The only difference is that we do not know when our dying day is coming, and it can catch us by surprise. But we do know when Rosh Hashanah is coming, and it is unforgivable to let it catch us by surprise.
We know full well when Rosh Hashanah is coming, and we know what is expected of us. Im lo achshav eimasai? When else if not now?
The Rambam writes (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 3:4), Although sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Torah decree, it is also symbolic, as if to say, Sleepers, awaken from your sleep! Slumberers, shake off your slumber! Scrutinize your deeds, return through repentance and remember your Creator. Those who ignore truth for the foolishness of the moment, who fritter away their years with meaningless folly, useless and ineffective, take a good look at yourselves and improve your ways.
Which truth is being ignored? To which reality must we awaken? It is the knowledge that life is not endless, that not a single day of it is guaranteed. Therefore, the time to repent and improve is now. Sheim lo achshav eimasai? Because when else if not now?
Along the same lines, the Meiri writes, A person should really examine his deeds every day and abandon his sinful ways, as our Sages have said (Avos 2:10), Repent one day before you die. In other words, repent today, for you may die tomorrow. Nevertheless, during this time -- Rosh Hashanah, that is -- a person should be especially inspired. Our Sages have explained this with a parable (Rosh Hashanah 16b): Three books are open on Rosh Hashanah: one for the righteous, one for the sinful and one for the middling, each of whom is judged according to his deeds. This is meant to inspire a person to examine his own deeds and to repent from any sins he may have committed. A person that neglects to repent during this time has no part in the Lord of Israel, because the rest of the year does not provide so much inspiration, and the Midas HaDin, the Attribute of Strict Justice, takes no notice of him and bides its time until [Rosh Hashanah].
This is strong language. A person that neglects to repent during this time ein lo cheilek bElokei Yisrael; he has no part in the Lord of Israel. Why is this so?
And then the Meiri concludes, A person should also examine his deeds during troubled times, and also when he endures personal suffering; he should consider that everything comes from God because of sin. Nevertheless, the point of death is the time when everyone who wants to preserve his soul is forced to repent and regret his former rebelliousness, return his ill-gotten gains and confess his sins. Sheim lo achshav eimasai? Because when else if not now?
The Meiri makes himself very clear. A person should always be aware that death might be around the corner, not to be plunged into depression, but rather to use this knowledge constructively. Repent one day before you die. Your eventual departure from this world is not a fantasy. It is an important reality, and your awareness of it should have a positive effect on your life.
If you cannot live with the thought of death daily, at least consider it during times of trouble and suffering.
On the day of death, however, everyone who wants to preserve his soul repents. Facing the angel of death, a person knows he has no more choices left. He knows there is no way out. Very soon, he will stand in front of the King of Kings in the Heavenly Court and be asked to give an account of himself. There is no greater inspiration for a human being. Because im lo achshav eimasai? When else if not now?
The closest approximation to this inspiration is Rosh Hashanah. God in His mercy holds back the Midas HaDin, the Attribute of Strict Justice, all year. But on Rosh Hashanah, when we say that all the people of the world pass before Him like sheep, how can we avoid thinking about our eventual death? How can we avoid the realization that we need to put our house in order? And if a person still does not repent at such a time, then he has no part in the Lord of Israel. He is such a cold fish, so completely devoid of human feeling, that even on his deathbed he will not change.
If the mere thought of Rosh Hashanah is not enough to shake us out of our lethargy, God sends us enough messages to remind us that we are not secure with our lives. There is enough going on in the world to throw a fright into us.
Who know if there will even be a world next year?
In every corner of the world, the enemies of the Jewish people are raising up their heads. The Jewish people are not secure everywhere; we are like a lamb among the seventy wolves. We are under attack, threatened from all sides. How can we not take notice? God is talking to us. He is warning us. Forget about material things. Focus on the spiritual. Sleepers, wake up from your sleep! Slumberers, shake off your slumber!
It is comfortable to delude ourselves, but if we open our eyes, we cannot help but see the danger. Just take a look at how many Arabs there are around Boro Park and Flatbush. Thousands! And Heaven forbid, should they ever get it into their heads to make a jihad against Jews, I shudder to think of what might happen. What foolish right do we have to feel secure?
There are cities in Europe where thousands of Jews once lived, fine, upstanding Jews and great rabbis and leaders. Go visit these cities today, and you will not find a trace of the vital Jewish communities that once were there. Imagine if fifty years from now, someone once remarked to me, they would bring Jews into Boro Park and show them ... that Jews once lived here!
Can anyone say with certainty that such a thing cannot be? Are we secure? Forget your security. The only security we have is Gods protection -- if we find favor in His eyes. He is calling out to us. He is telling us to repent, to devote the short time we have left before Rosh Hashanah to soul-searching and improvement. He is saying, Im lo achshav eimasai? When else if not now?
The fires have not yet been ignited, but everyone who has eyes in his head can see that we are headed for an enormous conflagration. It is up to us, the faithful Jewish people, with our Torah and our prayers, to prevent this fire from consuming the world.
1. Adapted from an address delivered in Beth Medrash Govoha on the eve of 23 Elul, 5761 (September 10, 2001), the night before the attack on the Twin Towers.