Tipping the High Holiday Scales

The heavenly scales are being prepared for the judgment of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What can we do to help tilt the scales in our favor?

Gravely ill, to the point of near death, Rabbi Yosef Gikatilla, the famous 13th-century Spanish kabbalist, dreamt of a heavenly scale that had two sides – one with his missvot, and the other with his demerits. In his vision, the scale was perfectly balanced, and no side conclusively weighed down the other.  When he awoke, he mustered whatever strength he had left to ask that his tefillin be brought to him.  He put on his tefillin, whereupon he miraculously recovered from his illness. The rabbi later explained to his disciples that seeing his judgment hanging in the balance, he realized he needed just one more missva to tip the scales in his favor, so he could merit additional time in this world.

Our Day in Court

Like in this story, the Rambam famously describes the judgment of the High Holidays as the weighing of two sides of a scale.  All our missvot are piled onto the right side of the scale, and all our sins on the left.  If the side with our missvot weighs down the other side, then we are inscribed for a year of life and wellbeing.  But if, Heaven forbid, our missvot are outweighed by the other side of the scale, then we receive the difficult judgment we deserve, Heaven forbid.  This is why the zodiacal sign of Tishri is Libra, the scales, as this is the month when our deeds are being weighed in the heavens to determine our sentence for the coming year.

The Rambam adds that this system is actually more complex than it seems.  This is not a simple computation of how many missvot we performed and how many sins we committed.  Some missvot are worth much more than others, just as some sins have a higher weight than others.  For example, a Jew in Flatbush certainly receives reward for eating only kosher, but a Jew in Albuquerque, who has far less opportunities for kosher shopping and dining, will receive much more credit for kashrut observance.  Conversely, the Jew in Albuquerque will be charged with a “lighter” demerit for eating in a non-kosher pizza shop than his friend in Flatbush.  Since the challenge of kashrut is understandably much greater in areas with limited kosher opportunities, failure to meet that challenge is treated with less gravity.

Religious background also plays an important role in the “weight” of a missva or a sin.  If a person born and raised in Bnei Brak knowingly violates Shabbat, his violation is deemed much graver than that of somebody who did not receive a Torah education.  By the same token, when somebody from a non-observant background makes the courageous decision to begin living a Torah lifestyle, the missvot he performs weigh heavier on the scale than those of a person born and raised in a Torah family and in Torah schools.

Another example of this concept is charity.  Imagine two people who donate to a charitable cause – one donates $1, and another donates $100.  The first man struggles mightily to support his family, works long hours, does not own a car, does not travel for vacation, and buys simple, inexpensive clothing.  His $1 donation is cherished by Gd and will carry significant weight on the High Holiday scales.  The second fellow, by contrast, is a billionaire whose children have already married, moved out of the house, and established successful careers of their own.  His $100 donation is certainly valuable, but this missva will weigh far less than the other man’s $1 donation.

And thus during this season, our focus must be on adding as many missvot as possible to the right side of the scale.  Before the big day when the scales are weighed, we want to do everything we can to increase the weight on the right side by adding missvot.  This is the best chance we have to tip the scales in our favor and earn a year of health and happiness.

There are numerous ways we can help ourselves by finding additional missvot.  In the paragraphs that follow, we suggest just a few of the strategies that we can enlist in this effort to stockpile missvot in preparation for our day in court on Rosh Hashanah.

A Change in Attitude

Our rabbis teach us that we can, under certain conditions, earn credit even for missvot that we don’t actually perform.

This concept is exemplified by a story told about Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883), who was once raising money for his yeshiva.  His students saw Rav Yisrael approach an indignant pauper who barely had food to eat, and explain to him the importance of supporting Torah study.  The rabbi spoke passionately about the value of Torah learning and the benefits of supporting a Torah institution.  Predictably, the man turned the rabbi down, explaining that he could not afford to make a donation.

Rabbi Yisrael’s students were puzzled.  The rabbi assuredly knew that the man could not even afford a proper meal. Why did the rabbi waste his time by making an impassioned appeal?  Fundraising is time-consuming as it is.  What purpose was there in asking a poor beggar for a donation?

“Of course I realized he had no money to donate,” Rabbi Yisrael explained, “but he still deserves the opportunity to want to donate.”

The Talmud states explicitly that if one sincerely wants to perform a missva but is truly unable to do so, he nevertheless receives credit for that missva.  If an indignant pauper feels genuine desire to support a yeshiva, and is barred from doing so due to his financial condition, then he is given credit as though he supported the yeshiva.

This concept provides us with a remarkable strategy as we prepare for the judgment of the High Holidays.  By changing our attitude toward missvot, we can add to the scales innumerable missvot that we don’t even perform.

We are all limited, and Gd knows that just as well as we do.  The question is, how do we relate to all those wonderful missvot which we cannot do – the charity we cannot afford to donate, the Torah classes our schedules do not allow us to attend, or the volumes of Talmudic literature that are beyond our grasp?  Do we look to our limitations with a sigh of relief, and feel grateful that we’re not expected to do more, or do we feel genuinely frustrated and dissatisfied with our limitations?  If we sincerely want to perform those missvot, then we are given credit as if we performed them.

This is a relatively easy way to accrue more credit on our scales.  Circumstances are not always in our control, but our attitude and mindset are.  By adjusting our mindset and engendering a sincere desire to do more missvot, we receive reward even if we cannot actually perform them.

Turning Glass into Gold

Imagine we had an instrument that could magically turn any piece of glass to gold.  A valueless chard from a broken mirror could be transformed into a shiny piece of gold worth thousands of dollars.  Would we ever be wealthy!

Without exaggeration, we have an instrument just as powerful – and far more valuable.  We have the ability to take any ordinary act and transform it into a missva, which is far more precious than all the gold in the world.

As human beings, we have many needs.  In order to sustain ourselves, we need to eat, sleep and care for our health.  We also need to earn a living, and to maintain our households to ensure a happy, healthy environment for ourselves and our children.

All this is necessary in order to serve Gd, to fulfill our mission in the world.  Without eating, sleeping and visiting the doctor, we will not be healthy enough to perform missvot.  Without going shopping, we cannot care for ourselves and our children.  Without going to work, we cannot properly raise our children into faithful servants of the Creator, or support our synagogues and Torah institutions.

If we conduct our lives with this perspective, then virtually everything we do becomes a missva.  Before we sit down to eat, or even before we drink a cup of water, we should spend a moment to remind ourselves that we are eating and drinking for the purpose of serving Gd.  Before sitting down at our desk for work, we should take a moment to remind ourselves that we are working to fulfill the important missva of supporting our families.  Before exercising, we should remind ourselves that we are caring for our bodies so we will be better able to serve Gd for many years in good health and good spirits.  And before we sleep, we should make a mental note that we are resting our bodies for the sake of serving the Almighty.

With this simple piece of information, we can turn every piece of “glass” into “gold.”  Everything in our daily routine, including caring for our physical needs and our material needs, becomes a missva.  If we approach life as an opportunity to serve Gd, rather than an opportunity to serve our vain interests and desires, then we accrue credit even as we eat, sleep, work and exercise.  Essentially, our entire lives, 24/7, are spent involved in missvot.

From Retail to Wholesale

In the business world, there is a fundamental difference between retailers and wholesalers.  A retailer sells one product at a time, and relies on a steady flow of customers for his business to succeed.  The wholesaler does not have as many customers, but he sells large quantities of merchandise to each, hoping to leverage the bulk sales.

When it comes to missvot, we generally tend to think in terms of retail – doing one missva at a time.  We pray, recite shema, wear tallit and tefillin, give charity, help a friend, and so on, and we try, as much as time allows, to earn merit through a steady flow of individual missvot.

But there is potential for wholesale performance of missvot, too, which can be accomplished by causing or enabling others to perform a missva.  A simple example would be purchasing 10 siddurimand donating them to the local synagogue.  For years thereafter, every time somebody prays with one of those siddurim, we are credited with a missva.  Even if the donor is comfortably snuggled in his bed, he earns merits through the missvot he facilitated through his donation.  Of course, this applies as well to donations and other forms of assistance to a yeshiva.  If a person helps facilitate Torah study, then he is credited for the words of Torah studied as a result of his contribution.

But the greatest “wholesale” missva we can accrue is leading other people to Torah observance.  If we inspire a Jew to embrace a Torah lifestyle, then all of that person’s missvot, and all his descendants’ missvot, are credited to us.  And thus for the rest of eternity, literally, our “account” of missvotcontinues to grow.

And we mustn’t think that this mechanism is available only to rabbis and outreach professionals.  Each of us, in our own way, has the capacity to inspire and positively affect the people around us.  When we look, speak and act in a becoming, courteous, dignified manner, people take notice.  If we make a positive impression through our conduct, the people around us are drawn closer to our way of life.  We can also make a strong impression upon our peers.  When a man or woman regularly attends prayer services and Torah classes, his or her peers are inspired to do the same.  Positive peer pressure is a powerful force whose impact can spread far and wide.  If our participation in learning programs influences just one friend to attend a weekly Torah class, then we receive credit for that person’s learning each and every week – and their growth that develops as a result.

There are also smaller things we can do as part of this effort.  If we are out to dinner with friends, we can take a short break to share a one-minute Torah insight.  If we speaking on the phone with a friend, too, it is worthwhile to throw in a brief Torah thought.  Rabbis aren’t the only ones who can teach Torah.  Any little bit of Torah wisdom we can share with others adds to our heavenly “account,” as we are credited with their learning.

Additionally, we can offer our peers encouragement and positive reinforcement for their achievements.  If somebody we know arranged a bake sale, for example, or was involved in some other worthy communal function, it is worthwhile to pick up the telephone and call that person to express gratitude and admiration.  That person will be more likely to take on additional projects if he or she receives positive and enthusiastic feedback.  When we see people beginning to attend prayer services and Torah classes more regularly, we should make a point of going over to them with genuine warmth to congratulate them.  Our positive reinforcement is likely to encourage them to take additional steps and continue their forward progress.

Making the Effort

A famous Mishna in Pirke Avot teaches, “Lefum sa’ara agra– The reward is commensurate with the exertion.”  Gd dispenses reward not in accordance with the results, but in accordance with the effort and hard work invested.

We live in a results-oriented society, where bottom-line productivity is what counts.  A sales representative who spends months painstakingly courting dozens of clients might receive less commission than the one who gets a customer on board with a single five-minute phone call.  But Hashem’s perfect judgment does not work this way. Ultimately, our true “commission,” before Gd, is proportional to the effort we put in. And so a yeshiva student who cannot understand the Gemara after spending an entire day of struggle receives far more reward than the prodigy who mastered the page in five minutes and then went to sleep.  The more effort we invest, the greater the weight of the missva.

Especially during this season, then, as we desperately look to add weight to the right side of the scale, we need to be ambitious.  We mustn’t shy away from daunting and challenging responsibilities.  To the contrary, we should specifically look for opportunities to work hard and spend long hours in missvot.  This might mean making a special effort to learn after a tough day at work, or driving two hours to visit a lonely or ill relative or friend.  For parents, this might mean spending more quality time with their children, even if this leaves them with less time for themselves.  The period leading up to and during the High Holidays is not a time for shortcuts and conveniences.  This is a time of “sa’ara,” of hard work and effort, of going the extra mile for the sake of Torah and missvot.  It is a time to take on challenges, rather than avoid them.

Opportunities to tilt the scales in our favor are endless, and they’re all around us.  We owe it to ourselves during these weeks to step up the intensity level, to give greater attention to our Torah responsibilities.  As we, hopefully, grow during this High Holiday season, so will our pile of missvot on the heavenly scales, and we shall all be worthy of a year of health, happiness, peace and success, and of having all our prayers and the prayers of the entire Jewish nation answered in full, Amen.

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