On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is decided…”
From the Unetaneh Tokef prayer
Our lives hang in a precarious balance between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The idea that our fates are sealed for the coming year on Yom Kippur is indeed an ominous one.
A dominant image of this holiday season is related in the Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 16b) where we learn that three books are opened: One for those who are absolutely wicked, one for those who are absolutely righteous, and one for those who are neither fully righteous nor fully wicked. Those who are absolutely righteous are immediately inscribed and sealed for life, those who are absolutely wicked are immediately inscribed and sealed for death, and the judgment for those in the middle is suspended until Yom Kippur.
Since many of us most likely fall into this middle category – neither absolutely righteous nor absolutely wicked – how then do we change our fate? What can we do? The Talmud continues that if during the 10 days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we increase our merit, then we are inscribed for life, otherwise we are inscribed for death.
The traditional understanding would suggest that we do as many mitzvot as possible during this time to tip the scales. This interpretation, however, has its limitations. Do we believe that our fate is determined strictly by the number of mitzvot we do? Is it strictly a quantitative measure? What about the quality of our actions, the time we spend on each mitzvah, and our intentions?
Even within the traditional community this explanation was bothersome, so Rabbi Avrohom Davis offered another interpretation. He suggested that we are not judged by the number of mitzvot we do, but rather according to our attachment to goodness in the world. The phrase “absolutely righteous” refers to those people who are totally attached to goodness, and the phrase “absolutely wicked” refers to those individuals who are totally attached to wickedness. The person who is neither absolutely righteous nor absolutely wicked is thus someone whose attachment to good and evil is ambivalent, lacking a clear commitment to either. Most of us most likely fall in this middle terrain; neither wholly righteous nor wicked. Our task during these 10 days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, aseret y’mai hateshuvah, is to work on our attitudes to align them with becoming fully attached to what is good in life. This is not necessarily as easy as it seems, since many people are stuck in seeing the problems and challenges before them before they see the blessings and the goodness. Though Yom Kippur is upon us in two days, it is not too late to reflect personally and make these internal changes.
The Slonim rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Brozovski, offers another twist in understanding the imagery of these three books. He teaches that each of these books is opened before each and every one of us and that it is for us to decide into which book we will be written. Do we want to be among the absolutely righteous, the absolutely wicked, or among those who are neither fully righteous nor wicked? It is up to us, Rabbi Brozovski teaches, to write ourselves into whichever book we choose. What is the image we have for ourselves for this coming year? Stop for a minute and envision what you want for yourself in the coming year. It is that image that is inscribed on Rosh HaShanah and sealed on Yom Kippur.
Let us commit ourselves to being fully attached to goodness in this world. Let our actions and words propel us toward realizing the goodness in ourselves, in others, and in our community. May we each be able to see ourselves among the absolutely righteous and write ourselves in the Book of Life for this coming year.