When I was very young my teacher explained to me that on Rosh Ha’Shana, Hashem has three books open on his desk: one for Tzadikim who will live; One for Rashlanim who will be sick or die; and one for those who Hashem can’t decide where to write. Then, on Yom Kippur, I expected to see only those who had not yet been inscribed coming to shul, but to my surprise there were more people then on Rosh Ha’Shanna! Next I was told that there is still another chance and some people will only get their sentence on the last day of Succot – ‘Hoshanna Rabba’. I came again and expected a packed shul and to my greater surprise it looked like only some Tzadikim came because they were not sure whether Hashem already signed their fate! I went up to someone who I knew was a real Tzadik and I told him “you didn’t need to come today because you are a Tzadik and Hashem wrote you in the book of life on Rosh Ha’Shanna”. He looked at me, laughed and said “I want to be in the first line in the book so I come to shul every day”. It took me many years to understand that statement and I would like to try to deeply understand what it is all about.
My biggest dilemma came when I went to a Chassidic Shiur and heard the Rebbe explain that the final Chatimma is on Chanukah, as a joke he even said that it has proof in the Mizmor “U’Netane Tokef” where it says “Mi Be’Channika”. He explained that only after four months of Tshuvah, Hashem makes his final decision.
As I grew up, I understood that it clearly can’t be so simple and yet so unclear. There must be more than a notebook in the sky that reminds Hashem who hasn’t yet been inscribed. There must be a good enough reason for all of us to go to shul on all of the Yamim Noraim.
To understand a little more on how it works I would like to bring a midrash and learn from it. The midrash comes in Ruth Rabbah on the Passuk describing how Boaz gave Ruth a little bit of toast when they met, and it appears once again in Vayikra Rabbah.
אמר ר’ יצחק: למדתך תורה דרך ארץ, שכשיהא אדם עושה מצוה יהא עושא אותה בלב שמח. שאילו היה ראובן יודע שהקב”ה מכתיב עליו: “וישמע ראובן ויצילהו מידם” (בראשית לז’ כא’), היה טוענו ומוליכו אצל אביו. ואילו היה יודע אהרן שהקב”ה מכתיב עליו: “וגם הנה הוא יוצא לקראתך וראך ושמח בלבו” (שמות ד’ יד’), בתפים ובמחולות היה יוצא. ואילו היה יודע בועז שהקב”ה מכתיב עליו: “ויצבט לה קלי”(רות ב’ יד’), עגלים פטומים היה מאכילה. ר’ כהן ור’ יהודה דסכנין בשם ר’ לוי אמרו: לשעבר היה אדם עושה מצוה והנביא כותבה, ועכשיו אדם עושה מצוה מי כותבה? – אליהו ומלך המשיח, והקב”ה חותם על ידיהם, כההיא דכתיב: “אז נדברו יראי ד’ איש אל רעהו ויקשב ד’ וישמע ויכתב ספר זכרון לפניו” (ויקרא רבה פרשה לד’)
Rabbi Isaac commented: The Torah teaches you a good rule conduct, to wit, that when a person performs a Mitzvah he should do so with a cheerful heart.
Had Reuven had known that the Holy One blessed be he would write of him “And Reuven heard it and delivered him out of their hand” he would have carried Joseph and brought him to his father. And had Aharon known that the Holy One blessed be he would write of him that “he cometh forth to meet thee; and when he seeth thee, he will be glad in his heart “, with a group of singers and dancers he would have come to great Moshe. And had Boaz known that the Holy One blessed be he would write of him that he “reached her parched corn“, he would have given her fatted calves to eat.
Rabbi Kohen and Rabbi Yehuda of Sechnin in the name of Rabbi Levi said: in times past when a man did a Mitzvah the prophet used to record it, but now when a man does a Mitzvah who records it? Eliyahu and the king Mashiach, the Holy One blessed be signing beside them; in accordance with that which is written, “Then they that feared the LORD spoke one with another; and the LORD hearkened, and heard, and a book of Remembrance was written before Him, for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon His name”. (Vayikra Rabbah, Parsha 34)
While reading the midrash we should ask some questions:
- How does this midrash teach the message of doing your mitzvot more happily?
- There are three parts in the midrash, what is the connection between them?
- Are these great people really influenced by what will be written of them? It sounds like modern politicians who live for tomorrow’s newspaper.
- What is the Mitzvah that used to be recorded? We know that most of the things we read about in the torah andNevi’im are not listed in the 613 mitzvot.
The answers to these questions can lead to a deep insight of the midrash. Let us begin from the end of the midrash:
The word Mitzvah is not speaking of one of the 613 commandments that are listed, but of the actions and stories written in the Torah. The 613 mitzvot we have listed are just the basics we have to keep, beyond that is when we start doing the real mitzvot. As the Torah never mentions Avraham or King David putting on their Tefillin, we understand that the midrash considered anything that is written in the Torah, a mitzva.
Now we must explain why something does or doesn’t get mentioned in the Torah or the Nevi’im. The criterion for having something written is if it will have influence on the later generations. The story of Avraham running to prepare for theAkeydah is considered a mitzvah because it teaches us that we should run to do mitzvot. The same goes for Reuven, Aharon and Boaz, their actions are called mitzvot because we can learn from them today.
It’s clearer now that these great people would have acted differently had they known what influence their mundane action would have on the later generations and on the power of the Geulah.
Had Boaz known that this unexpected first meeting with a Giyoret, Ruth, from Moav, would be the first step in bringing King David and his son Shlomo who would build the Mikdash, and later on this would bring the Mashiach and the Geulah, clearly he would have made a celebration.
Had Aharon known that this meeting with his long lost brother was the beginning of the Geulah from Egypt, obviously he would have brought a group of people to celebrate the moment.
Reuven had the chance to delay or cancel the Galut. If he would have known that he would have done all in his power to make that change in the world.
The problem the midrash is raising is that those people and clearly others including many of us, don’t know how important their actions are to the world and to the Geulah, and obviously there is no way we can know while the things are happening.
The third part of the midrash teaches us that there is a book written by the Mashiach and Eliyahu Ha’Navi, who is mentioned every Motzaei Shabbat as the one who will come the day before the Geulah. This book will be written about us and will include mitzvot that we do.
The second part is telling us that small insignificant deeds might just be the most important ones in your life.
The opening of the midrash is trying to teach us that you never know when your minute of influence will come, so think of every minute as that important one you wouldn’t want to miss. Do every Mitzvah with great joy as if you knew that this is the chance you have to bring the Geulah, and then you won’t be sorry you missed it.
Our request on the Yamim Noraim is that we will be the ones written in Sefer Ha’Chayim, the ones who will have influence on the life, and not to be left out as the people who made no difference to the world.
There is one more thing to learn from the Piyut ‘U’Netane Tokef’ that can help us understand the whole concept of theYamim Noraim. In the description of the process of the Din (Judgment) it is mentioned that we all go through one by one and our own handwritten signature is already there (“וחותם יד כל אדם בו”). This is where it all begins. On Rosh Ha’Shanna we are making Hashem the king of the world, and that is the main goal we have in the world. We are given the pen to write our own name anywhere in the book; if we would like to work for Hashem, we should sign at the top of the list and then Hashem will consider if to give us a chance to be in the Sefer Ha’Chayim or not. If we really want to work for Hashem he will give us a more important mission that will have more influence on the world.
We have 10 days after our initial decision to make sure that we really mean to do it and it wasn’t only a moment of enthusiasm. Then, if we are seriously sorry for not achieving our expectations during the past year, and we intend to do better next year, Hashem will forgive us for our faults and send us on the mission we have taken upon ourselves.
This would be too easy if we could just tune into the doing mode for 10 days and we get a credit for the whole year. But still there is one more step to take and that is Succcot, on this week after all is forgiven we have a series of mitzvot that direct us to live in the nature together with Hashem and use natural things to connect with Hashem. All this as a preparation for the main mitzva of the Chag, the mitzva of being happy, that was given especially for this week. Clearly Hashem is asking us if we are pleased with our decision, and only if we really are happy then on Hoshanna Rabbah we will have the final Chatimma. If we are not pleased with the role we chose we probably won’t keep it. If all went well then the first day after this possess we will take the Torah and dance with it, even take it out into the streets to show the people that we are planning to bring Hashem’s message to the world.
The Chassidim’s insight is that only after you spend 3 months doing what you promised to take upon yourself you can get Hashem’s approval and get the final Chatimma.
Now we know that the book is not just a list of what will happen to who, but also a story of how the world will continue. Also we know that we can request to take a major role in this story, I am sure the Yamim Noraim will help us direct our thoughts towards Am Yisrael’s needs.
We can call the book that Eliyahu and the Mashiach are writing ‘Sefer Geulah Ve’Yeshuah’ and wish that we all get a chance to be written in it. The midrash guides us to remember at all times that we are writing the book with our daily lives, and any minute can be the most important one in our life.
Let us choose an important role in Hashem’s eyes, do his work in the world and hope he will give us and all of Am Yisrael the powers and needs so that we can make the best of it.