The Book of Life is the overarching metaphor for the High Holidays. According to this metaphor, G-d examines the “book” of each person’s deeds on the Day of Judgement (another name for Rosh Hashanah) and if a person’s good deeds outweigh their sins, then a favorable judgment is handed down; if the scales tip to the other side, then things aren’t looking so good.
Most of us are somewhere in the middle, what Jewish tradition calls “beinoniyim” (middlings). The Ten Days of Repentance (culminating on Yom Kippur) are designed for the beinoniyim, since repentance can mitigate and even completely overturn a negative Rosh Hashanah verdict. This is all made powerfully clear in the “U’Nessaneh Tokef” prayer, recited during the Hazzan’s repetition of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf (Additional Service):
On Rosh Hashanah our destiny is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall die and how many shall be born; who shall come to a timely end, and who to an untimely end; who by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague . . . But repentance, prayer, and charity cancel the stern decree.”
You can imagine my concern, therefore, when a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah I came home from several days of vacation to find that my house was flooded (a pipe underneath a sink had burst and water had gushed for many hours). As Sarah and I mopped up the water, with the melodies of the upcoming High Holidays already percolating in my head, I could not help wondering: had a divine verdict of “by water” been handed down against me the previous Rosh Hashanah?
The Berakhot (“Blessings”) Tractate of the Babylonian Talmud has a very useful discussion in this regard. We read (on 5a): “Rava, and some say Rav Ĥisda, said: ‘If a person sees that suffering has befallen him, he should examine his actions.’” This is a basic tenet of religious life: things don’t happen haphazardly, and if something bad happens to you, look inward and perhaps try to do better and be a better person.
The Talmudic discussion goes on to say that suffering may be viewed as a blessing: “Anyone in whom the Holy One, Blessed be He delights, He oppresses him with suffering”. Crucially, the Talmud explains: “I might have thought that G-d delights in him even if he does not accept his suffering with love. Therefore the verse teaches (see Isaiah 53.10): ‘If his soul would offer itself in guilt.’” That is, there is great reward for those who accept their suffering with love, but one is not obligated to do so.
Interestingly, the Talmud goes on to tell of a person who in fact did not view his suffering with love: “Rabbi Yoĥanan fell ill. Rabbi Ĥanina entered to visit him, and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Yoĥanan said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Rabbi Ĥanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ĥanina stood him up and restored him to health.” As the Talmud wonderfully illustrates, sometimes what you want your rabbi to do is to help you out of your suffering and not to instruct you on how you went bad, or offer counsel along the lines of “it’s all for the good.” Thankfully and luckily for us, Sarah and I live next door to Rabbi Tzvi and Rabbanit Oshra Koren. During the week that we had to be out of our home, we simply lived with them. The Korens did everything they could to makes us feel at home, and they did not, even in jest, tell us to do some soul searching. But as I head into Rosh Hashanha it certainly does occur to me that I can do better. I didn’t necessarily need to have my house flooded , O Lord, but I will try to spread more love during this coming year. Shana Tova.
TEDDY WEINBERGER is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.