I walked into the principal’s office for a meeting to discuss my child’s progress. There was a little sign on his desk that said, “Hashuv.”
Hmm,” I thought to myself, “isn’t that just a little egotistical, identifying himself as being ‘important?’” The principal saw the puzzled look on my face and smiled. “Ahh, the sign,” he said. “You have to read it right. It doesn’t say, ‘Hashuv, important,’ it says ‘Hashov – think!’ And there’s nothing more important than that!” The month of Elul is a time to think, to mentally prepare for the fast-approaching High Holy Days. As we recite every Friday eve in the Lecha Dodi prayer, “In the end we will act, but first we must think.” The prep to reconciliation with God is to contemplate who we are and who we ought to be; the very thought of changing is the key to actually achieving it.
The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) offers a dramatic glimpse into the Heavenly tribunal.
It tells us that, upon arrival at the gates of Heaven, each person is given a test, a sort of cosmic entrance exam, and is asked six questions: Did you do business with honesty and integrity? Did you fix set times for studying Torah? Did you participate in the commandment to be fruitful and multiply? Did you anxiously anticipate the redemption? Did you engage in the pursuit of wisdom? Did you have fear of Heaven? Each and every one of these questions represents a probing not just of our accomplishments, but of our overall character.
Not just an overview of how our mortal self performed for 120 years, but how our soul developed during its lifetime and impacted upon the universe.
• Did we do business with honesty and integrity? Would we define ourselves as givers, or takers? Were we generous with what God gave us? • Did we fix set times for studying Torah? Did we establish a discipline of life, whereby our human needs were intertwined with our spiritual obligations? • Did we participate in the mitzva of being fruitful and multiplying? Did we see ourselves as a finite end in and of itself, or rather as a link in the ongoing, eternal chain of the generations? Were we isolationist in our approach to others, or were we genuinely concerned for their welfare? Did we restrict ourselves to self-indulgence, or did we see our mission as making a difference in the world at large? Even if we personally were blessed with offspring, did we also assist others who were not so fortunate, who needed a shidduch, so that they, too, could marry and have children? Did we make life easier for the needy, so they would be able to increase their families? • Did we anxiously anticipate the redemption? Did we have a positive or negative outlook on life? Did we live only for the moment, or did we think about and prepare for the future? Did we contemplate what would make the world a better place, and actively try to implement that vision? • Did we engage in the pursuit of wisdom, pursuing that which challenged our intellect, or did we spend too much time in mindless pursuits? Did we ask deep and important questions to ourselves, seeking answers that would give meaning to our life? And did we share our knowledge with others? • Did we have fear of Heaven? Did we live with a daily awareness that this world in general and our existence in particular is perilous and precarious, held together only by divine kindness? Did we stand in awe and appreciation of the magnificent world which God provided us on a silver platter? Did we show honor and homage to our Creator, appreciating that His demands upon us were for our own good and our own growth? THESE SIX classic questions got me to thinking: What specific questions would I personally be asked in Heaven? What expectations was I meant to live up to, and what evidence will be presented at my Heavenly hearing? These questions get to the essence, the heart and soul, of what each of us are all about, and what teshuva, or repentance, really means.
And so I offer you the six questions I think I will be asked in Heaven: Did you fight for justice? From the very beginning of the Torah, there is a mandate to seek justice. God demands it of Adam and Eve, and from Cain. Abraham argues for justice at Sodom and Gomorrah; Moses fights for justice throughout his entire life – from extricating us from Egypt to challenging God as to why the righteous suffer and the wicked seem to prosper. We Jews thus have a powerful genetic propensity to seek fairness and equality.
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Sadly, there is a tremendous amount of injustice in this world, on both the macro and micro level. We are unfairly demonized by the world at large, constantly selected for prejudicial treatment and subjected to horrible crimes unlike any other people. Half the nations don’t have relations with us; the other half aren’t too friendly, either.
At the same time, we ourselves often act unjustly vis-à-vis our own citizens: There is great inequity in our society; an oligarchic monopoly rules much of the business sector; rampant corruption exists at every level of government; a lack of respect for “the other” in discourse and deportment is far from uncommon.
The callous way in which our bereaved families were recently treated when they cried out against the insane freeing of Palestinian murderers reveals a cruel disdain for the rights and sensitivities of others.
I believe that in Heaven we will be held accountable not only for what we did, but also for what we did not do. If we let the maniac on a motorcycle (or is it murder-cycle?) drive through a crosswalk or race down the sidewalk, and we said or did nothing, will we be innocent if he then kills or maims a pedestrian? If the prisoners we let loose go on to murder again, can we forgive ourselves for remaining silent? I know that I will have no alibi if I don’t act and react to situations of injustice and inequality. I also know that the real challenge is not only in speaking out, but in being able to draw the line between righteous indignation and unbridled anger. Uncontrolled anger is self-destructive and often counterproductive, while righteous indignation can save a world.
DID YOU use your time wisely? Time, to be sure, is a tyrant. We in today’s society have perfected the most amazing time-saving devices in history, yet we still never seem to have enough hours in the day.
We have factored in all the short cuts – the instant food, the travel by car and plane, the multitasking – and yet we still struggle to fit it all in. But being too busy is not always the problem; sometimes the real issue is whether we are spending our time in the right pursuits and maximizing every hour of every day.
None of us know how much time is left in our hourglass, so we must prioritize.
Don’t kill time and don’t waste time, because when it’s gone, we can never get it back. The revered Hafetz Haim wrote that life is like a postcard.
On one side of the card is a picture; the other side has a space for an address and comments. At first, we write in large handwriting, but as we get near the bottom of the postcard, we see that there is 34 AUGUST 23, 2013 IN PLAIN LANGUAGE STEWART WEISS hardly any space left, so we write in tinier letters, trying to cram as much as we can into the space left. In life, too, we think we have all the time in the world, but when we get older, we realize how much we have left to do, and how we must squeeze it all into the remaining time that is left to us.
In addition to the crime of wasting time, there is also the need to spend our time profitably. At a subway station in Washington, several years ago, a man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 60 minutes. During that time, approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most on their way to work. After about three minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing.
He stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule.
About four minutes later, the violinist received his first dollar; a woman threw the money in the open violin case and, without stopping, continued on her way. At 10 minutes, a three-year-old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly, like other parents who forced their children to move on quickly. At 45 minutes the musician played continuously; only six people stopped and listened for a bit, while 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.
After an hour, he finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed; no one applauded. There was no recognition at all.
No one knew then, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million. Two days before, he had sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each to sit and listen to him play the same music. Bell’s playing incognito in the DC Metro station was organized by The Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception and people’s priorities.
It raised a crucial issue: In our daily life, do we perceive beauty? And if so, do we stop to appreciate it? If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made, then how many other things are we missing as we rush through life? The message here is that life has an expiration date; we had better enjoy it while we can.
WERE YOU humble and were you proud? I phrased the question this way, instead of “Were you humble or were you proud,” because the two are not necessarily in conflict. There is a time to be humble, and a time to be proud. To be humble is to respect and honor our fellow human beings, admitting we are no better than them. To be humble is to admit that we are not perfect, that we may very well not have all the answers, that others may have more wisdom or knowledge than we do. To be humble is to acknowledge a greater force in the universe than ourselves, and admit by example that we have faith in a source higher than our own greatness.
But to be proud is to unabashedly appreciate the gifts God gives us, to stand tall within our national identity, our religion, our accomplishments. Taking pride in one’s family or one’s faith is not arrogance; it’s a legitimate expression of self-respect. In the course of daily life, we have to balance these two emotions. If I am too modest, I come off as phony and holier-than-thou; but if I am too prideful, I become the kind of person I would not want to be friends with, and I end up disliking myself.
DID I look for God? The famed hassidic leader Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev once found a small child sitting on a street curb, crying. He asked the child why he was crying and the child said, “I was playing hide-and-seek with my friends and when it was my turn to hide, I found a good hiding place, but none of my friends bothered to come and look for me. Finally, I just gave up.” The rabbi sat down on the curb and cried right alongside the little boy. “Sometimes God also hides from us,” he said, “and when we refuse to look for Him, He cries, too.”
How many times do we wait for God to come to us, to do everything we expect of Him? How many times do we blame God for not being there for us, when we did nothing at all to seek Him out? How many times did we expect our prayers to inspire us, though we rushed through them with virtually no concentration? How many times did we bemoan our fate, instead of counting our blessings? We who live in the world of instant gratification expect immediate response – always positive, of course! – from God. But it doesn’t work like that. We have to search for meaning, for truth, for God. We may never get the answers we are looking for – at least in this world – but it just may be that the search, the journey, is more important than the destination. For in the course of seeking God and working on our relationship with Him, many of our problems with God tend to melt away. But if we do not look for Him at all, then we remain in a vacuum. “Spiritual sloth” is often what keeps us distant from God; we must invest the time and energy to come closer to Him if we want to reap the benefits.
DID YOU live up to your potential? No two people are alike, either in terms of their physical make-up or their personality.
Each of us has certain strengths and weaknesses, unique talents and gifts that define us. But lying unseen beneath the surface is an amazing intangible, a huge reservoir of untapped potential. We never really know what we have, what we can do, what we truly are, until we test ourselves to the limit. More often than not, we are our own greatest detractor, always doubting that we have what it takes to accomplish great things. Sadly, many of us never end up discovering how much we could have done, if only we would have pushed ourselves to the limit.
Those who have experienced neardeath experiences report that they saw their life flash before their eyes; echoing what our kabbalistic sources say occurs when we die. We are shown two videos of our life: One reviews all that transpired during our years in this world; the other shows what our life could have been, had we used all the strengths and gifts we were given, had we lived up to our fullest potential. When the soul sees this video, it lets out a primal scream that reverberates from one end of the Heavens to the other.
Potential is a powerful, powerful thing – if only we realize it.
DID YOU love enough? Love is an instinct that comes naturally, but showing that love is an art that has to be perfected.
We love our parents and our children and our spouse, but we’re not always very good at letting them know it. We’re too busy, too complacent, too wrapped up in our own petty pursuits to put the priorities where they really belong. We focus on the insignificant, the fleeting, the eminently forgettable, and we neglect the real things of value.
No one, at the close of his life, ever wished that he had spent more time at the office. But lots of people regret that they fiddled away the precious moments they could have spent with the people they claimed they loved the most. It’s the old “Wait until the funeral to spend the money and come in for family gatherings” syndrome. At the end of the day, love is about giving, about time and about attention.
Not about gifts or allowance or hurried phone calls, but about showing others that they are the most important thing in your life.
Once, a man’s wife died. At her funeral, after all the people had left, the man lingered on. The rabbi came to him and said, “I know you are in pain, distraught.
But its time to leave now.”
“No, rabbi,” said the man, “you don’t understand. I loved my wife. I really loved my wife.”
“Of course you did,” said the rabbi.
“No rabbi. You see, I loved my wife – and once, I almost told her.”
Don’t wait until it’s too late to show the love you have for the special people in your life.
Perhaps the best preparation for the High Holy Days is to draw up your own list of questions you believe the Almighty will ask you. Put them on your fridge or your mirror and try to live up to them.
The answers to those questions – if you get them right – will form the truest meaning of what we call teshuva. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. www.rabbistewartweiss.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
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