A broadcast by Rabbi Raymond Apple on the ABC Radio national network (Australia) in 1975 to mark Rosh HaShanah. The broadcast text subsequently appeared in the booklet, Days of Awe: High Holyday Broadcasts from the Great Synagogue, Sydney, published by the Great Synagogue, Rosh HaShanah, 1979.
Every people has its new year celebration, and every new year celebration has its characteristic sound. In some cases the dominant note is rejoicing, in others hilarity; for the Jews it is a call to solemn soul-searching.
For Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, which will be observed this coming weekend, is yom hadin — the Day of Judgment on which God subjects His creatures to scrutiny and examination. It is an annual foretaste of that other Day of Judgment which will confront each of us as he knocks at the entrance to heaven and seeks admittance into the World to Come.
On that day, say the Jewish sages, four questions are put to each man as he stands at the gateway to heaven:
Nasata v’natata b’emunah? — “Were your dealings with other people honest and clean?”
Kavata ittim latorah? — “Did you set aside time for Torah?”
Asakta b’fir’yah v’riv’yah? — “Did you promote marriage and family life?”
Tsipita liy’shu’ah? — “Did you keep faith, and hope for salvation?”
On the day of the final account and reckoning when you want to know, “Do I deserve the heavenly life of the next world?” you will be asked by means of these questions, “Did you aspire towards heaven in this world?”
The Yiddish writer, IL Peretz, tells the story of the Rabbi of Nemirov whose life on earth raised him heavenwards…
During the solemn days just prior to the New Year, the Rabbi of Nemirov would sometimes vanish. He was not in the synagogue, he was not in the house of study, he was not at home; he was nowhere to be found.
The simple folk of Nemirov were not at all concerned: for, they thought, where should the Rabbi be, with the New Year and the awesome Day of Atonement so close, but up there in heaven arranging matters with the Almighty?
But there was a stranger in town, and he was sceptical. He decided he would find out the truth. Where indeed did the Rabbi go?
Hidden in the Rabbi’s house he kept watch all night, and then he saw before it was yet dawn how the Rabbi rose from his bed, put on peasant costume, and crept stealthily out of town. The stranger followed him, and was amazed to see the Rabbi chop down a small tree in the woods, bundle up the logs, and return to town to a tumbledown old house where lived a poor, sick old woman.
There, pretending to be nothing more than a simple peasant who had brought her some wood, he laid the wood in the stove, carefully lit the fire, and as the warmth began to spread he hummed and sang to himself the penitential hymn:
“The soul is Thine, and the body is Thy handiwork: have pity upon Thy creatures…”
When the warmth of the fire filled the room comfortably, he shut the stove, quietly left the house, and made his way back home before anyone was yet stirring in the streets. And ever afterwards, if people should tell how the Rabbi early each day raised himself and flew up to heaven, the erstwhile sceptic would say quietly, “To heaven? If not even higher…”
In Jewish teaching, the way of attaining heaven is not a simple matter of having the right ideas and beliefs. No: it is a much harder way. Ideas and beliefs come into it, but above all it involves living a life that will bring heaven down to earth and make earth into a heaven. The stranger in the little town of Nemirov was right: a person whose life is devoted to the quiet doing of good deeds is already, in a sense, in heaven, if not even higher.
But all this is so quaint and poetical that one feels the need of something more specific and practical. What then is the specific, practical recipe for heaven? The sages provide it with their four questions.
THE FIRST QUESTION
The first question stresses ethical living. Nasata v’natata b’emunah? — “Were your dealings with other people honest and clean?”
The Psalmist put it this way: “Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord, and who shall stand in His holy place? He that has clean hands and a pure heart…” — he whose acts and attitudes are upright and honourable.
But make no mistake about it. To stand in all situations for the ethical approach, to insist on truth and honesty and justice at all times, requires considerable courage. A stand for conscience does not automatically make one popular. Insistence on integrity does not automatically bring material rewards. Often one stands almost alone.
But on the final yom hadin, the final day of judgment, it will not help to claim that if one took the easy way out and compromised conscience, there were after all many others who did the same thing.
For the New Year prayer-book informs us that, on this day, “all who enter the world dost Thou cause to pass before Thee like a flock of sheep.” Like a flock of sheep — and, say the commentators, like sheep which pass for inspection one by one before their shepherd, so must every individual soul pass muster and separately answer how he has spent his life.
THE SECOND QUESTION
Kavata ittim latorah? is the sages’ second question: “Did you set aside time for Torah?”
In one sense the question is framed poorly, for surely religion is not merely a matter of certain time-slots of limited duration, but rather a way of believing, thinking, acting and re-acting, every hour of every day.
But in another sense the question shows amazing insight. For it can also be understood in this way: did you set the times towards Torah — did you help to mould your era in history in a religious way?
The days have gone when Bible and religion dominated most people’s lives. Yet — paradoxically — for all the evidences of a weakening of religious commitment, there is at the same time talk of a religious revival. Religion has become almost respectable among intellectuals. Dozens of books, plays, films and radio and television programmes deal with religious themes and yet are box-office successes. Exotic cults based on meditation and mysticism have begun to proliferate. There are emotional revivalist movements in many faiths.
There is no mass return to synagogue or church, to organised religion. But there is an awakening of yearnings which are religious in the deepest sense of the word. There may not be vast numbers suddenly assenting to traditional dogmas or observing traditional rituals, but there is a growing conviction that man needs a God and a set of values based on eternal verities.
For people are beginning to realise that if we do not believe in anything, then nothing has much value any more; good and evil become simply matters of private opinion; and we have no right to condemn or be scandalised by him who chooses the path of evil. It has taken a long while, but responsible people are today searching for values and standards upon which to reconstruct society and ensure its survival.
True, the religious inspiration which could save modern man and his world is all too often obscured by what a recent writer has called “the heavy clutter of organisation that religion is loaded with in the modern world, and the concern of the Church with its institutional life”. But for all that religion sometimes takes itself too seriously, the vast majority of people do not take it nearly seriously enough…
The sages’ questions for the day of judgment continue.
THE THIRD QUESTION
Asakta b’fir’yah v’riv’yah? — “Did you promote marriage and family life?”
This may be an annoying question for a permissive, selfish, cynical society which tends to dismiss marriage and the family as outmoded and unexciting. No-one denies that some marriages and some families have their drawbacks: but what is good and creative and inspiring in the twin institutions of marriage and the family is far more significant.
Human beings need the assurance of commitment, loyalty, security and social approval, as well as the inspiration to reveal one’s capacity for love and concern and personal challenge, which comes with a fulfilling marriage.
Society needs a hinterland of harmonious human relationships, made up of good marriages and homes, to give it strength and stability; and marriage and the family also provide a secure base to enable outward-looking service to the larger community.
Nothing is more important in terms of human happiness and social cohesion than to strengthen marriage and the family. No investment is more worthwhile than the provision of education for marriage and parenthood, and of counsel and support in establishing and maintaining good family relationships.
THE FOURTH QUESTION
The sages’ next question: Tsipita liy’shu’ah? — “Did you keep faith, and hope for salvation?”
This is an age of tension, fear, uncertainty and pessimism. So much has gone wrong with the twentieth century that it is no wonder that Will Herberg, the American writer, remarks that “everything modern man has touched has turned to ashes”.
Who does not have his moments of depression and despair when he looks out at the world of today? Who can be certain that he or his family or his descendants will survive the threats that hover over mankind? The world stumbles from one crisis to another. One step leads to the next, and a cold, heartless fate seems to drive onwards the inexorable course of events.
But in case all this would leave one a despondent fatalist or a cynical pessimist, the sages gently advise us never to lose hope or to cease to work for the coming of better days.
The Midrash, a vast storehouse of commentary and wisdom, asks the question: whom did God recognise as His most devoted and loving servants, out of all the saints and scholars who have served Him in all, ages and lands?
And it replies: His greatest servants were among the enslaved Israelites in Egypt, the contemporaries of Moses, that sorry band of men and women broken in body but not in spirit, who despite all their degradation never lost faith but looked forward to salvation.
The Midrash is an ancient work, and it therefore makes no mention of the men of faith who hoped against hope in many a subsequent century. But it tells us something symbolic, that the man of faith never gives in to dark gloom or despair. He says with the Psalmist: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil — for Thou art with me; Thy rod and staff, they comfort me.”
He says with the fellow human being whose name we shall never know, who scrawled on the wall of a cellar in Cologne whilst hiding from the Nazis:
“l believe in the sun — even when it is not shining.
“I believe in love — even when I do not experience it.
“I believe in God — even when He is silent … ”
Ani ma’amin b’emunah sh’leimah, “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he tarry I wait daily for his coming.” These are the words of the traditional Jewish proclamation of unquenchable faith in the coming of the age of redemption, and in the capacity of man to work towards it.
With the approach of Yom Hadin, the day of judgment, we do well to ponder on the sages’ four questions.
We also do well to take to heart the story of the Rabbi of Nemirov.
Were the sages Utopian idealists, setting out criteria that were idealistic but irredeemably impractical?
Was the Rabbi of Nemirov merely a saintly fool, great in piety but hopelessly impractical? Is his high level of selfless spirituality somehow not for us?
I wonder. Surely Robert Browning was right: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
Surely the purpose of Rosh HaShanah, the New Year is that we raise our sights to heaven, that we aspire upwards, even though we may never entirely succeed in attaining all our ideals and seeing all our visions come true!
May Rosh HaShanah, the dawn of a new chapter in human time, mark too the dawn of a new and enduring phase in human living — a phase of freedom for all men, of peace everywhere, but especially between Israel and her neighbours, of truth and honesty in all the dealings of man with man, and of nation with nation: and may God’s blessing be upon us all.