Rosh Hashanah is primarily the Yom Hadin, the ultimate Day of Judgment, which determines what our year will be. In the searing words of Rav Yisroel Salanter, it is a day of sakanah when we are all in mortal danger. For this reason, in earlier generations, even the simplest people entered the Elul season, let alone Rosh Hashanah, in a state of dread and foreboding. Yet, there is another side to the first day of the year, as expressed so eloquently by Rav Nosson Wachtfogel (Leket Reshimos, Rosh Hashanah), when “we spend two days in the palace of the King.” Since rabbinically we all commemorate Rosh Hashanah for two days, Rav Nosson explains that unlike Yom Kippur, when we enumerate our sins many times, we elevate ourselves by experiencing Hashem’s royalty and rising above our former selves. In an extraordinary sense, we become, as the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 2:4, 7:6) describes, a different person than the spiritually diseased individual who transgressed. How do we elevate ourselves so quickly – two swiftly moving days – so that our sins virtually disappear and we are judged as if we are pristine newborns?
My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Rosh Hashanah 4:2) revealed in the name of “Baalei Ruach Hakodesh – those with Divine Insight” that the essence of Rosh Hashanah is the title “Gaon Yaakov – the Pride of Yaakov” (Tehillim 47:5). What does this mean for our personal avodah on Rosh Hashanah? As noted above, this lofty title reminds us of the past glories of Klal Yisroel and, in a certain sense, catapults us above the pettiness and trivialities of our own lives while connecting us to the ancient glories and grandeur of our ancestors. This transformation is what allows us to change in two short days from regular people into princes, from commoners to royalty. And yet, we are unsure how to go about achieving this nobility.
Let us explore two options.
Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman was once asked a powerful question. Dovid Hamelech declares in Tehillim (92:7) that although the wicked seem to flourish, they will eventually be destroyed completely: “When the wicked bloom like grass and all the doers of iniquity blossom, it is to destroy them till eternity.” In this world, the evil are often rewarded for whatever they did right, but in the True World, they will perish. The question is: How can the wicked be rewarded in this world for those mitzvos that they did perform? We know (Kiddushin 39b) that “there is no reward for mitzvos in this world.” So how can the wicked receive their compensation in the present world?
Rav Shteinman answered that a person is granted reward for his actions according to the value that he himself places upon them. If he understands that every mitzvah is like the most precious of jewels, with infinite value, he is paid in the world of eternity. But if a mitzvah is performed perfunctorily, because it was convenient or for some honor or credit in human eyes, he is paid in ephemeral currency and fleeting tender, for that is the value he placed upon his action.
The Baal Shem Tov, too, taught this lesson in another way. A poor chossid complained to him about his poverty. He had many mouths to feed, but no wherewithal to accomplish the task. The Baal Shem Tov ordered him to follow a specific regimen. “Go to the village market and accept the first business deal that comes your way.” Like a good chossid, he followed the Baal Shem’s command. He left immediately for the nearest village, which was in the middle of its weekly market, but the sun had already, set so there were no deals to be seen. Not wanting to spend his last pennies on a motel, he laid down on a bench in front of the local inn to sleep for the night. Some non-religious Jews arrived after an evening of drinking and carousing, making fun of the Torah and religious Jews. One fellow went so far as to denigrate the idea of an afterlife and announced to all that he would gladly give his share in the World to Come for a hundred rubles.
The half asleep chossid remembered his rebbe’s mandate – take the first deal you are offered – and took out his hundred rubles. “I will buy your Olam Haba for 100 rubles, but I must have a document that it is mine. The laughing businessman saw an easy acquisition, signed on the dotted line to the cheers of his inebriated friends, and proceeded home to regale his wife with his easily-gained loot. To his shock, she was not at all pleased. “You did what?” she demanded of her hapless but prosperous husband. “I thought I was married to a Jew. I can remember hearing that every Jew has a share in the World to Come. All but my husband. Let us go now and get divorced. You may not care about another world, but I will not stay with a person who has nowhere to go after we die.” The now sober husband promised that he would find the bearded Jew and easily reverse the sale. “Don’t come back without a document saying that you have your Olam Haba back,” she announced. “I know how to check signatures and authenticate documents.”
After some difficulty, the now exhausted businessman found the chossid in his broken-down hut.
“Ah, my friend,” he announced grandly, “I have decided that I want my Olam Haba after all. Let us reverse the deal and I will give you twenty ruble for your trouble.” The chossid responded honestly, “I am sorry, but I buy mitzvos. I do not sell them.”
The businessman responded, “You drive a hard bargain, but I will give you a hundred rubles for your trouble,” an offer that was immediately rejected. “Well, what is my Olam Haba worth to you?”
After some thought and calculation, the chossid replied, “No less than a quarter million ruble.”
The businessman knew that he could not return home without the document, signed the shtar with witnesses, and went home to his wife. The chossid was ecstatic over his windfall, but concerned that he had done something wrong. Returning to the Baal Shem Tov, he expressed his worry about accepting the money. “If the man’s Olam Haba was worth only 100 ruble, rebbe,” he inquired, “am I considered a robber for accepting such an exorbitant sum in exchange? On the other hand, if his Olam Haba is actually worth a quarter million, perhaps I was already a robber when I bought it for a mere 100 ruble.”
The Baal Shem answered, “Don’t worry about a thing. In truth, even a bit of Olam Haba is infinitely valuable. However, a deal is based upon anything’s worth to the buyer and seller. To that man, his Olam Haba at the time of the sale was worth no more than 100 ruble, so you effected the deal legally and halachically. You, on the other hand, demanded what Olam Haba is worth to you, so did not rob him at all.”
The Baal Shem Tov proceeded to prove his point. “The Gemara (Shabbos 63a) teaches that when the Torah states that ‘long life is on her right and wealth and honor on her left,’ it refers to two types of Torah study. Those who study her for the sake of heaven receive long life, but those who do so for ulterior motives receive wealth and honor. Now let us imagine,” concluded the Baal Shem Tov, “two people may be learning Torah side by side. One will receive Olam Haba as his reward, the other a temporary payment of some money and glory. How can that be? The answer is that everyone receives the value that they place upon their actions.”
We, too, may extrapolate from both Rav Shteinman and the Baal Shem Tov that on Rosh Hashanah we must calculate what our priorities are and what criteria we use for assigning value to our time, money and efforts. The moment we use eternity as our guideline, we have transitioned from commoner to royalty, people of limitation to angels of infinite power and substance.
Spending two days in the palace of the King does not just transport us to a tourist attraction. It changes our lives and direction. Becoming children of the Gaon Yaakov doesn’t just give us stature. It connects us to our awe-inspiring past and to the very day Adam was created as the magnificent purpose of the universe (Sanhedrin 38b).
On this day, we don’t need to buy anyone else’s Olam Haba. It is not only our legacy. It is the very definition of our eternal soul. May Hashem grant us all a kesivah vachasimah tovah.