The court is now in session. The heavenly books of judgment lay open, and our deeds of the past year are being examined before the Judge.
The court is now in session. The heavenly books of judgment lay open, and our deeds of the past year are being examined before the Judge. In addition to an evaluation of the Jewish people as a whole, on Rosh Hashanah every one of us will pass before Hashem individually, as the rabbis describe, like sheep being herded through a small opening in the gate of the corral, one by one, to be counted (Talmud Tractate Rosh Hashanah 18a, Netane Tokef prayer). No longer can we hide in comfort amongst the masses, concealing ourselves from the penetrating divine scrutiny. Today we must come face to face with ourselves in front of our Creator.
While this process transpires above, we will also be looking inwardly, rendering our own judgment on ourselves, determining whether we are traveling down the proper path of life, or perhaps floundering on a side road leading nowhere in particular. Are we living up to our vast potential in our relationships with those around us? in our relationship with Hashem? in relation to what we can accomplish with our talents, strengths, and virtues? These are the questions which will comprise our self-examination. And like someone staring into a polished mirror, trying to uncover even the slightest blemish so that it can be carefully corrected, we will examine our inner selves and compare our conclusions to our expectations so that we can make the necessary improvements.
Unlike every other species, the human race was created as an individual - Adam. The Mishnah (Tractate Sanhedrin) states that with this singular act of creation, Hashem taught us a tremendous lesson - that all of creation, an entire world of life and beauty, was worthwhile for even one person. Similarly, the Mishnah continues, every one of us is required to view ourselves as that one individual, to inculcate the principle of "for my sake was the entire world created" into our innermost beings. What are the rabbis trying to convey? Is this meant to provide us with an over-inflated conceited and egotistical view of ourselves?
The sages understood that every person comes into this world for a unique purpose, to fill a need which cannot be accomplished by anyone else. Each of us is imbued by Hashem with the perfect mix of raw talents and character traits with which to fulfill our role. We are expected to accomplish nothing less than that. When we develop those talents and use them properly, we justify all of creation; when we don't, it is as if we have caused the destruction of an entire world. Life is a wonderful opportunity. . .and at the same time an enormous responsibility.
Even before we are born, the Midrash says, Hashem forms a heavenly image representing what we could eventually accomplish with our lives. When we come to this world, we embark on a mission to reach that level of achievement, to make our physical earthly selves equal to that lofty heavenly image. Perhaps this idea is best conveyed by the events which occurred one Rosh Hashanah many years ago. When Abraham raised his knife to slaughter his beloved son Isaac, fulfilling Hashem's difficult command and thereby passing his tenth and final trial, an angel of Hashem called out his name, twice: "Abraham, Abraham." At that moment, the Midrash comments, Abraham had finally made it, for after 137 years of struggle, the two versions of Abraham - his earthly real person and his heavenly vision - were perfectly equal. At last, Abraham had realized his purpose.
Rosh Hashanah presents us with a special opportunity to start fresh as we set our sights on fulfilling our unique mission. However, in order to effectively continue on our journey, we must take the time to evaluate our talents and to render a judgment on ourselves. Our potential is immeasurable. May this Day of Judgment, followed by the upcoming year, serve to catapult us one step closer to our divine image in heaven.
Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta, is enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.
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