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The Book of Life

Rabbi Dovid Bendory, 12 Elul, 5766
Wall Street Synagogue

Listen to the audio. (11:42)

Birshut HaRav: This shiur is given as a zechut for a refuah shleima for Mori v'Rabi, HaRav Shlomo Yitzchak ben Elka, shlit"a, who is having surgery today.

We have been dealing with hilchot teshuva and the concept that if you regret your actions and desire to change that your misdeeds will be erased in your spiritual accounting. One of the things people don't think about with regard to teshuva is that it actually works both ways, and the Rambam brings this in Hilchot Teshuva 3:3.

[Listen to audio for Hebrew quotation.] Says the Rambam: "Anyone who regrets having done a mitzvah and says in his heart, 'What good did it do me to do all those mitzvot; if only I had not done them!'" — G-d forbid, no one should say such a thing — "he loses them all, and they are not recorded for him; not one of his merits is recorded for him in the world. This is all with regard to a person who regrets having done his mitzvot." In other words, just as regretting an aveira can lead to the erasure of the aveira, so, too, regretting a mitzvah can lead to its erasure. We must be very careful about how we think about and talk about the mitzvot we have done.

The Rambam continues: "Just as a person's mitzvot and misdeeds are weighed and balanced at the time that he dies..." (The time of death is a time of judgment. That is when your soul no longer has the possibility of accruing additional merits or misdeeds because your soul is no longer in this world.) "Just as the time of death is a time of judgement, so too, each year on Rosh HaShanah, everyone's mitzvot and aveirot are weighed against each other. One who is found to be righteous is sealed for life. One who is found to be evil is sealed for death. An average person, one who balances right in the middle, is hung in the balance until Yom Kippur. If he does teshuva, he is then signed for life, and if not, he is signed for death."

Let's answer one of the basic questions on the Rambam; then we'll go to the original source in the Gamara. The question is: if he was half and half, then on Rosh HaShanah, he hung in the balance. Why then, if he still hangs in the balance when Yom Kippur comes, is he consigned to death? As the Lechem Mishne explains, between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, he had a mitzvah to do. That mitzvah was teshuva. If he did that mitzvah, that tips the scales on the side of life. If he fails to do that mitzvah, that failure is considered to be an aveira.

Like everything in the Rambam, this is all based on a Gamara. The Gamara here is in Rosh HaShanah (16b): "Rabbi Kruspadai taught in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Three books are opened on Rosh HaShanah. one of completely wicked people, one of completely righteous people, and one for the rest of us. Those who are completely righteous are inscribed and sealed immediately on the spot in the Book of Life. Completely wicked people are inscribed and sealed immediately in the Book of Death. The rest of us, the average among us, we hang in the balance and we continue to stand in judgment until Yom Kippur. If we merit, we are inscribed for life; and if we do not merit, then we are inscribed for death." Now, a few observations. First, you'll notice that the Gamara said that we are written and sealed immediately on Rosh HaShanah, whereas the Rambam said we are sealed for life or death.

You'll notice that with regard to those who hang in the balance between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the Gamara said that those who merit are written into the Book of Life. Those who go the other way are written into the Book of Death, though it doesn't say that the judgement is sealed. And the fact that it doesn't say it is sealed is very, very important, because that means that we always have a chance. We always have a chance to do teshuva, we always have a chance to change what has been judged for us. It is never too late to do so. And we've seen this in the Rambam as well — that we can even do so at the last moment of life.

Now, how should we consider ourselves? I'm skipping the first half of Halacha 3:4; The second half of 3:4 reads: "Therefore, every person should view himself during the entire year as if he is half good and half evil, half full of mitzvot and half full of aveirot. We should view the world in the same way. One who does one aveira tips the balance — both for himself and for the entire world — to the side of annihilation. One who does just one mitzvah thereby tips the scales for himself and for the entire world to the side of merit. He causes and brings salvation to himself and salvation to the world."

If we were able to keep this in mind at all times, no doubt none of us would ever come to do an aveira. The Rambam impresses upon us the gravity, and importance of every action we take, a gravity that most of us feel more and more intensely as we approach Rosh HaShanah. May it be God's will that we keep this focus in our minds, not only this time of year, but through the entire Ten Days; and may we merit to keep this in our minds through the entire year, that we should continue to accrue only merit for us and for all the world.