Wednesday, September 24, 2008


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Once again, Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, is upon us. The realization that the day on which the future of mankind will be decided is almost here should be enough to rattle anyone. This year, so many of us are in a better position than in the past few years to realize the powerful ramifications this day contains.

The world teeters on a nuclear war. The economic underpinnings of this country have just been exposed to be a facade, susceptible to breakdown without barely any notice. This country is torn over whom to elect in the coming year to lead it into the next four years. As charges and slogans fly in each direction, many are unconvinced that either candidate has what it takes to navigate the thicket that engulfs us.

Our brethren in Eretz Yisroel have just traded in one mediocre political leader for another and no one is convinced that this prime minister will be any better than the previous one. Surrounded by vicious enemies on all sides and with festering problems inside, now is not the time for a learn-on-the-job caretaker.

The banking system of the most developed nation in the world has been shown to be so perverse that now the people in charge of the financial decisions are forced to render judgment and improvise solutions for problems so large and intractable that they have no precedent in history and there is no existing template of rules to follow.

A decade of lies and sloppy lending has caught up with those who thought that the day of reckoning would never come. Now, hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer equity is needed to right the ship of state. Well educated snippy bankers and brokers, driven to work in vehicles people like us could only gawk at, rode private elevators to suites of offices decorated with millions of dollars of artwork and furniture. They sat there making decisions for which they thought there would never be any consequence, taking breaks for delicacies prepared by their private chefs in gourmet kitchens paid for by the largesse of commissions earned by passing along bad loans from one lender to the next.

They spoke big and lived even bigger, earning packages in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars for hoodwinking each other into keeping the scam going. It sounds like some kind of unbelievable fairy tale, and we’d all be much better off if it was, but sadly it is a true story. The underpinning of the increasingly complicated and entangled economy was a big lie, and if we are not careful, we will all be paying the piper.

The bankers, brokers, insurance companies and complicit politicians charged with oversight behaved as if there was never going to be a day of judgment. They thought they could go in perpetuity ignoring dictates of common sense and economics, with their mega-bucks rolling in forever. They thought they’d be able to fool everyone all the time. The going was good for everyone - and it almost worked. But then it didn’t.

Money has a very corrosive influence on all who touch it or want to get their hands on it. In our private lives, as well, in spheres of communal activism, money is a big motivator. Oftentimes, people act in strange ways because they assume that it will put them on the side of the money and make them winners. Too many people buckle and fold in the face of financial pressures. They ignore their principles and impulses as the money beckons and entices them to go in the direction they ought to know is inherently incorrect.

Rosh Hashanah is a time of repentance. We review our acts of the past year and seek to correct our faults. We examine where we have gone wrong and failed in following the word of G-d and commit to take concrete steps to follow the word of the Torah in the coming year. We say selichos and viduy and klop al cheit. Many of us feel that we aren’t all that bad. We don’t cheat, we don’t steal, we don’t knowingly desecrate the Shabbos, we give charity, we honor our parents and elders, and we smile most of the time.

While that may be true, the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah, 7:3) writes that the same way we are commanded to do teshuvah for sins that are of an active sinful nature, we must focus on the improper ideas that we have and rid ourselves of them. We have to do teshuvah on the times we were angry, on hatred of other people, on jealousy, on improper competition, on cynicism and mockery, on the pursuit of money and honor, and on gluttony.

The Rambam adds that it is more difficult to atone for these character sins than for those which involve actual sinful acts, because man becomes so accustomed to them that it is very difficult for him to reform himself and desist from acting and thinking in that way.

Teshuvah is not only on what we are used to calling aveiros, but also on our latent urges for prestige and money, and for our petty jealousy of other people. It’s actually quite a difficult process, involving more than we imagine.

I have become acquainted recently with the seforim of a Yid I had never heard of, Rav Aryeh Leib Shapira of Yerushalayim. I was in a seforim store in Teaneck, NJ, a few years ago, and for some reason I picked up his work. I was enraptured by it. Last week, my son Yishai, who is learning in Yerushalayim, sent me his latest work on Elul and Tishrei titled “Keser Meluchah.”

In the sefer, Rav Shapira discusses another, often overlooked, facet of our daily lives which requires teshuvah. We have to repent on things we do which aren’t sins per se, but which we ought to understand, with our own common sense, are wrong.

The Rambam writes in Moreh Nevuchim (3:17) that people are punished for improper actions they have committed even if there is no specific commandment not to do it, since it is an act which human intelligence warns man to desist from. He adds that, conversely, if a person commits a positive act, even if it is not a specific commandment, he is rewarded.

The same idea is put forward by Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon, Rav Yaakov Emden and the Sefer Chassidim. In the Siddur HaGra, the Al Cheit of “Shechatanu lefonecha bevli daas” is explained in this way. We beg forgiveness for not thinking through our actions properly, for we are commanded to think through what we are doing, and if we don’t, we have sinned.

If something is too good to be true, it usually is. If something is not really illegal but anyone with half a brain can figure out that it is improper, then we shouldn’t be doing it. If banks are giving out mortgages to people without jobs, little income and poor credit, it stands to reason that they have a very good chance of not getting repaid. If every bank does it, and it goes on for a decade, that doesn’t mean that it makes sense. Eventually, the bank is going to go bust, along with every other bank that conducts its business in this fashion.

And so it is with us in our own lives. If something doesn’t make sense, we shouldn’t do it. If we wouldn’t want to be treated a certain way, we shouldn’t treat other people that way, even if it doesn’t say anywhere in the Torah that it is forbidden. If we are tempted to act unscrupulously in order to make a quick buck, we must resist the temptation, even if we are promised that there is nothing illegal involved, because we are smart enough to realize that there is. If we let financial incentives override our intelligence, not only are we fools and knaves, but we are sinners.

Rosh Hashanah is the day when all our debts and mortgages are due. Our balance sheet is reviewed and if anything there doesn’t make sense - if the numbers don’t add up - we are forced to pay and jeopardize our income and wellbeing for the coming year.

The Chofetz Chaim would often admonish that “hakol beshvil Yisroel” means that everything that transpires in the world happens so that Klal Yisroel should take a lesson from it and improve themselves.

If the major financial institutions of the country come so close to failing prior to Tishrei because they were believed to be perfectly legal, though thoroughly wrongful, improper and corrupt, that is meant as a warning to us to get our own houses in order prior to Rosh Hashanah so that we can receive a favorable judgment and be granted a year of blessing and simcha.

Every year, I recall reading that on the first night of selichos many years ago, my great-great-great grandfather traveled to Volozhin to study the Eser Sefiros with Rav Chaim Volozhiner. It shakes me up to think how my grandfather delved into the holiest kabbalistic secrets that night so many generations ago. As I scramble for a sefer to study prior to commencing selichos to help prepare myself for the onset of the Yomim Noraim, I feel so small and limited.

And yet, it is not necessary to go back to the days of Rav Chaim Volozhiner to realize the levels that we are capable of attaining. We don’t have to lose ourselves in nostalgia for an irretrievable past. We needn’t despair of living lives of holiness, even though we are so removed from previous doros. We just have to use our seichel and common sense. Rosh Hashanah presents us with an opportunity to escape from the mistakes we have been making and advance to a higher realm.

We are all smart and capable enough to rise above our pettiness and do it. The Rambam writes in Hilchos Teshuvah that every person can turn himself to the good path and be righteous. Every single person is born with the ability to be a tzaddik like Moshe Rabbeinu or a rasha like Yerovom. He can be smart or foolish, kind or mean. He can mold himself in the way that he chooses. There is no one pulling us in one direction or another. We are doing it ourselves.

Therefore, writes the Rambam, someone who sins should be upset about what he has done to himself. It wasn’t preordained for him to be irresponsible, unkind, lazy, arrogant or insensitive. He chose his own path. However, since being human means having the privilege of bechirah, one should exercise that prerogative and choose to be good.

The essence of Rosh Hashanah is the ability to think things through properly. The path towards being just - the road to greatness, is open to each one of us.

Let us be smart and straighten out our lives. Let bygones be bygones and let us do what we can to get the new year off to a good start. There are so many seforim to help guide us on the correct path. Just learning Torah infuses our beings with kedushah and taharah, which in turn enable us to become better and less complicated people.

The meter is about ready to run out, but we all possess within us the ability to earn the change to refill it; to preserve our space in this world and earn our portion for the World to Come. Let’s do it.

Kesivah vachasimah tovah.


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