Self-Discipline – Respect - Hope

Rabbi Zvi Tal. Photo by Bethsabée Süssmann
By Roland S. Süssmann
From one year to the next we take part in the same ceremonies and solemn occasions. We say the same prayers and we give ourselves over to the same sort of thoughts. How did the past year go? How have we behaved towards our nearest and dearest, in terms of religious practice and Israel? What have we achieved? How does the New Year look like to us? What are we expecting? What are our plans, our hopes? Are the resolutions we are going to make achievable? All these questions and worries can be summarized into a single, essential issue: how will we be judged? According to our tradition, G-d judges us on Rosh Hashanah on what we have done in the past year, which is fateful for the New Year opening up before us.

In order to discuss the way Judaism perceives divine justice as compared with the justice of men, we met Rabbi ZVI TAL, a former Justice of Israel’s High Court and one of the leading talmudists of our time.

For those who feel involved, this time of year in the Jewish calendar is special in that it is a time of questioning and soul searching. This year is no exception to the rule, and the question that must be asked is how are we approaching the solemn celebrations marking the start of the year 5765?

Rosh Hashanah is also called Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment, while in the Torah it is described as Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Memory. We ask the Almighty to remember us. In one of the most serious of the Rosh Hashanah prayers, Netaneh Tokef, we say state, “…G-d is prosecutor, witness, litigant and judge. He writes (our actions), he counts (our sins and our good deeds), he balances (the good and the bad) and signs (our arrest warrant), nothing is forgotten.” This idea of memory is present like a red thread that runs through all our prayers. The word “remember” occurs regularly, and we could ask the question, does G-d really need us to come along to remind Him? What do we expect to obtain from the Almighty by asking Him to think of us? In fact, we conceive of G-d in relation to ourselves, our capacities, our feelings and our limitations. Our memory is relatively passive. In fact, when we remember something that happened, especially something painful, the object facts do not come back that easily, so we have to make a really big effort to feel again those emotions we felt then. In praying to the Almighty to “remember”, we are asking Him to remember the warmth and depth of our feelings at the time we were close to Him and not as they are now, distant as we are from Him. It is also with this feeling of love that the Almighty made a covenant with us. As is the case with a couple, the contracts and the union are made at the beginning of the relationship, when love is strong and each feels very close to the other. The raison d’être of agreements and contracts does not come from periods of euphoria, but are required to regulate problems when feelings have cooled and the partners have drawn apart from one another. Then people hope that the memory of the union and the atmosphere that reigned then will rekindle the warmth and that union of beginnings, and that a strong love will be rediscovered. In addition to asking G-d to remember us, we also find in the Rosh Hashanah prayers the request, “Zocher Habrit”, remember the covenant. The areas in which today we are estranged from G-d are many, from religious practice to identification with our country. This situation is unfortunately due to the fact that many among us have not benefited from an adequate Jewish education, and accordingly are not acquainted with our laws or traditions, or with divine service. And yet, despite all, we ask G-d to remember us as at the time we were very close, so that He should not judge us by our current situation, but in love and closeness, as when we concluded the Covenant with Him. Yet we cannot place such demands on the Almighty empty-handed. Each of us must make an effort, I would say a large effort. The Almighty’s love is subsumed in “love thy neighbor”. It is easy enough to be friendly with people we like, with whom we share ideas and happy times. However, the effort demanded of us is to be nice and display friendship to those with whom we have nothing in common, for whom we even have little consideration, and because of which we avoid their company. It is to these we should turn in order to promote and reinforce love among the Jewish people and the people of Israel. This is hard work that each of us must do himself, and experience has shown that it is worthwhile, as it says in Proverbs (27:19), “As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man”. It is true that we are living through a difficult period, in terms of both security and politics. But I believe that if we could reach a better understanding between ourselves, that would inevitably lead to more unity and external pressures would automatically be reduced. Our enemies attack us more aggressively when they realize we are divided.

You speak of “understanding, friendship, even union” within Israeli society and the Jewish people. Yet we are now a long way off from the start of an understanding. How could this situation change?

That’s one of the great challenges of the start of the year. In truth the difficulties are enormous but not insurmountable. It’s a matter of self-discipline, not to speak of education, which require a radical change in attitude. Today, dialogue, when it takes place, is often reduced to two monologues, each of the speakers asking themselves how they can answer and convince the other. But we must learn to listen and to understand the person we are talking to, even if we definitely do not agree with him or her, as that is the basis for a national understanding and one between individuals. This change I am speaking of must first of all be applied by the leaders, both religious and political, whose task it is to provide an example. But let’s not forget that this is not a new problem, even if the players and the situation have changed, for human being remains basically the same, which does not mean that there have not been positive elements. What happens is that at the beginning of each year, the Almighty starts a new grace period of one year and everything depends on what we do, in a nutshell, in what way we employ those positive forces within us. It is indeed true that this year old problems still linger, but we have been offered another chance to move in the right direction. At this start of a new year, the essential lies in the improvement of our internal relationships.

As a judge, many people have appeared before you to hear your sentence. You know very well that these did not come without fear. And so, when from the beginning of Elul we come before the Almighty to prepare ourselves to be judged during the days we call “the Days of Awe” between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, hardly a person has any kind of fear. Often people go to synagogue out of tradition or even superstition, to stack as many advantages on their own side to have a good year. How do you explain this difference?

You have raised a fundamental question that I and many rabbis and Jewish thinkers have been asking for a long time. I will quote one of the masters of the Talmud, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai, who, when asked by his disciples on his deathbed about the essence of his religious heritage, replied, “I hope you will fear G-d as much as you fear men”. Amazed, his students asked him, “Should not fear of the Almighty be greater?” and the master replied, “If only”. The fact is that when someone does something wrong, they are certainly more afraid of being seen by someone than by the Almighty. In point of fact, there are two types of fear: fear of punishment and fear of authority, Worry about punishment is at a lower level, since people are only concerned about their well-being. Between these two extremes there are numberless levels of fear, and often we are do not hesitate to do something wrong because we do not think that the fact of transgressing some commandment of the Torah is simply not good. Fear of G-d is not there at birth, it has to be acquired. This is clearly described in Proverbs (2:3-5), “Yea, if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; if thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; then shalt thou understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of G-d”. Fear of heaven is a question of self-discipline and working on yourself.

Everything you have talked about affects people who are aware of their Judaism and who are worried about the seriousness of the period of the High Holy Days. Yet according to our tradition, our coreligionists who are not observant are also judged then. How is that acceptable, since they have no idea of what is happening to them?

It is obvious that people unacquainted with Judaism cannot be held responsible for their transgressions in the same way as someone who does know. According to our tradition, G-d is definitely stricter with those who know. Having said that, I think there is just one reproach one can make of a Jew who has not had the privilege of studying Judaism, which is to ask him or her why they have not been interested in their roots and traditions when they have been aware of their Judaism and its riches. They cannot be held responsible for their transgressions, but it is unacceptable that they have taken no interest in the values of our people. What’s more, there is a principle, “Ignorance is no defense in the Law”.

As a judge, how would you compare the two judicial systems, the process that leads to a human tribunal, and the one that at the start of each year places us in judgment before the Almighty?

The divine system is exceptional and represents a fabulous message of hope. The judicial process in fact starts during Elul, which is a month of grace during which it is not only possible to repent sincerely, but so to speak to cancel out, even undo one’s offences. There is no human system that offers this type of “second chance” before the trial. In other legislation, time only operates in one direction, and thus automatically every failing is punished. Here is the absolutely unique and divine dimension of the concept of Teshuvah, coming back to yourself followed by sincere repentance. If we are able to take advantage of this new chance we are being offered, we can present ourselves to G-d on the Day of Judgment in a better frame of mind, in fact full of hope. Obviously, this applies only to offenses against G-d. Wrongs against our neighbors can only be pardoned if we make up to the person harmed and receive their pardon. This is the only way the Almighty can pardon us for the wrongs we commit against our fellows.
To conclude, I would say the judgment we face at the beginning of each year and the system of Teshuvah that precedes it represents an enormous message of hope. And this can be found deep within each of us. It is up to us alone to transform this hope into happiness. Two basic elements can help us realize this, self-discipline and respect for our fellows.