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    “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”: Rosh Hashanah and the aspiration for the world to come

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 14 September, 2023.

    Every people has its own new year celebration, and every new year celebration has its characteristic sound. In some cases, the dominant note is rejoicing, in others hilarity; for the Jews it is a call to solemn soul-searching.

    For Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, which will be observed this weekend, is Yom Hadin — the Day of Judgment on which God subjects His creatures to scrutiny and examination. It is an annual foretaste of that other Day of Judgment which will confront each of us as he knocks at the entrance to heaven and seeks admittance into the world to come.

    On that day, say the Jewish sages, four questions are put to each man as he stands at the gateway to heaven:

    Nasata v’natata b’emunah? — “Were your dealings with other people honest and clean?”
    Kavata ittim latorah? — “Did you set aside time for Torah?”
    Asakta b’fir’yah v’riv’yah? — “Did you promote marriage and family life?”
    Tsipita liy’shu’ah? — “Did you keep faith, and hope for salvation?”

    On the day of the final account and reckoning when you want to know, “Do I deserve the heavenly life of the next world?” you will be asked by means of these questions, “Did you aspire towards heaven in this world?”

    The Yiddish writer, IL Peretz, tells the story of the Rabbi of Nemirov whose life on earth raised him heavenwards. During the solemn days just prior to the New Year, the Rabbi of Nemirov would sometimes vanish. He was not in the synagogue, he was not in the house of study, he was not at home; he was nowhere to be found. The simple folk of Nemirov were not at all concerned: for, they thought, where should the Rabbi be, with the New Year and the awesome Day of Atonement so close, but up there in heaven arranging matters with the Almighty?

    But there was a stranger in town, and he was sceptical. He decided he would find out the truth. Where indeed did the Rabbi go? Hidden in the Rabbi’s house, he kept watch all night. Then he saw, before it was yet dawn, how the Rabbi rose from his bed, put on peasant costume, and crept stealthily out of town. The stranger followed him, and was amazed to see the Rabbi chop down a small tree in the woods, bundle up the logs, and return to town to a tumbledown old house where lived a poor, sick old woman.

    There, pretending to be nothing more than a simple peasant who had brought her some wood, he laid the wood in the stove, carefully lit the fire, and as the warmth began to spread, he hummed and sang to himself the penitential hymn: “The soul is Thine, and the body is Thy handiwork: Have pity upon Thy creatures…”

    When the warmth of the fire filled the room comfortably, he shut the stove, quietly left the house, and made his way back home before anyone was yet stirring in the streets. And ever afterwards, if people should tell how the Rabbi early each day raised himself and flew up to heaven, the erstwhile sceptic would say quietly, “To heaven? If not even higher…”

    In Jewish teaching, the way of attaining heaven is not a simple matter of having the right ideas and beliefs. No, it is a much harder way. Ideas and beliefs come into it, but above all it involves living a life that will bring heaven down to earth and make earth into a heaven. The stranger in the little town of Nemirov was right: a person whose life is devoted to the quiet doing of good deeds is already, in a sense, in heaven, if not even higher.

    But all this is so quaint and poetical that one feels the need of something more specific and practical. What then is the specific, practical recipe for heaven? The sages provide it with their four questions.

    The first question

    The first question stresses ethical living: Nasata v’natata b’emunah? — “Were your dealings with other people honest and clean?”

    The Psalmist put it this way: “Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord, and who shall stand in His holy place? He that has clean hands and a pure heart …” (Psalm 24:3–4) — which is to say, the one whose acts and attitudes are upright and honourable.

    But make no mistake about it. To stand in all situations for the ethical approach, to insist on truth and honesty and justice at all times, requires considerable courage. A stand for conscience does not automatically make one popular. Insistence on integrity does not automatically bring material rewards. Often one stands almost alone.

    But on the final Yom Hadin, the day of judgment, it will not help to claim that if one took the easy way out and compromised conscience, there were, after all, many others who did the same thing. For the Machzor, the New Year prayerbook, informs us that, on this day, “all who enter the world dost Thou cause to pass before Thee like a flock of sheep”. And, say the commentators, like sheep which pass for inspection one by one before their shepherd, so must every individual soul pass muster and separately answer how he has spent his life.

    The second question

    Kavata ittim latorah? is the sages’ second question: “Did you set aside time for Torah?”

    In one sense the question is framed poorly, for surely religion is not merely a matter of certain time-slots of limited duration, but rather a way of believing, thinking, acting and re-acting, every hour of every day. But in another sense the question shows amazing insight. For it can also be understood in this way: did you set the times towards Torah — did you help to mould your era in history in a religious way?

    The days have gone when Bible and religion dominated most people’s lives. Yet, paradoxically, for all the evidences of a rapidly diminishing of religious commitment, there are at the same time signs of intense interest in faith, spirituality, mysticism, meditation, and practices of devotion.

    There is no mass return to synagogue or church, to organised religion. But there is an awakening of yearnings which are religious in the deepest sense of the word. There may not be vast numbers suddenly assenting to traditional dogmas or observing traditional rituals, but there is a growing conviction that human beings need a God and a set of values based on eternal verities. It has taken a long while, but responsible people are today searching for values and standards upon which to reconstruct society and ensure its survival.

    The third question

    Asakta b’fir’yah v’riv’yah? — “Did you promote marriage and family life?”

    This may be an annoying question for a permissive, selfish, cynical society which tends to dismiss marriage and the family as outmoded and unexciting. No-one denies that some marriages and some families have their drawbacks: but what is good and creative and inspiring in the twin institutions of marriage and the family is far more significant.

    Human beings need the assurance of commitment, loyalty, security, and social approval, as well as the inspiration to reveal one’s capacity for love and concern and personal challenge, which comes with a fulfilling marriage. Society needs a hinterland of harmonious human relationships, made up of good marriages and homes, to give it strength and stability; and marriage and the family also provide a secure base to enable outward-looking service to the larger community.

    Nothing is more important in terms of human happiness and social cohesion than to strengthen marriage and the family. No investment is more worthwhile than the provision of education for marriage and parenthood, and of counsel and support in establishing and maintaining good family relationships.

    The fourth question

    The sages’ final question: Tsipita liy’shu’ah? — “Did you keep faith, and hope for salvation?”

    This is an age of tension, fear, uncertainty, and pessimism. So much has gone wrong in the last 120 years that it is no wonder that Will Herberg, writing in the aftermath of the Second World War, could remark that “everything modern man has touched has turned to ashes”.

    Who does not experience moments of depression and despair when we survey the world of today? Who can be certain that they or their family or their descendants will survive the threats that hover over humankind? The world stumbles from one crisis to another. One step leads to the next, and a cold, heartless fate seems to drive onwards the inexorable course of events.

    But in case all this would leave one a despondent fatalist or a cynical pessimist, the sages gently advise us never to lose hope or to cease to work for the coming of better days.

    The Midrash, a vast storehouse of rabbinic commentary and wisdom, asks the question, “Whom did God recognise as His most devoted and loving servants, out of all the saints and scholars who have served Him in all, ages and lands?” And it replies: His greatest servants were among the enslaved Israelites in Egypt, the contemporaries of Moses, that sorry band of men and women broken in body but not in spirit, who despite all their degradation never lost faith but looked forward to salvation.

    The Midrash is an ancient work, and it therefore makes no mention of the men and women of faith who hoped against hope in many a subsequent century. But it tells us something symbolic, that the faithful never gives in to dark gloom or despair. They say with the Psalmist: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil — for Thou art with me; Thy rod and staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). They says with their fellow human being whose name we shall never know, who scrawled on the wall of a cellar in Cologne while hiding from the Nazis:
    “I believe in the sun — even when it is not shining.
    “I believe in love — even when I do not experience it.
    “I believe in God — even when He is silent…”

    Ani ma’amin b’emunah sh’leimah, “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he tarry I wait daily for his coming.” These are the words of the traditional Jewish proclamation of unquenchable faith in the coming of the age of redemption, and in the capacity of man to work towards it.

    With the approach of Yom Hadin, the day of judgment, we do well to ponder on the sages’ four questions. We also do well to take to heart the story of the Rabbi of Nemirov.

    Were the sages utopian idealists, setting out criteria that were idealistic but irredeemably impractical? Was the Rabbi of Nemirov merely a saintly fool, great in piety but hopelessly impractical? Is his high level of selfless spirituality somehow not for us?

    I wonder. Surely Robert Browning was right: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Surely the purpose of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, is that we raise our sights to heaven, that we aspire upwards, even though we may never entirely succeed in attaining our ideals and seeing all our visions come true.

    It is my fervent hope that Rosh Hashanah, the dawn of a new chapter in human time, will mark too the dawn of a new and enduring phase in human living — a time of freedom for humanity; of peace everywhere, but especially between Israel and her neighbours: of truth and honesty in the dealings of human beings with one another, and of nation with nation. For that is what it would mean for heaven to come down to earth.

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