Maran HaRav Shach zt"l
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This shmuess was delivered by Rosh Yeshivas Ponovezh before the Kollel students of his yeshiva on 26 Elul 5756. Our version is based on notes taken by one of the participants. Though the remarks were delivered in preparation for Rosh Hashana, they are important the year round.
It is now only a few days before Rosh Hashanah, before Yom Hadin, our day of judgment. We are all going to be judged, but it will not be an ordinary judgment. The judgment will be made by the King of Kings. It would be natural for us to be overwhelmed by fear of our judgment — eimas hadin — and to be doing all we can to emerge triumphantly. The fact is that, nevertheless, we are not doing proper teshuva. Why is this?
"When R' Yochonon ben Zakkai became [terminally] ill, his talmidim came to visit him. They found him crying. His talmidim said to him: `Light of Yisroel, pillar of the right hand [side], strong hammer! Why are you crying?'
"He answered them: `If they were bringing me before a flesh-and-blood king who is alive today but tomorrow is in the grave, then if he became angry with me his anger would not be eternal; if he imprisoned me his imprisonment would not be eternal; if he killed me the death he imparted would not be eternal; and I could appease him with [fair] speech and bribe him with money. Yet all the same I would still cry.
" `Now that they are bringing me before the King of Kings, Who is eternal, and if He is angry with me His anger is eternal, if He imprisons me His imprisonment is eternal, if He kills me the death He imparts is eternal, and I cannot appease him with words nor bribe Him with money — should I not cry? What is more, there are two ways before me, one to Gan Eden and the other to Gehennom, and I do not know which they are bringing me to. Should I not cry?'" (Brochos 28b).
This needs to be explained. Why did his talmidim ask him, "Why are you crying?" Did they not know that each person is destined to be judged before the Throne of Glory, with two possible outcomes? It should have been obvious that someone in such a condition, who understands that he will soon be judged by the Creator and does not know what his judgment will be, would be worried, and would cry with fear.
We must conclude that R' Yochonon's talmidim maintained that there is a level of tzaddik and oveid Hashem in which the person can make a self evaluation and determine that he has no sin. He can check himself thoroughly and know that he will be triumphant in his judgment. Such a person has no reason at all to fear or to cry.
This is what his talmidim told him: "Light of Yisroel, pillar of the right hand [side], strong hammer! Why are you crying?" Undoubtedly, they asked, R' Yochonon, who was the "light of Yisroel, pillar of the right hand [side], strong hammer," had reached this sublime level and was an absolute tzaddik. If so, why was he afraid and crying out of eimas hadin?
His talmidim apparently asked a good question. What did R' Yochonon answer?
R' Yochonon gave them two answers.
First, he answered, one should not presume that the whole concept of eimas hadin arises only from consideration of the result of the judgment: what Hashem will decree for man [since R' Yochonon should have been assured of the positive outcome of his judgment]. The truth is that even if someone is certain he has not sinned, and not afraid to lose out in his judgment, he should still be terrified.
The knowledge that one will be judged by the divine King of Kings, and not by a mortal king, is sufficient to terrify a person even before his sentence is decreed. The awareness of being in such a condition is frightening; it obligates him to be fearful and to cry even if he has no concern whether he will, chas vesholom, not be found meritorious in the coming sentence.
R' Yochonon added that he also in fact challenged their question from the start, since it was based upon their confidence that he would emerge triumphant in his judgment. R' Yochonon answered that he was not so sure of the sentence he would receive, and the truth was that "there are two ways before me, one to Gan Eden and the other to Gehennom, and I do not know which they are bringing me to. Should I not cry?"
Although his talmidim were certain that he did not need to be worried about his sentence, nonetheless R' Yochonon himself disagreed. He was troubled about his judgment, since "there is no tzaddik upon earth who does good and does not sin" (Koheles 7:20).
He specifically said to them "what is more, there are two ways before me" — this was an additional reason for his crying. First he cried because he was being judged by the King of Kings — enough reason in itself to be terrified and to cry. Furthermore, he was afraid because he did not know what his sentence would really be. He had two reasons to fear HaKodosh Boruch Hu's sentence, each which by itself was enough to alarm him.
Another explanation can be given for R' Yochonon's saying, "what is more, there are two ways before me."
The first reason was enough to make him fearful, and for him to cry and pour out his heart. Undoubtedly for this reason alone he did thorough teshuva before his Creator. As a result, he should not have had anything to fear any more. He had already reached the level of eimas hadin and complete teshuva that assures a person's being zakkai in his judgment.
R' Yochonon therefore used the words "what is more" — to say that even after all this he still had eimas hadin. Even after crying and repenting from the depths of his heart, no one can be sure that he can withstand the demanding judgment and the requirements for teshuva exacted by the King of Kings. R' Yochonon still saw two ways before him.
From this account about R' Yochonon we see the real meaning of the concept of eimas hadin. How can we justify it that although we are near Rosh Hashanah we do not feel the intensity of eimas hadin and the depths of Divine judgment?
Everyone should know and understand what spiritual levels a person can attain by doing teshuva. On the other hand, one should also be aware how much, chas vesholom, a person is liable to lose at every step if he does not do teshuva.
"How splendid is the attribute of teshuva! Yesterday he was alienated from Hashem, Elokei Yisroel, as it is written, `your sins have separated between you and your Elokim' (Yeshaya 59:2). He would cry out and not be answered, as it is written, `When you pray abundantly I will not hear' (Yeshaya 2:15). He does mitzvos and they are torn to pieces, as it is written, `Who asked this of you, to trample My courts?' (Yeshaya 2:12), `O that there were even one among you that would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on My altar in vain!' (Malachi 1:10).
"Today [i.e., after teshuva] he is close to the Shechina, as it is written, `you who cling to Hashem, your Elokim, are all alive today' (Devorim 4:4). He cries out and is immediately answered, as it is written, `it shall come to pass that before they call I will answer' (Yeshaya 65:24). He does mitzvos and they are accepted easily and joyfully, as it is written, `for Hashem has already accepted your deeds' (Koheles 9:7). Not only that but they are cherished, as it is written, `Then shall the offering of Yehuda and Yerushalayim be pleasant unto Hashem as in the days of old, and as in ancient years' (Malachi 3:4)" (Rambam, Hilchos Teshuva 4:4).
Let us reflect on what the Rambam writes. It is simply frightening!
If one does proper teshuva he is privileged to a whole list of wonderful and tremendous spiritual gains, of which his prayers being immediately answered is just one. On the other hand, if he has not done proper teshuva there are stumbling blocks at every step: "He does mitzvos and they are torn to pieces"!
This is relevant to each one of us. Many ask, and do not understand, why they have disturbances in their Torah study and their mitzvah fulfillment. They feel that they want to study diligently and analyze what they are studying, to pray as is fitting, with kavonoh and yirah, to be meticulous in fulfilling mitzvos, but all sorts of interferences an distractions prevent them from doing so.
The Rambam teaches us that not doing teshuva hinders our being able to concentrate properly in our Torah study and fulfill the mitzvos thoroughly. As long as a person has not properly done teshuva, even though he truly "does mitzvos" (since the Rambam refers to someone who wants to do mitzvos and starts doing them), "they are torn to pieces" since he did not yet do teshuva.
Woe to us, that Rosh Hashanah is so close but we are so far from doing teshuva. May Hashem have mercy on us, that we may be privileged to do complete teshuva.