A Yahrtzeit candle shocked me into considering whom God will see when I face Him on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment.
I entered the dining room and was surprised to find that Debbie had lit a 24-Hour Memorial candle, which we usually light on the Hebrew anniversary of the passing of a parent or someone who had a profound influence on our lives. Debbie explained that she felt that we had to find a way to pay respect to the thirteen hundred Syrians killed with the chemical weapons of their own government. "I would be saying that their lives didn't matter if I didn't do something to acknowledge their existence."
A single line from the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker tore through my mind: "Every man stands over a pile of mangled bones and declares life good." How can I joyfully stand before God on Rosh Hashanah confidently singing of all the good in my life when I am standing in a world filled with the mangled bones of people who are suffering in so many ways?
Debbie's candle presented me with an idea, and I am fortunate to live my life in a luxurious effort to try out ideas as tools to excavate the truth, not as truth itself, which lies somewhere beyond the reach of minds. A child who has to hide from poisons launched against him by his own government cannot afford to try out ideas; he's too busy finding a place safe from poisonous fumes. A family without food must spend its time fighting to survive and cannot afford to explore "truths." Who am I, of what value my ideas, if I can disconnect from so much suffering?
The Sages describe a person declaring his proper observance of all the laws regarding tithes as actually reciting the "Confession of the Tithes." "Then say to God, your Lord, 'I have burned away from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite, the proselyte, the orphan and the widow, according to all You commanded. I have not turned aside from Your commands nor have I forgotten any of them. I have not eaten of it while I was in mourning, nor have I consumed it while impure, nor have I offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed God, my Lord; I have done everything You commanded me. Look down from heaven, Your holy dwelling place, and bless Your people Israel and the land You have given us as You promised on oath to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey' (Deuteronomy 26:13-15)."
Why did the Sages read this declaration, with requests so similar to ours on Rosh Hashanah, as a confession? A person, who stands before God and declares his proper observance of all the laws including helping the poor, is confessing that he gave generously as an observance separate from the suffering of the orphan and widow. But he is also confessing to having viewed himself a moment before as separate from the suffering of the orphan and widow. He acknowledges that there was an element of loss, almost destroying what is his, "I have burned away," when he shares his plenty with others. He is forced by these words to ask, "Who am I? What am I?" as he declares his careful observance of all the laws.
The confession is immediately followed by the words, "This day," and Rashi explains, "These laws should be as fresh and new to you as if they were presented today." In other words, "Try out the idea!" A confession of "Who am I? What am I?" must immediately be tried out and followed by something new, an extra gift to charity or even a simple Yahrtzeit candle paying attention to the suffering of strangers far away.
Whom will God see when I face Him on the Day of Judgment? Hopefully, God will see a person who is trying out the idea of "Who am I?" to discover the truth that lies behind His teachings and commandments.
Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?
"At North Farm," by John Ashbery
Rabbi Simcha L. Weinberg
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