01 – Judgment, Reward, and Punishment

01. Days of Blessing and Judgment

Each year, God recreates life for every one of His creations. So that His kindness does not reach the wicked, He judges all creatures on Rosh Ha-Shana, granting life and blessing to the good and minimizing them for the wicked. In addition to this being proper and just, it is also necessary to improve the world, for if the wicked were to continue receiving life and blessing, it would reinforce their wickedness, and they would bring harm and curses to the whole world (Shlah).

Thus, the days on which God draws close to His creations and grants them new life are also the days on which He judges them. These are also the times when repentance is most readily accepted, since God is closer to His creations then. Therefore, even though it is appropriate to repent all year round, repentance is more readily accepted during the ten days between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur. As the verse states: “Seek the Lord while He can be found; call to Him while He is near” (Yeshayahu 55:6). Accordingly, this period is known as the Ten Days of Repentance (Rosh Ha-shana 18a; MT, Laws of Repentance 2:6).

Even though judgment does not begin until Rosh Ha-Shana and the Ten Days of Repentance, it is better to begin thinking about repentance beforehand. This way, by the time the Ten Days of Repentance arrive, we can truly return to God. Additionally, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. For as a general rule, before a person is called to account for his sins, it is relatively easy for him to express remorse for them, to rectify them by repenting, and to neutralize the charges against him or at least to minimize them. (This is true for human courts as well.) However, once the time of judgment has arrived and the prosecutor has already laid out his case, it is harder to get the charges dropped (Sifrei, Naso §42). Therefore, Jewish practice is to begin repenting in Elul.

Each year anew, we approach these days of repentance with fear and joy. We are fearful because we do not know if we will be vindicated before God, nor what sentence we will receive if found guilty. For many people who were complacent at the beginning of the previous year are no longer alive at year’s end, or are alive but suffering. At the same time, we are joyful because we have the opportunity to return to God through repentance, to pray before Him and offer supplications, to cleanse ourselves of the wickedness that stains us, and to reconnect with the principles we believe in. Even if we are condemned to suffer, this is good for breaking sinful habits, allowing us to improve ourselves and our lives.

Without an annual accounting, the grind of daily life would cause us to forget all the great ideals to which we aspire. Without a vision, we would be overcome by our evil inclination, slaves to our desires, and hostages to our animalistic side. The Days of Awe are our annual reminder of all the great hopes we had, all the topics and books which we wanted to study, and all the good deeds that we wanted to do. We become disgusted with the sins to which we have fallen prey. We are sorry for having committed them, and we confess to them; we re-examine our priorities. All this in hope that the upcoming year will be a good one, during which we will increase our Torah, mitzvot, and good deeds, and dedicate ourselves to improving our families, society, and nation. As a result, we ascend higher and higher each year, improving the world and contributing to it.

02. The Significance of Judgment

The belief that God created and sustains the world is a foundation of faith. Were He to stop infusing the world with life, even momentarily, it would cease to be. God also gave human beings free will. If a person chooses good, he draws down life and blessing upon himself and upon the world. If he chooses evil, he causes suffering and death. This is the judgment according to which God bestows His shefa (a kabbalistic term referring to the bounty or abundance that flows from God to the world) on the world. For when He created the world, He determined that one who draws near to Him will benefit from a shefa of blessing, while one who distances himself will receive less shefa and life, leading to his suffering and death. A person who studies Torah and performs mitzvot clings to God, but one who distances himself from Torah and transgresses its commandments clings to death.

Thus we read:

See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. For I command you this day to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules, that you may thrive and increase, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land that you are about to enter and possess. But if your heart turns away and you give no heed, and are lured into the worship and service of other gods, I declare to you this day that you shall certainly perish; you shall not long endure on the soil that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. (Devarim 30:15-18)

God wants us to choose life, as we read:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Lord your God swore to your ancestors, Avraham, Yitzḥak, and Yaakov, to give to them. (Ibid. 19-20)

It is only right and just that one who draws near to God, the Source of life and blessing, consequently merits additional life and blessing. In contrast, one who distances himself from the Source of life is moving away from life, and is thus overcome by disease, suffering, and catastrophe.

God gave people a wonderful gift when He granted them free will, as this means the good which they receive from God is theirs justly and by right. This knowledge provides them with joy and satisfaction, as they have earned everything through their own efforts. If God just gifted everything to people, they would not experience the same joy and satisfaction (Ramḥal, Derekh Hashem 1:2).

To that end, God’s judgment must be true, precise, and specific, taking into account each and every deed, each and every word, and each and every thought. True, a person is judged in accordance with the majority of his deeds and is vindicated in judgment if his deeds are mostly meritorious. Nevertheless, he is punished for every sin he does not rectify through repentance. Similarly, even if a person is condemned because most of his deeds are evil, he still receives reward for every mitzva he does. The just King knows how to make these calculations, and He determines when reward and punishment will be meted out (Bava Kama 50a; Ḥagiga 5a).

God wishes to bestow benefit on His creations, as we read, “The Lord is good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works” (Tehilim 145:9). The purpose of punishment is to correct, not to avenge. Punishment in this world is meant to direct a person so that he leaves sin and returns to the proper path, as we read, “The Lord your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son” (Devarim 8:5). If one has not repented in this world and is still stained by evil, even if he has merits, he cannot be the recipient of divine goodness. Therefore, he is condemned to suffer in Gehinom, where he is purged of evil. Only then can he ascend to Gan Eden, as we read: “The Lord deals death and gives life, casts down into Sheol and raises up” (1 Shmuel 2:6). Those who are entirely wicked are eradicated in Gehinom (Rosh Ha-shana 17a; Pesikta Rabbati §40; Nefesh Ha-ḥayim 1:12).

03. Times of Judgment

As we have seen (section 1 above), blessing and judgment are linked, for when God bestows life upon the world, He also passes judgment upon it, determining who will be granted life and blessing, and who will not. Since God recreates life on Rosh Ha-shana for the next year, it is the primary time of judgment for the whole world.

Thus, the Sages state, “On Rosh Ha-shana, all of humanity pass before Him like sheep, as we read (Tehilim 33:15), ‘He who fashions the hearts of them all, Who discerns all their doings’” (Rosh Ha-shana 16a). They also state: “Just as a person’s earnings are determined on Rosh Ha-shana, so are his losses” (Bava Batra 10a).

Even though judgment primarily takes place and is inscribed on Rosh Ha-shana, it is sealed on Yom Kippur. Therefore, the days between them are a time for repentance and prayer to improve the judgment. R. Meir states: “All are judged on Rosh Ha-shana, and the verdicts are sealed on Yom Kippur” (Rosh Ha-shana 16a). Similarly, the Sages state: “All of a person’s earnings are determined between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur” (Beitza 16a).

Even though the judgment is sealed on Yom Kippur, in exceptional circumstances it is still possible to improve or annul it until Hoshana Rabba and Shemini Atzeret. This is because the angels responsible for carrying out sentences receive their instructions then, so it is the final stage of the yearly judgment (Zohar III 33b; Peninei Halakha: Sukkot 6:1).

While Rosh Ha-shana is the general day of judgment for the entire year, the Mishna states that the three festivals are days of judgment for particular features. On Pesaḥ, judgment is passed about grain; on Shavu’ot, judgment is passed about fruit; and on Sukkot, judgment is passed about water (Rosh Ha-shana 16a). Since holy days are a conduit for divine blessing to descend to the world, there is consequently judgment then associated with the blessings they convey. The timing of the holidays reflects natural processes. Sukkot is at the start of winter (the rainy season in Israel), so it is the conduit for the blessing and judgment of water. Pesaḥ is when crops grow, so it is the conduit for the blessing and judgment of the crops. Shavu’ot is when fruit begin to grow and ripen, so it is the conduit for the blessing and judgment of fruit. In other words, on Rosh Ha-shana the general fate of water, crops, and fruit is determined, while the detailed judgment is reserved for later: water on Sukkot, grain on Pesaḥ, and fruit on Shavu’ot (Peninei Halakha: Festivals 1:2).[1]


[1]. The Gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 16a) explains that the Mishna accords with the academy of R. Yishmael, which states: “The world is judged four times a year: on Pesaḥ for grain, on Shavu’ot for fruit, and on Sukkot for water. People are judged on Rosh Ha-shana, and the judgments are sealed on Yom Kippur.” In contrast, R. Yehuda states, “Everything is judged on Rosh Ha-shana, but each judgment is sealed at its own time: grain on Pesaḥ, fruit on Shavu’ot, and water on Sukkot. People are judged on Rosh Ha-shana, and the judgments are sealed on Yom Kippur.” It would seem that their disagreement is minor. The academy of R. Yishmael maintains that the specifics of water, grain, and fruit are determined during the holidays, although of course they are influenced by the general judgment of Rosh Ha-shana. (Ramban makes a similar point in his Rosh Ha-shana sermon: the general judgment is on Rosh Ha-shana, while the specifics of water are determined on Sukkot, etc. This is how I formulated it above.) In contrast, according to R. Yehuda, everything is determined on Rosh Ha-shana, including the specifics of water, grain, and fruit. It is only the sealing of the judgment that takes place on the various holidays. Ran, in his commentary on Rosh Ha-shana 16a, has a different approach. He writes that the general judgment for water is on Sukkot, the one for grain is on Pesaḥ, and the one for fruit is on Shavuot; it is only what each individual will be allotted of these three that is determined on Rosh Ha-shana.

04. The Manifestation of Blessing and Judgment

Even though judgment is inscribed on Rosh Ha-shana and sealed on Yom Kippur, one’s behavior during the rest of the year still has significant impact, because the shefa of life allotted on Rosh Ha-shana descends to the world gradually, via Shabbatot and Roshei Ḥodashim. As it manifests, it can be diverted toward good or evil. The principle is that the holy days are meant to draw blessing into the world, each day in accordance with its special character. Accompanying the blessing is judgment, so that the blessing reaches the deserving.

Since the blessing descends via Rashei Ḥodashim, they, too, are days of judgment and thus propitious times for repentance, atonement, and forgiveness. There is a custom among the pious to repent on the day before Rosh Ḥodesh (also known as Yom Kippur Katan). Shabbat, too, is holy and blessed, and through it, blessing extends to the six weekdays. So that this blessing manifests properly, one should repent on Shabbat – albeit out of love, good cheer, and optimism, without pain. Homiletically, the word “Shabbat” is related to the word “teshuva” (repentance).

The bounty that descends through Shabbatot and Rashei Ḥodashim continues its descent via the weekdays, each of which has a special sanctity, for each day manifests something of the divine that is not manifested on any other day. Accordingly, each day a person is judged with regard to the unique shefa of that day. As R. Yose said: “A person is judged every day” (Rosh Ha-shana 16a). In fact, every hour presents a unique opportunity to reveal a certain aspect of holiness, and thus there is an element of ever-present judgment. This is the meaning of R. Natan’s statement: “A person is judged every hour” (ibid.). Because of the blessing and judgment that take place daily, we recite Shaḥarit, Minḥa, and Ma’ariv daily, to improve the blessing and judgment specific to that day.[2]

The judgments passed on Rosh Ḥodesh, Shabbat, and every other day do not alter the judgment inscribed and sealed at the beginning of the year, for while judgment is inscribed and sealed at the beginning of the year, the way it is implemented is not, and the implementation has significant ramifications, for better and for worse. Consider a national budget; it is passed by the legislature at the beginning of the year, and the government has no authority to alter it. Nevertheless, every minister can determine how it will be distributed, and even bureaucrats have the power to direct funding toward one project or another. (See Berakhot 58a.) Similarly, the deeds done all year can direct the judgment for better or for worse. The Gemara elaborates (Rosh Ha-shana 17b):

What is an example of “for better”? Let us say the Jews were completely wicked as of Rosh Ha-shana, and therefore were allotted only a small amount of rain. Later, they repented. It is not possible to send more rain, for the decree has already been made. Rather, God brings [the rain] at the optimal times, on the land that needs it, depending on the land. [Thus, minimal rains can still bring great blessing.] What is an example of “for worse”? Let us say that the Jews were completely righteous as of Rosh Ha-shana, and therefore a lot of rain was allotted to them. Later, they relapsed. It is not possible to send less rain, for the decree has already been made. Rather, God brings it at the worst times, on land that does not need it [so they do not benefit from the rains].[3]

The ideal sequence is as follows. We repent during the month of Elul, and accept God’s kingship on Rosh Ha-shana, leading to a good initial judgment. We continue to ascend spiritually by repenting on Yom Kippur, leading to a better final judgment. With this momentum, we continue to walk in God’s ways. We absorb the shefa of holiness on Shabbat, holidays, and Rosh Ḥodesh, thus increasing the illumination and blessing present in every day, hour, and minute.


[2]. Similar ideas appear in a responsum attributed to Rif; R. Yosef Gikatilla, Kelalei Ha-mitzvot s.v. “din”; Abarbanel (Vayikra ch. 23); Me’iri (Rosh Ha-shana 16a); Maharal (Ḥidushei Aggadot ad loc.); Tzelaḥ, Turei Even, and Ben Yehoyada (ad loc.). Rav Kook explains that while the judgment passed on Rosh Ha-shana is not immutable, the judgments of Rosh Ḥodesh and weekdays have far more impact (Midbar Shur, derush 9).

[3]. Sometimes it is impossible to divert judgment for the better because the verdict was so decisive; for example, if so little rain was allotted that even if it is optimized, there will be a severe drought. Nevertheless, a community has the great power that if they repent wholeheartedly and pray to God concerning it, they can tear up even a final verdict (Rosh Ha-shana 17b). An individual cannot completely tear up a verdict, but he can improve it by repenting and crying out to God from the bottom of his heart – such that if there is any possible interpretation of the judgment that would minimize the punishment, it will be minimized. For example, if death was decreed for a person, there is still some leeway. Through his repentance and prayer, it is possible that death will be replaced by poverty, exile, or very humiliating experiences, all of which are compared to death. This is why R. Yitzḥak says, “Prayer is helpful to a person, whether before or after judgment has been rendered” (Rosh Ha-shana 16a and 18a). This means it is admirable and has an effect, even though it does not invalidate the judgment (Ran and Maharal ad loc.). There is a tradition passed down by the house of King David that “even if a sharp sword is resting upon one’s neck, one should not stop praying” (Berakhot 10a).

05. Judgment and the Next World

How a person is judged on Rosh Ha-shana relates to his life in this world and the next. We have discussed the implications for this world in the previous sections and will yet discuss them further, but at present we will explain how the judgment of Rosh Ha-shana relates to the next world. First, we must explain that life in the next world has two stages. The first stage begins with a person’s death, when his soul ascends to the world of souls, where there is Gan Eden (heaven) for the righteous and Gehinom (hell) for the wicked. The next stage is after the world reaches its perfection with the resurrection of the dead. At that time, souls will reunite with bodies, and together they will experience an infinite ascent (Ramban, Sha’ar Ha-gemul; Ramḥal, Derekh Hashem 1:3; Shelah, Toldot Adam, Beit David).

The next world, including both its stages, is also called the “World of Truth,” because, in contrast to this world, where falsehood dominates and external appearances obscure internal essence, in the next world the true stature of a person and the true worth of his deeds become clear.

Since the next world is incomparably more important than this world, as “this world is like a corridor leading to the next world” (Avot 4:16), the judgment which occurs on Rosh Ha-shana primarily relates to the next world. This judgment can be divided into two parts. The first takes into account all the deeds of the past year. For a person’s good deeds, reward awaits him in the next world; for his evil deeds, punishment awaits him. But the judgment passed on Rosh Ha-shana is not final. If he repents over the years, he can save himself from Gehinom and increase his reward in the next world. If, God forbid, he regrets the good deeds he has done and wishes them undone, he will go to Gehinom and lose the reward that had been reserved for him in the next world.

The second aspect of judgment that relates to the next world concerns opportunities to draw close to God in the upcoming year. One who has been judged to life on Rosh Ha-shana will have opportunities during the year that will help him continue to ascend in Torah and mitzvot, through which he will merit life in the next world. When he studies Torah, he will attain greater enlightenment and understanding; when he is engages in mitzvot and good deeds, he will attain greater happiness and blessing, a foretaste of the next world. If, God forbid, his judgment is for death, then during the next year he will face trials and difficulties likely to distance him from God and lose him his place in the next world. Even when he studies Torah, it will be hard for him to absorb the divine light within it; even when he engages in mitzvot, he will not properly feel the sanctity and joy they bring. This is the meaning of the Sages’ statement (Avot 4:2): “A mitzva brings another mitzva and a sin brings another sin, for the reward for a mitzva is a mitzva, and the punishment for a sin is a sin” (Nefesh Ha-ḥayim 1:12).

In general, reward is called “life” and punishment, “death.” Life means closeness and connection with God, the Source of life. This closeness allows a person to experience all the goodness that God brings to this world and the next. God is the Source of all the goodness of life; all the pleasures and delights of this world flow from His shefa. But they are only a pale reflection of the ultimate pleasure, namely closeness to God. The Sages state, “One hour of spiritual bliss in the next world is better than all of life in this world” (Avot 4:17). This is because in the next world, one can enjoy the radiance of the Shekhina and take pleasure in God; life there is intensified immeasurably. In contrast, the divine light which reaches us in this world is filtered and constricted. Nevertheless, by drawing closer to God through Torah study and mitzva observance, a person can experience the equivalent of the next world in this world, taking pleasure in his closeness to God.

While reward is referred to as “life,” punishment is referred to as “death,” meaning distance from the Source of life. The distance leads to the suffering and death of the body in this world, and the suffering of the soul in the next.[4]


[4]. The Gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 16b) states:

Three books are opened on Rosh Ha-shana: one for those who are entirely wicked, one for those who are entirely righteous, and one for those in between. The entirely righteous are immediately inscribed and sealed for life, the entirely wicked are immediately inscribed and sealed for death, and those in between are in limbo from Rosh Ha-shana until Yom Kippur. If they merit it, they are inscribed for life; if not, they are inscribed for death.

What do the Sages mean by “life” and “death”? According to Tosafot, they are speaking of life in the next world. This is also the position of R. Yosef Gikatilla (Sha’arei Ora, Gate 8). However, Ramban, Ran, Rashba, and others maintain that the Sages are referring to life in this world. It would seem that these positions are not truly in conflict, as reward in this world primarily affects life in the next world, since this world is but a corridor leading to the next (Rama Mi-Fano, Asara Ma’amarot, Ḥikur Ha-din 2:21; Ramḥal, Derekh Hashem 2:2; Vilna Gaon, Bi’ur Ha-Gra, OḤ 582:24; R. Ḥayim of Volozhin in his exposition at the end of Nefesh Ha-ḥayim). Being inscribed for life may also include experiencing a bit of the illumination of the next world while in this world. This is a fulfillment of the blessing, “May you see your world in your lifetime” (Berakhot 17a). See Orot Ha-kodesh 3:122.

06. The Profundity and Complexity of Judgment

The broad principles of judgment are straightforward. One who walks in God’s ways is blessed in both this world and the next, while one who is wicked is punished in both this world and the next. However, the specifics of judgment are immeasurably deep and complex. Therefore, there are instances of the righteous suffering poverty, disease, and untimely death, while sometimes the wicked prosper and endure. There are many possible reasons for this, as we will explain below, all of which are meant to improve the world.

First of all, one must know a fundamental principle: To perfect the world, people must have free choice. As long as the world has not been perfected, it runs according to the laws of nature and fate that God determined, so it is not possible for all the righteous to thrive and all the wicked to suffer. Therefore, judgment, as it applies to individuals, is incredibly complex and involves myriad details. There are always righteous people suffering and wicked people appearing to enjoy the pleasures of this world. Thus, free choice is unimpaired, and one who chooses good improves himself and the entire world.

Nevertheless, over the long term, for example, when it comes to families and true happiness in life, we find that in this world, too, usually the righteous experience blessing while the wicked suffer. The crux of our challenge is to disregard our evil inclination, which urges us to take a superficial, myopic view of the world, and instead to follow our good inclination, which encourages us to look further and more deeply. Thus, even though in this world, too, the righteous, over the long term, attain benefit and the wicked suffer, free choice remains intact, because this truth is not discernible over the short term.

Let us begin to explain some specifics. One person may be destined to be wealthy and face the challenges that accompany wealth. Even if he sins greatly, he will remain rich. His judgment on Rosh Ha-shana is about the circumstances of his life as a wealthy person. Will he find joy in his wealth, or will it cause him endless worry? With respect to the next world, will his wealth help him to withstand trials, be they minor or major? Might it even help him in serving God? Another person may be destined for poverty. Even if he is righteous, he will remain poor. The question is simply whether his poverty will be bearable or unbearable. With respect to the next world, will his impoverishment help or hinder his service of God? In rare cases, a person can change his destiny through outstanding merits or grave sins.

Sometimes a person’s destiny is not absolute, but only determines a direction that allows for change. In such cases, the judgment of Rosh Ha-shana can determine whether someone destined to have money will be comfortable, rich, or fabulously wealthy, or whether someone destined to be needy will be needy, poor, or destitute.[5]


[5]. “Children, life, and sustenance do not depend upon merit but upon fate (mazal)” (Mo’ed Katan 28a). The Gemara’s proof is that Rabba and R. Ḥisda were both righteous; when there was a drought, the prayers of both were answered. Yet R. Ḥisda lived to the age of 92, while Rabba died at 40. R. Ḥisda’s household celebrated 60 weddings, while Rabba’s home suffered 60 bereavements. R. Ḥisda’s home was wealthy, and even the dogs were fed the highest grade of wheat. Rabba’s home was poor, and people did not always have enough of even cheap barley bread. Another Gemara sheds light on this. R. Ḥanina asserts that Jews are subject to mazal, while R. Yoḥanan and Rav maintain that they are not (Shabbat 156a). According to Tosafot, even those who maintain that Jews are not subject to mazal do not mean that it has no effect, but rather that someone with great merit can change his fate (as explained in Yevamot 50a). However, sometimes, even with great merit, mazal does not change, as we see in the case of R. Elazar b. Pedat (Ta’anit 25a).

It is important to note that only individuals are subject to mazal, not the collective. The reward and punishment discussed in the Torah are collective (Responsa Rashba 1:148). However, individuals, with great spiritual effort, can ascend to the level of the collective, beyond the reach of mazal. It should be further noted that the Torah’s this-worldly rewards and punishments are primarily promised to Israel as a people, to be delivered naturally. Thus, free will is not compromised, since individuals are still subject to fate. (See section 8 below.)

07. Specific Considerations in Judgment

Sometimes a person is destined to be neither rich nor poor. Rather, his destiny is not fixed; if he chooses well in matters of money and charity, then he deserves to be wealthy so that he can continue to improve his piety and charity. Yet sometimes it is known to the Knower of secrets that if a certain person were to become wealthy, his evil inclination would overcome him and perhaps make him arrogant, lustful, and stingy; he would no longer be righteous. Since people’s relationship to God is the most important thing and their eternal life depends on it, heaven has mercy upon him and sentences him to struggle to make a living. This way he avoids the difficult challenge and is more likely to earn a place in the next world. Without such mercy, he may become wealthy in this world but face challenges likely to corrupt him.

Another consideration is how difficult it is for a person to choose good or avoid evil. Some people are born with a very strong evil inclination or grow up in very difficult and toxic environments. If they manage to study a bit of Torah and do a few good deeds, it is extremely impressive, and they will receive immense reward. As the Sages say, “In accordance with the pain is the reward” (Avot 5:23). Other people are born with a strong good inclination or grow up in a supportive environment. If they nevertheless sin, they will be punished severely.

Another consideration is that sometimes a wicked person who has done a few mitzvot is rewarded for them in this world, so that he is utterly destroyed in Gehinom. Similarly, sometimes a righteous person who has committed a few sins receives his punishment in this world, so that he can ascend, pure and clean, to Gan Eden. Even though reward and punishment in this world are trivial compared to the next, these judgments are still just and proper, for the wicked person performed mitzvot with superficial motivations, because he wanted to show off and impress people, so it is fitting that his reward be given in this superficial, transient world, rather than in the World of Truth. In contrast, the primary interest of the righteous person was closeness to God. If he sinned accidentally, just as his sin was superficial, so is his punishment. This will purify him and he will enter the next world without blemish (Kiddushin 39b; Derekh Hashem 2:2:6).

These are some of the factors that go into judgment, and there are also collective factors that will be elaborated on in the next section. The main point from the human perspective is to repent and return to God, for even if we do not understand the profundity of the judgment, we are certain that repentance and good deeds are always good for a person. Reward is primarily in the next world and secondarily in this world. As long as a person is alive in this world of free choice, his actions are of incalculable value and earn him eternal reward. This is as the Sages say, “One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than the whole of life in the World to Come” (Avot 4:17).

08. Individual and Collective Judgment in Eretz Yisrael and in Exile

It is important to know that even though on Rosh Ha-shana the Jewish people as a whole as well as each individual are judged, the judgment of the individual is strongly impacted by the general state of whichever nation that person belongs to. This is as we learned about the nation of Israel in the section dealing with blessings and curses:

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. I will grant peace in the land…. You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword…. I will be ever present in your midst; I will be your God, and you shall be My people…. But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments…I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you – consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to fail and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it…. I will break your proud glory. I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit…. I will lay your cities to waste and make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not savor your pleasing odors…. And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword against you. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin…. You shall not be able to stand your ground before your enemies but shall perish among the nations; and the land of your enemies shall consume you…. (Vayikra 26:3-38)

Sometimes there is no contradiction between the judgment of the nation and that of the individual. For even if the nation as a whole merits a shefa of blessing, this does not mean that a few individuals cannot be punished for their sins. Similarly, if the nation as a whole is punished, this does not mean that a few individuals cannot be rewarded. However, sometimes there is a contradiction between the judgment of the nation and that of the individual. For example, if a harsh decree such as destruction or exile has been issued against the nation, the righteous, perforce, will also suffer. Nevertheless, the judgment stands, and the righteous will receive their reward in the world of souls, in Gan Eden. Similarly, if the nation as a whole is good, the wicked will not receive their punishment in this world but in the world of souls, in Gehinom. Judgment will be completed in the next world, when the dead are resurrected and souls reunite with their bodies.[6]

It is also important to be aware that when the Jewish nation is in exile and the Temple lies in ruins, God’s role in the world is deeply hidden. It appears as if God has left the earth and evil rules the world; the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. The same forces of evil that destroyed the Temple allow the wicked to prosper. Just as the Shekhina is suffering in exile, so too, the righteous are drowning in pain and suffering. Additionally, when harsh decrees are passed against the Jews, all individual Jews suffer as a result.[7]

Though it seems unjust that the righteous suffer more, being righteous means experiencing more pain over Israel’s exile; as long as the honor of heaven is being trampled by the nations, the righteous take no joy from this-worldly pleasures. Their sorrow and mourning for Zion and the Temple allow them to cling to the Shekhina and draw redemption nearer. For this, their reward is very great.


[6]. The sin of Adam created a division between the worlds and between body and soul. This division is the “death” that was Adam’s punishment. His soul and body were separated. As a result, reward and punishment cannot be fully realized in the physical world. Rather, a small part is meted out in this world and a larger part in the World of Souls (i.e., in Gan Eden and Gehinom). Reward and punishment are completed at the time of the resurrection of the dead, when the physical world will be perfected, the worlds will be reunited, and body and soul will become one again. Part of the uniqueness of the Jewish nation is that it represents the unity of body and soul, vision and deed, even in our current imperfect world. Even when the Jewish people are damaged spiritually or physically, their spiritual and physical core remain. Therefore, even in this world, they experience true life. See the next section.

[7]. Similarly, Tanya (Igeret Ha-teshuva, ch. 4-6) explains that at a time of destruction and exile, we can fathom “neither the tranquility of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous” (Avot 4:15), for God’s role is concealed, and the power of impurity is strengthened by sins. This is the meaning of the exile of the Shekhina. It is imprisoned by the husks of impurity, and the goodness directed toward it is hijacked by the sitra aḥra (the “other,” demonic side) to strengthen the wicked and harm the righteous. In times of exile, the divine punishments of karet and death at the hands of heaven are not carried out, so many who deserve to die live long and happy lives.

09. The Judgment of Israel

The judgment of Israel impacts the entire world, since the relationship of Israel to the other nations is like the heart’s relationship to the body’s other organs. The existence of the entire world depends upon the Jews, who must reveal the light of Torah in the world in order to guide it to perfection. Thus, the Gemara declares, “God made a condition with the act of creation and said, ‘If the Jews accept the Torah, you will continue to exist; if not, I will return the world to chaos’” (Shabbat 88a). Ever since the Torah was given to the Jews, the world’s existence has depended upon their adherence to it. Furthermore, the redemption of the world depends upon the repentance of the Jews. Since Israel bears such a great responsibility, when they sin, their punishment is more severe than the punishment that other nations would incur for the same sin. On the other hand, the reward that Israel receives for choosing what is right is greater as well, since by doing so they bring blessing and redemption to the entire world.

Therefore, judgment on Rosh Ha-shana begins with the Jewish people, as we read: “Blow the shofar on the new moon, on the covered moon, for our festival day; for it is a law for Israel, a ruling for the God of Jacob” (Tehilim 81:4-5). Only after judging the Jews does God judge the other nations (Rosh Ha-shana 8a-b). This seems to imply that if (God forbid) the Jews choose evil, God will destroy them and the entire world. But God chose His nation and entered into a covenant with them. Therefore, even if they sin greatly, He will not desert them. Rather, He will punish them severely and rule over them wrathfully, in order to encourage them to return to the right path. This accords with the conclusion of the section of blessings and curses in Vayikra:

Yet even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them; for I the Lord am their God. I will remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God; I am the Lord. (Vayikra 26:44-45)

Additionally, the blessings and curses of Devarim state that ultimately, after the suffering of the Jewish people, God will doubly punish their wicked tormentors, redeem His people, and purify His land: “For He will avenge the blood of His servants, wreak vengeance on His foes, and purify His land and His people” (Devarim 32:43). Similarly, we read: “For the Lord will not forsake His people; He will not abandon His very own” (Tehilim 94:14).

We see that the Jews’ existence in this world and the next is guaranteed. What judgment determines is what type of existence they will have. Will it be blessed and peaceful, or (God forbid) the opposite? Similarly, the Jews are guaranteed that redemption will arrive; if they repent, it will arrive more quickly and peacefully. If they do not repent, a long exile will culminate in terrible, awful suffering. Following this, the scattered Jews will gather together and settle Eretz Yisrael. They will continue to ascend until they achieve complete repentance and redemption (Sanhedrin 97b-98a; Zohar III 66b).

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