We are standing here one week before Rosh Hashanah.1
We see the Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment, looming before us.
Everything around us proclaims that we are about to be put on trial. The
emotional pleas of the Selichos in the early morning hours. The plaintive call
of the shofar every day after Shacharis. The increase in Torah and
Mussar. The heightened tension in the atmosphere. No other time of the year
enthralls us so powerfully as do these final days before Rosh Hashanah. No
other time cries out to us so eloquently, Im lo achshav eimasai?
When else if not now?
Take heed of these penetrating words. Im lo achshav
eimasai? When else if not now?
There is only a short time left. How we take advantage of it
will make a tremendous difference in our lives. It will determine if we are
granted spiritual and material success in the coming year. It will determine
the course of all things we hold near and dear to our hearts. It can make the
difference between life and death. Im lo achshav eimasai? When else if
not now? If we dont prepare ourselves during these critical days to have
a proper Rosh Hashanah, if we dont take a close look at ourselves and
make the necessary changes, then all may be lost.
No human being has any assurance about the future. No human
being knows what tomorrow will bring, or if he will even live to see tomorrow.
All a person knows is that his time on this earth is limited, and that one day
he will die.
The theme to which King Solomon returns again and again in the
Book of Koheles (Ecclesiastes) is that the illusory rewards of this
world are not worth pursuing; they are all haveil havalim, folly of
follies. Remember your Creator during your youthful years, he
writes (Ecclesiastes 12:1-5), before the bad times come, when
years arrive of which you will say, I have no desire for them. ...
For a person is headed toward his place of eternal rest.
Young person, King Solomon advises, take advantage of your
youthful years. It is a time that will never return. You will not stay young
forever. You will not live forever. There will come a time when you will lose
heart, when you will say, I have no desire for these years. Whether
this means the troubles of the pre-Messianic era or the feebleness of old age
or the day of death, you will not be able to rectify the shortcomings of your
life; you will lack the morale and the energy. And then it will be too late.
Take advantage of your young years, of your vigorous years. Because tomorrow
may be too late.
Earlier, King Solomon writes (ibid. 9:10), Whatever your
hand finds the strength to do, do it! For there are no deeds nor calculations
nor knowledge nor wisdom in the grave toward which you are headed.
As long as you have the capacity, do something about it. Take
control of your life. Fix it. Repair it. For there are no deeds nor
calculations nor knowledge nor wisdom in the grave toward which you are
King Solomon is not reminding us about the grave to throw us
into a panic. He is doing so to give us perspective. As the Rosh writes in
Orchos Chaim, Always keep in mind the day of your death, and
prepare provision for your final journey. A faithful Jew does not live
with the illusion that this world will last forever. He knows that we are here
for only a brief sojourn. He knows that the material pleasures and delights of
the world are distractions that can easily divert him from gaining everlasting
merit and reward in the next world. He recalls the day of death to remind him
that time is short and too precious to be wasted. Because who knows what
tomorrow will bring? Im lo achshav eimasai? When else if not now?
The Rambam writes (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos
Teshuvah 3:3), Just as a persons merits are weighed against
his sins on the day of his death, so too are the sins of every person in the
world weighed against his merits every year on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. If
he is found to be a righteous person, he is confirmed for another year of life.
If he is found to be a transgressor, he is condemned to death. If he is a
middling person, his verdict is suspended until Yom Kippur. If he repents, he
is confirmed for another year of life. If not, he is condemned to
The Rambam draws a comparison. Just as a person
faces judgment on the day of his death, so too is he judged every Rosh
Hashanah. What does he mean to teach us by this comparison?
The point of the comparison is to highlight the focus, the
clarity, the truthfulness that are required for a successful Rosh Hashanah. A
person on his deathbed is beyond all illusion, beyond confusion. He sees death
before his eyes. He knows he is leaving this world behind, and he is completely
focused on purifying his soul and repairing as much damage as he can during the
last desperate moments of his life.
As we prepare to enter Rosh Hashanah, we must have the same
focus and clarity, for we too are not assured that we will live another year.
Those who stand before God on Rosh Hashanah and beg for good health and a
better livelihood are making a mistake. They think that another year of life is
a given, and all they need to negotiate are the terms, the details. But that is
not the issue. It is self-delusion. The issue is life itself. Will we live
another year? Will we be here tomorrow? We should react to the approach of Rosh
Hashanah just as we would react to the specter of approaching
death. We should gain the same clarity, the same realization of what is
meaningful and what is not, the same inspiration. The only difference is that
we do not know when our dying day is coming, and it can catch us by surprise.
But we do know when Rosh Hashanah is coming, and it is unforgivable to let it
catch us by surprise.
We know full well when Rosh Hashanah is coming, and we know what
is expected of us. Im lo achshav eimasai? When else if not now?
The Rambam writes (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos
Teshuvah 3:4), Although sounding the shofar on Rosh
Hashanah is a Torah decree, it is also symbolic, as if to say, Sleepers,
awaken from your sleep! Slumberers, shake off your slumber! Scrutinize your
deeds, return through repentance and remember your Creator. Those who ignore
truth for the foolishness of the moment, who fritter away their years with
meaningless folly, useless and ineffective, take a good look at yourselves and
improve your ways.
Which truth is being ignored? To which reality must
we awaken? It is the knowledge that life is not endless, that not a single day
of it is guaranteed. Therefore, the time to repent and improve is now.
Sheim lo achshav eimasai? Because when else if not now?
Along the same lines, the Meiri writes, A person should
really examine his deeds every day and abandon his sinful ways, as our Sages
have said (Avos 2:10), Repent one day before you die. In
other words, repent today, for you may die tomorrow. Nevertheless, during this
time -- Rosh Hashanah, that is -- a person should be especially inspired. Our
Sages have explained this with a parable (Rosh Hashanah 16b):
Three books are open on Rosh Hashanah: one for the righteous, one for the
sinful and one for the middling, each of whom is judged according to his
deeds. This is meant to inspire a person to examine his own deeds and to
repent from any sins he may have committed. A person that neglects to repent
during this time has no part in the Lord of Israel, because the rest of the
year does not provide so much inspiration, and the Midas HaDin, the
Attribute of Strict Justice, takes no notice of him and bides its time until
This is strong language. A person that neglects to repent
during this time ein lo cheilek bElokei Yisrael; he has no part in
the Lord of Israel. Why is this so?
And then the Meiri concludes, A person should also examine
his deeds during troubled times, and also when he endures personal suffering;
he should consider that everything comes from God because of sin. Nevertheless,
the point of death is the time when everyone who wants to preserve his soul is
forced to repent and regret his former rebelliousness, return his ill-gotten
gains and confess his sins. Sheim lo achshav eimasai? Because when
else if not now?
The Meiri makes himself very clear. A person should always be
aware that death might be around the corner, not to be plunged into depression,
but rather to use this knowledge constructively. Repent one day before you die.
Your eventual departure from this world is not a fantasy. It is an important
reality, and your awareness of it should have a positive effect on your
If you cannot live with the thought of death daily, at least
consider it during times of trouble and suffering.
On the day of death, however, everyone who wants to preserve his
soul repents. Facing the angel of death, a person knows he has no more choices
left. He knows there is no way out. Very soon, he will stand in front of the
King of Kings in the Heavenly Court and be asked to give an account of himself.
There is no greater inspiration for a human being. Because im lo achshav
eimasai? When else if not now?
The closest approximation to this inspiration is Rosh Hashanah.
God in His mercy holds back the Midas HaDin, the Attribute of
Strict Justice, all year. But on Rosh Hashanah, when we say that all the
people of the world pass before Him like sheep, how can we avoid thinking
about our eventual death? How can we avoid the realization that we need to put
our house in order? And if a person still does not repent at such a time, then
he has no part in the Lord of Israel. He is such a cold fish, so
completely devoid of human feeling, that even on his deathbed he will not
If the mere thought of Rosh Hashanah is not enough to shake us
out of our lethargy, God sends us enough messages to remind us that we are not
secure with our lives. There is enough going on in the world to throw a fright
Who know if there will even be a world next year?
In every corner of the world, the enemies of the Jewish people
are raising up their heads. The Jewish people are not secure everywhere; we are
like a lamb among the seventy wolves. We are under attack, threatened from all
sides. How can we not take notice? God is talking to us. He is warning us.
Forget about material things. Focus on the spiritual. Sleepers, wake up from
your sleep! Slumberers, shake off your slumber!
It is comfortable to delude ourselves, but if we open our eyes,
we cannot help but see the danger. Just take a look at how many Arabs there are
around Boro Park and Flatbush. Thousands! And Heaven forbid, should they ever
get it into their heads to make a jihad against Jews, I shudder to think
of what might happen. What foolish right do we have to feel secure?
There are cities in Europe where thousands of Jews once lived,
fine, upstanding Jews and great rabbis and leaders. Go visit these cities
today, and you will not find a trace of the vital Jewish communities that once
were there. Imagine if fifty years from now, someone once remarked
to me, they would bring Jews into Boro Park and show them ... that Jews
once lived here!
Can anyone say with certainty that such a thing cannot be? Are
we secure? Forget your security. The only security we have is Gods
protection -- if we find favor in His eyes. He is calling out to us. He is
telling us to repent, to devote the short time we have left before Rosh
Hashanah to soul-searching and improvement. He is saying, Im lo
achshav eimasai? When else if not now?
The fires have not yet been ignited, but everyone who has eyes
in his head can see that we are headed for an enormous conflagration. It is up
to us, the faithful Jewish people, with our Torah and our prayers, to prevent
this fire from consuming the world.
Adapted from an address delivered in Beth Medrash Govoha on the eve of 23 Elul,
5761 (September 10, 2001), the night before the attack on the Twin