Subscribe To our E-Newsletter
Why Doing the Right Thing's the Right Thing
This week's parshah, Va-Yelekh, is always part of the High Holiday season. We read it either together with Nitsavim on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah or, as this year, by itself on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The setting is the last few hours of Moses' life. He reassures the people that, even when he is no longer with them, God will not abandon them, but will bring them into the land of Israel; he charges Joshua as his successor; and he gives the people the commandment concerning the public reading of the Torah, which is to take place every seven years at Sukkot.
Then, God tells Moses that after his death, "The people will go astray after the alien gods in their midst ... they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them."
What's interesting is that this isn't presented as a warning, a caution not to abandon God's covenant. Rather, it's a prophecy, a statement of fact that the people will abandon God.
And so, God instructs Moses to write down a poem (found in the next parshah, Ha'azinu) and teach it to the people so that they will remember this message -- that God will punish their faithlessness, but will not abandon them forever. In time, God will forgive them and save them from their enemies.
God, obviously, knows us; God knows our nature, our struggles with temptation and our ability to rationalize almost anything ("Yeah, I did it, but I had a really good reason"). God knows that none of us is perfect, that we will make mistakes, that sometimes we will willfully sin, knowing full well that what we are doing is wrong.
Therefore, from the very beginning, God, as it were, built into the system a process for us to deal with our sins. In our parshah, God tells Moses to teach the people a poem that will prompt them to examine their behavior and change it.
And for us, God offers the annual rituals of the Yamim Nora'im -- heshbon hanefesh (spiritual accounting), the opportunity to do teshuvah (repentance), and the promise of forgiveness on Yom Kippur.
God doesn't expect us to be perfect. What God does expect is that we will regret and learn from our mistakes, and resolve to change our ways. God wants us to be a little bit better, a little kinder, a little more charitable, a little more caring, a little less selfish, a little more grateful for our blessings, this year than we were last year.
We learn from the Gemara in Kiddushin:
Our Rabbis taught that a person should always see himself as if his guilt and his innocence were equally balanced. Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon said that the world is judged according to the majority, and each individual is judged according to the majority of his deeds. When a person does one mitzvah, he is blessed, for he tips the balance in his favor and in the world's favor. When he commits one sin, he tips the balance against himself and against the world.
This tells us that everything we do every day matters. Of course, it's important to perform the "big" mitzvot that come our way -- to observe Shabbat and holidays, to visit the sick, to eat kosher, to comfort mourners, to give tzedakah.
But even on an ordinary day spent running doing errands, there are opportunities to tip the balance. It matters that you hold a door open for an elderly woman, speak pleasantly to a salesclerk, return excess change, thank your waiter, drive like a mensch.
A colleague remarked that one of the wonderful things about Judaism is that, unlike other traditions that speak of an individual being judged at the end of his or her life, we have an annual Yom HaDin, Day of Judgment, that gives us the opportunity to begin with a clean slate. In fact, we have that opportunity every day -- there's no need to wait for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Remember, your next action will tip the balance for yourself and for the world. Think about it, and then do the right thing.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.