Toward the Day of Judgment
It is written, “You are standing today, all of you, before the L-RD your G-d: The heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers – all the men of Israel” (Deuteronomy 29:9).
We read this parsha before Rosh Hashanah, and the Zohar says that the reason we do so is because this first verse alludes to the judgment day of Rosh Hashanah. On that day, all Israel without exception is called upon to stand before Hashem: The heads of the tribes, the elders, the officers, etc. Even the most simple among the people, such as the woodchoppers and water carriers (who were really Canaanites that converted at the time of Moses – Rashi) were to stand before Hashem and be judged for their actions. As the Mishnah states, “At Rosh Hashanah all creatures pass before Him like children of Maron, as it says: ‘He fashions their hearts alike; He considers all their deeds’ [Psalms 33:15]” (Rosh Hashanah 16a). The Gemara questions the meaning of the expression “like children of Maron,” and states that it means “like a flock of sheep” (Rosh Hashanah 18a). Rashi explains: “Like sheep that we count in order to take the tenth part, we take them one by one through a narrow passage where they can only pass single file.” From this we learn that each of us is judged in great detail and exactitude, not superficially. “All creatures pass before Him” (Rosh Hashanah 16a), and as the Sages said: “Concerning countries, [judgment] is pronounced on [this day]: Which for war and which for peace, which for famine and which for plenty; and on it creatures are brought to mind, to remember them for life or for death.”
Just how terrifying is the depth of the judgment! It is such that the Holy One, blessed be He, even examines the mitzvot that we performed, such as our Torah study, prayers, etc. In fact during previous generations, the gravity of the month of Elul was felt everywhere, to the point that people said that even the fish in the sea trembled during that month.
One story has it that a certain Tzaddik wrote a letter to his son, and upon receiving it he noticed that his father’s handwriting was not very legible. When he asked his father about it, he replied, “What can I do? During the month of Elul, it’s difficult for me to write because my hand trembles with fear due to the approaching judgment day.”
How terrifying it is to think that people could not even write in former times because they so greatly feared the day of judgment, that people felt it in their bones! Those Jews of earlier generations did not seek out the vanities of this world. They knew that their lives hung in the balance; they knew that there was reason to fear because it is at this time that the outcome of the following year is fixed for each of us. Naturally, we all want to merit a life of goodness and health, without troubles or major difficulties. How can we earn this? The Gemara explains in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: “[So] great is the power of repentance that it tears up a man's final sentence” (Rosh Hashanah 17b). In Parsha Nitzavim we read that the Holy One, blessed be He, personally promises that even if a person has committed a hundred sins, each worse than the next, if he repents G-d will show him mercy, accept his repentance, and forgive all his sins (Deuteronomy 30:2-6).
The Rambam writes in his book Hilchot Teshuvah: “How great is repentance! Yesterday the sinner was separated from the G-d of Israel, as it is written: ‘Your iniquities have separated you from your G-d’ [Isaiah 59:2]. Yet today, he is attached to the Divine Presence…he cries out and is immediately answered, as it is written: ‘And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer’ [Isaiah 65:24].” The decision is in our hands, and only the power of repentance can cleanse us of the impurities of our sins.
Since we have only a few days before the coming judgment, let us take advantage of this precious time, a time in which our repentance is accepted and can reach the Throne of Glory. We will thereby merit presenting ourselves on the day of judgment in a state of purity, crowned with our mitzvot and good deeds.