Tonight begins the 6th yahrzeit. It can be no coincidence that it is a weak before Rosh haShanah that we have the reminder of how a beautiful sunny day can, in the blink of an eye, turn into the most horrible of tragedies.
…בראש השנה יכתבון, וביום צום כפור יחתמון
On Rosh Hashanah they will be written, and on Yom Kippur they will be sealed…
… מי יחיה ומי ימות,
… who will live, and who will die,
What is frightening is that we really can’t deduce who. The rescuer who didn’t make it out, or the broker who lived for his next trade who did. Two people standing next to each other — one lives, the other doesn’t. We have no means of knowing, for each person, which result is the fulfillment of “letav avad — [all that the All Merciful does,] He does to accomplish good.”
We pass before Hashem — כבקרת רועה עדרו, מעביר צאנו תחת שבטו — the way sheep do before a shepherd, letting each one pass under his staff to be counted for tithing.
And in one moment, a sunny clear day turns dark..
ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה. Note we aren’t promised that repentence, prayer and charity will destroy the evil decree or erase the evil from the decree. Even in the middle of a mitzvah, as Avremel SemanowitzHy”d who stayed with wheelchair-bound co worker, he can still be robbed of that chance to escape. Rather, we are promised that they are מעבירין, allow us to cross over, to get through it.
We can not be good in this world in exchange for promises of an idyllic life. There is no idyllic life. Nor would such a life be a “good one; it would simply be living by informed greed. We should act so as to have a purposive life, a meaningful one, one in which even the worst of tragedies or one’s own end can be faced with a belief that it has a purpose.
As the Vilna Gaon put it: We say in Shema “אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם — that which I [Hashem] command you today”. Did Hashem actually command us to perform mitzvos today? The meaning is that every moment I am alive, every act that I do, I should be thinking that I was placed there by the Creator. Hashem created the universe such that this needs to be done. Only I can accomplish this task. It could only be done here and now. And so I stand here and now to do this essential duty, one which is a permanent feature of the universe.
Victor Frankel describes an attitude much like this in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. In his study of how various people managed through the Holocaust (including himself), he found it was those who associated meaning with their lives who faired the best. And this was the one thing the Nazis could not rob of him. Even if all they left him was the ability to suffer, his suffering too is a task only he could accomplish, only at that time and place, and the universe is different than the one it would have been had he chosen to suffer differently.
With berakhos for a Shanah tovah umsuqah, as the Bostoner Rebbe put it, a year that is we not only conceptually know to be good, but has a sweetness we can taste and experience, and no ro’ah, no tragedies to get through,