By Elie Mischel
Rabbi Israel Kagan, one of the great Eastern European Jewish leaders of the 20th century, was once cited as a character witness in a court case in Belarus. The defendant’s lawyer said that Rabbi Kagan, though not present in court, was known to think highly of the defendant.
The judge challenged the lawyer: “I don’t know who this Rabbi is, and in any event, why should I believe what he says about the defendant? Why should I trust his opinion?” A fair question!
The defense lawyer explained, “Your honor, let me tell you a story about this Rabbi that will prove to you how honest and trustworthy he is!” He continued: “One time, Rabbi Kagan was about to take a letter to the post office to have it mailed, when somebody stopped by his house and said: “I’m going to the town you’re sending the letter to – I can bring the letter for you. No need to mail it!” Rabbi Kagan happily gave the letter to him – but then took the stamp he was going to use and tore it up, so the post office wouldn’t lose the money!”
Hearing this, the judge said, “Come on, you don’t really expect me to believe that story, do you?” The lawyer replied: “Your Honor, I don’t know for sure if that story is true or not. But one thing I know for sure – they’re not telling that story about you and me!”
Today, the second of Rosh Hashana, the Hebrew New Year, is an appropriate time to ask: what kind of stories will be told about us when our time on earth is done? What will people say about us when we are gone?
None of us are perfect; we are all, ultimately, a mixture of good and bad, of good deeds and sins, of holy acts and lowly moments. Each of us can be portrayed in kinder or harsher light. What will others remember about our lives? Which story will they choose to tell?
Among our children, and certainly among our grandchildren, our lives will be summarized, boiled down into stories and soundbites. What kind of stories will they tell? How will they look back upon us, and how will they judge us?
Today, of all days, is the proper time to ask this question. Rosh Hashana, the Hebrew New Year, is also called by another name: Yom Hazikaron, the “Day of Remembering.” Today is the day that God looks at each and every human being and “remembers” how we have lived our lives!
But what does it mean when we say that “God remembers”? God doesn’t need to remember, for He never forgets! He is, after all, All Knowing!
“Remembering,” for God, means something much more profound that merely “recalling.” It means that today, God looks at our year, with all of our successes and failures, and condenses it all to its essence. Today is the day when God summarizes our lives, creating an overview of how we have lived until now!
Today, each of us must ask ourselves this question: On this day of judgment, what stories are they telling about me up in Heaven? What stands out about my year, and my life, when it’s boiled down to its essence?
The sages share a profound teaching: “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place” (Ethics of the Fathers). Simply understood, this means that we should be careful not to judge other people until we ourselves have experienced the same challenge that they have.
This is certainly an important teaching. But many years ago, one of my teachers explained this teaching in a fascinating way. When we meet other people, we tend to form impressions about them very quickly. “She’s funny!”, “He seems pretty full of himself!”, “What an inspirational speaker – he must be a very holy person!” And all of these impressions may be spot on!
But being funny, or a good speaker, or publicly righteous – none of these qualities help us to truly judge the essence of another person. As the sages say, don’t judge another person, don’t think that you really know what another person is all about, “until you reach his place,” until you’ve seen the way he acts and speaks “in his place,” in the place that is uniquely his – in his home!
For when we are at home with our families, we shed the “showmanship” that so dominates the way we act outside of our homes. At work, at the synagogue or church, at our friends’ homes, we are concerned for our reputations; we “put on a show” for others. But when we come home, to our own spouses and our own children, we are more authentically ourselves. We are no longer “pretending”– we lower our guard, and our true inner selves – for better or worse – come out!
“Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)
Our relationship with our children, the way we act at home, when we are shielded from the public eye – this is who we are! This is our essence, this is how we will be judged, and this is how we will be remembered! On this Day of Remembering, the way we live our lives at home, more than anything else, will determine which stories are told about us – both in heaven, and here on earth!
At the end of his classic play, “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder gives the heroine, Emily, who died in childbirth at age 26, the opportunity to turn back the clock and relive one day of her life.
Emily picks her 12th birthday, and suddenly she is home again. She sees her mother preoccupied with cooking. Her father returns from work, worn out after a long business day. Only Emily is aware of the preciousness of the passing moments. Time passes by, and the members of the family pay no attention to one another, seemingly unaware of each other’s presence.
Seeing her family ignore one another, Emily can’t bear it, and though they cannot hear, she cries out: “Oh Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Just for a moment now we’re all together, Mama – just for a moment we’re all happy! Let’s look at one another!” But no one hears her, and as her birthday fades away, she weeps: “Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do not human beings realize life while they live it every minute?”
Today, on this Day of Remembering, let us remember what matters most in this life, and what will truly shape our legacy. In that merit, may our Father in Heaven remember us for life, for health and for blessings.