Thinking about death is uncomfortable for most people. The holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur throw this into focus. The entire point of these holidays is summed up in one very enigmatic Gemara:
Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah. One of the totally righteous, another of the totally wicked, and a third of the average people [beinonim]. The absolutely righteous are immediately written and inscribed for life, the totally wicked are immediately written and inscribed for death, and the average people’s status is undecided until Yom Kipper – if they merit they are written for life and if they do not merit they are written for death (Rosh Hashanah 16b)
The Gemara presents to us the ideal ordered world – the one we learned about as kids. Every year G-d decides during the Yomim Noraim who is righteous and who is not. The good guys get life and the bad guys get death. That’s the reason we wish others to be written and inscribed for a good year,
You don’t have to be an atheist to be bothered by this Gemara. It does not describe the reality of the world. The “good” by no means have a year of life, nor do the wicked get punished. In fact, that’s one of the most basic teachings of the Torah, rasha v’tov lo tzadik v’ra lo – many times the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Chazal even told us in pirkei avot (perek 4) that we have no way to explain the way punishment and reward is meted out to the righteous and the wicked in our world.
So what is Rosh Hashanah about? On the page of this very Gemara, this question was addressed. Tosfot observes that very often the opposite of the Gemara is true:
Sometimes the completely righteous are inscribed for death and the completely wicked are inscribed for life (Tosfot ibid; s.v. v’nechtamin)
Tosfot’s answer is nothing short of shocking. They explain that the judgement of Rosh Hashanah has absolutely nothing to do with one’s coming year! In fact it has nothing to do with anything in your life at all. Tosfot says that the entire judgment of Rosh Hashnah is actually about olam habah, the world to come. We are not judged on Rosh Hashanah for what our year will be like. G-d decides each year whether we still merit our portion in the next world. The Book of Life is for people that do, and the other book is for people that don’t. That’s why we don’t see this Gemara come to fruition in our world. It’s not supposed to. (see Ramban, Sha’ar HaGemul for alternative explanation)
If those that have a portion in the World to Come suffer in this world, then by wishing someone to be inscribed in the Book of Life (in the World to Come), we are actually wishing them to suffer during the next year! (see Tosfot HaRosh ibid)
While Tosfot’s jaw-dropper resolves all of our theological issues, one obvious question remains. What is the urgency of Rosh Hashanah in our lives? Everyone is so scared about the next year – health, livelihood, family well-being, etc. If Rosh Hashanah really has nothing to do with any of those immediate issues, what is the meaning for us all?
Perhaps Tosfot’s explanation actually gives Rosh Hashanah much more meaning. G-d might not be deciding life or death for the coming year but He is telling us the best way to deal with all of those life stresses. He is reminding us that there is much more to the world than the struggles we have. We are living for a much greater purpose than simply trying to curry favor with G-d for the coming year. We are living to merit a time of total bliss and harmony for ourselves and the entire world – otherwise known as olam habah – the World to Come. When we recognize on Rosh Hashanah that our whole purpose of being is to merit eternal life – accomplished through Torah, Mitzvot, and Gemilut Chasadim – the everyday worries don’t seem to be as intimidating.
Tosfot’s explanation is actually liberating. Instead of the tears of terror that are often shed while davening for the future, our Rosh Hashanah tears can be transformed into tears of relief.
We just don’t get what happens here and why it can seem to be so unfair. Tosfot tells us that while that thought is understandable, that’s no reason to be down this Rosh Hashanah. Think about the great things you are doing – the stuff that really matters. Cast off the burden of worry and let the ideal image of the World to Come fill your heart. That perspective will pay off in this world and the next.