The Only Torah Many People Will Ever Read

Rabbi Jared H. Saks

Kol Nidre 5778. September 29, 2017 – 10 Tishrei 5778

You’ve probably heard of Mitch Albom’s book The Five People You Meet in Heaven, but what you may not heard of are the six questions you’ll be asked when you arrive. In Tractate Shabbat (31a) in the Talmud, the Sages give us some insight into what we will experience when we arrive in the World-to-Come. They tell us that when we reach the gates of heaven, we will be asked six questions, a sort of theological entrance exam, to determine whether or not we’ve earned a place in the World-to-Come. This evening, we’ve stood before the open, empty ark, the aron kodesh, with its kodesh, the holy Torah scrolls removed, leaving an empty aron, both the Hebrew word for cabinet and casket. On this day, we contemplate our lives. What better preparation than considering who we are and measuring ourselves against whom we ought to be and considering the questions that we’ll be asked when our lives draw to a close.

The six questions we’re told we’ll be asked are:

1) Did you do business with honesty and integrity?

2) Did you set time aside for study of Torah?

3) Did you participate in the commandment to be fruitful and multiply?

4) Did you anxiously anticipate redemption?

5) Did you engage in the pursuit of wisdom?

6) Did you have reverence for God?

These questions, according to the Sages, are the measure of our character. There are two I want to explore with you this evening. They are setting time aside for study of Torah and participation in the commandment to be fruitful and multiply.

Neither of these questions are what they appear at face value. The Sages and scholars since have interpreted layers of meaning into each of them that extend beyond what the question implies. So, let’s begin with study of Torah. While I’d love to see you there, this isn’t a question about attending Torah Study on Shabbat mornings. This isn’t a question about engaging in adult learning opportunities in our congregation and in the broader Jewish community. Rabbi Stewart Weiss teaches that this question means, “Did we establish a discipline of life, whereby our human needs were intertwined with our spiritual obligations?”[1]

Our Sages teach that study without action is useless. While they praise what they call Torah lishma, learning for the sake of learning, ultimately, Judaism is a religion of deed. It is our actions, not our belief or our knowledge, that matter. It’s not the knowledge we possess by which we are measured, but rather, what we do with that knowledge. In Tractate Yoma (86a), the Sages discuss various transgressions and the power of this day to atone for our mistakes. One of the transgressions they discuss is desecration of the Divine Name. In trying to explain what constitutes the desecration of God’s name, Rabbi Yitzchak of the academy of Yannai teaches, “Anyone whose friends are embarrassed on account of his reputation, that is a desecration of the Divine Name.” The text goes on to explain that understanding what insulting God’s name means how the public perceives one’s behavior.

So, the key to avoiding defilement of God’s name is to ensure that our actions earn us a good reputation. Later in the passage, Abaye teaches that we are expected to spread the love of God through our actions. If we study Torah and help others to do so, if our business activities are decent and trustworthy, then people will say of us, “Have you seen the behavior of the one who studies Torah? How beautiful! What a fine person!” When we put Torah’s teachings into action, when we demonstrate our relationship with God through the way we move about the world, we earn ourselves a good reputation and can sufficiently answer the question, “Did you set time aside for the study of Torah?”

But this gets us only part of the way. The other question that I think bears the greatest weight in this list of six is the question about whether or not we participated in the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. On the p’shat level, the simple interpretation, this question asks us whether or not we have had children. But this is not the deeper meaning of this question. Rabbi Stewart Weiss asks, “Did we see ourselves as a finite end in and of itself, or rather as a link in the ongoing, eternal chain of the generations? Were we isolationist in our approach to others, or were we genuinely concerned for their welfare? Did we restrict ourselves to self-indulgence, or did we see our mission as making a difference in the world at large?”[2]

These two questions – did you make Torah part of your daily actions and did you concern yourself with improving the world for future generations? – are the essence of this day of Yom Kippur and of our lives, I believe. I passed a church in town some months ago and saw on their signboard a mantra I’d like to share with you, with some editing:  You are the only Torah many people will ever read. Let me say that again:  You are the only Torah many people will ever read. Imagine that your life depends upon your ability to live the words of our tradition, that our prayers on this holiest day of the year are not mere lip service, but rather a call for us to put into action the words we’ve recited tonight and that we’ll speak tomorrow. You are the only Torah many people will ever read.

Some of us see ourselves as more religious than others. Some see ourselves as less religious. Some come to synagogue for ritual and holidays. Others come for community and camaraderie. Some are turned off by organized religion. Some of us know that we’re not all that organized. But wherever you find yourself on your Jewish journey, you are a vessel of living Torah, an opportunity to be God’s presence in the world, to turn what you know into action, to repair the world for generations to come.

I’ve contemplated in the months and weeks leading up to this day what I ought to say and what I ought not say from this bimah. Some of my rabbinic heroes, like Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf of blessed memory, didn’t shy away from the controversial, the challenging, even the political from the bimah. This year, especially, many of my colleagues have been more deliberate in talking politics from the pulpit. While I’ve often advocated for radical social justice from this pulpit, never have I called out politicians or, perhaps, even particular policies. But the year that has passed since we last gathered for the High Holy Days has been a year unlike any other in my lifetime. The great rabbis of the last century spoke out against the war in Vietnam, fought for civil rights, and opposed the forces of their age who sought to unravel the fabric of our society and our world.

The current state of politics in our country, the turning a blind eye to the reality of climate change and its victims in the Caribbean, the persecution of people of color and immigrants in our country, the license given to neo-Nazis and anti-Semites from the highest office in our land, and the blatant disregard for the needs of the most vulnerable call out to me, like the bloods of Abel, slain by his brother Cain, that called to God in heaven. I truly believe that we have a religious and moral obligation to be a light to the nations, to be a force for social justice and social action in our world, and that if we fail to answer the call in our world today, we will not be able to answer sufficiently the six questions we’ll be asked at the end of our lives, especially the questions of whether or not we put Torah’s values into practice in our lives and whether or not we saw ourselves in a chain of tradition with a responsibility to improve the world for those who will come after us.

I believe that these hands are God’s hands, that your hands are God’s hands, that the greatest power God has in this world is through us, because we are the only Torah that many people will ever read. Rabbi Stewart Weiss, after examining the six questions outlined in Talmud, asks this additional question:  “Did you fight for justice? From the very beginning of Torah, there is a mandate to seek justice. God demands it of Adam and Eve, and from Cain. Abraham argues for justice at Sodom and Gomorrah; Moses fights for justice throughout his entire life – from extricating us from Egypt to challenging God as to why the righteous suffer and the wicked seem to prosper.”[3] As the next links in the chain of our tradition, we have an obligation to answer that question, too. Are we fighting for justice?

In the Talmud (Shabbat 54b), the Sages teach us that anyone who is able to protest against the misconduct of one’s household, and does not, is responsible for the actions of the members of the household; anyone who is able to protest against the misconduct of one’s townspeople, and does not, is responsible for the actions of the townspeople; anyone who is able to protest against the misconduct of the entire world, and does not, is punished for the misconduct of the entire world. “Torah is an inherently political document—it is a vision for how society must organize itself, placing at the center of our concern the most vulnerable:  the hungry, the poor, elderly, youth, immigrant, sock, and wounded. Religion is always political.”[4]

Consider the prophetic text of our Haftarah reading from Isaiah, chapter 58. Scholars believe that this chapter, part of the final section of the book of Isaiah, was likely written by later authors and directed to a Jewish audience who had returned from exile in Babylonia. They’ve begun the work of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem and even as they engage in the proper fast days and sacrifices, Isaiah observes that their worship does not match their deeds.

Isaiah’s words cannot be more clear to us:  “Is such the fast I desire, a day for humanity to starve its bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when the Eternal is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire:  to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own flesh and blood.”[5]

Preaching to a Jewish people more concerned with ritual than the welfare of their neighbor, Isaiah insists that if God is to hear our plea, our words must match our actions. As Senator Paul Wellstone, of blessed memory, used to say:  Live the words you speak. You are the only Torah many people will ever read. On this day, we have the luxury of asking ourselves the questions, but when Yom Kippur ends, we must get back to work. Are we setting the oppressed free? Are we sharing our bread with the hungry? Are we welcoming the poor into our homes? Are we clothing the naked? Are we caring for the most vulnerable, not turning a blind eye to their needs? If our answer to even one of these questions is, “No,” then we are not turning our study and prayer into action.

Consider our Haftarah reading for tomorrow afternoon, as well, from the book of Jonah. If you recall, Jonah is called by God to prophesy to the people of Nineveh, warning them that their wickedness will lead to their destruction. Jonah shirks responsibility and flees. He ends up in the belly of a great fish that casts him upon the shore, where he finally stops running from God’s call to mend the world and protests in Nineveh. When the people change course, Jonah is disappointed that God has a change of heart and accepts their atonement. God, then, teaches Jonah a lesson. God grows a gourd plant beside Jonah, providing him with shade in the blazing heat. The next day, the plant withers and dies and Jonah weeps. God rebukes him:  “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons?”[6]

God’s lesson to Jonah begs the question:  Are we more concerned with our privilege than we are with the well-being of the countless souls who are suffering in our world? When will we stop shirking our responsibility and be less like Jonah and answer Isaiah’s call? When will we turn our lip service into actual service and begin living the words we speak?

Abraham is, perhaps, the first protestor in our history. When confronted by the pending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argues with God and fights for justice for any righteous souls who might live in those two cities. He convinces God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if there are at least 50 righteous people living there. There aren’t, so Abraham gets God to agree to his terms if there are 45, if there are 40, 30, 20, or even just 10 righteous people. Unfortunately, Sodom and Gomorrah lack even 10 righteous people, so Abraham’s protest fails. When we speak out against injustice in our world, when we protest the deaths of innocent black men, when we flood our senators’ offices with phone calls to protect the healthcare of millions of Americans, when we fight for the dignity of the most vulnerable, we will not always succeed. Like Abraham, our protests will sometimes fail, but that doesn’t mean we get to give up.

Nonetheless, we are his heirs, the inheritors of his legacy of justice and if this day demands anything of us, it demands that we be prepared to answer the questions we’ll be asked when we die:  Have we turned Torah into action in our lives? Are we enacting our mission to act on behalf of humanity and improve the world for generations to come? If our answers to these questions aren’t affirmative and emphatic, then we have some work to do, because we are the only Torah that many people will ever read. G’mar chatimah tovah. May your deeds inscribe you in the Book of Life. Shanah tovah.

[1] Stewart Weiss. ”In Plain Language:  The six questions you will be asked in heaven,” The Jerusalem Post. August 22, 2013,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Michael Adam Latz.

[5] Isiaah 58:5-7.

[6] Jonah 4:10-11.

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