January 2, 2022

Rosh Hashanah 16

Today’s daf (Rosh Hashanah 16b) contains many profound theological teachings, including many associations with Parshat Vayera that we just read last Shabbat.
Among these is a deceptively simple statement relating to the judgement and evaluation of Yishmael by God, where we are told that כִּי שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם – “God has heard the boy’s cry there, where he is” (Bereishit 21:17).
Specifically, the question posed by Rabbi Yitzchak relates to the meaning of the phrase בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם – “there, where he is”, and whose resolution I’d understood to mean that while God could have judged Yishmael based on his future deeds, He judged Yishmael based on his merits at that moment. Consequently, Rabbi Yitzchak teaches us that אין דנין האדם אלא לפי מעשיו של אותה שעה – “we should only judge a person based on their actions of that given moment”.
Admittedly, until today I thought that I’d understood this remark. But today (especially having pondered the words of the Meshech Chochmah – on Bereishit 21:17 – on this teaching) it occurred to me that what is said about God actually has no relevance to us! This is because there will never be a time when we feel that we are forced to choose between judging someone in the moment and judging someone based on their future actions, since we – unlike God – can never know, or even (as noted by the Meshech Chochmah) assume to know, their future actions. Given this, what is the meaning of Rabbi Yitzchak’s teaching that “we should only judge a person based on their actions of that given moment”?
While I’m sure it could be explained in a variety of different ways, I believe that the message of this teaching – at least for us – is that while God has insight about both the past and future yet only judges in the present, we – who only have insight about the past, must nevertheless only judge in the present.
And this brings me back to how I described Rabbi Yitzchak’s teaching as being ‘deceptively simple’ – because the very idea of meeting, connecting, and treating people in the moment is not simple at all. Instead, far too often, we bring the baggage of past experiences and conversations into present encounters, and decide – often ahead of time – who a person is on who we think they previously were, and how to view a person now based on how we knew them then.
Thus what we learn from here is that to emulate God is to know much about a person – ‘warts and all’ – and, nevertheless, relate to them as if all we know is the good that is in front of us – לפי מעשיו של אותה שעה – “based on their actions of that given moment”.
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