The days of reckoning are here, and it is time for the loving exam. Most exams are associated with tension and trepidation. Irrespective of how well we know the material, proctors do their best to make it stressful. Fear of failure, fear of getting caught cheating, and fear of falling short of the mark fill the air. But this exam is different. It is a loving exam.
Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgment. The day when every living thing passes before G-d like a flock of sheep. He determines who shall live and who shall die, who in peace, and who in war, who in prosperity and who in poverty. Our destiny is decided on this day and who doesn’t tremble before the grandeur and majesty of this magnificent day?
The trial is held on Rosh Hashanah and the verdict is read on Yom Kippur. During the days in between, we make our case before G-d. Like any defendant on trial, we demonstrate contrition and plead for grace.
To accomplish this, we must first be familiar with the scales that G-d is weighing. What exactly are the good deeds that weigh in our favor and which inappropriate deeds is G-d considering? Precisely what is hanging in the balance?
The only way to repent for the things we did wrong is to know them first and for this we must make an honest accounting. We take inventory of our spiritual state and self-examine. It must be brutally honest, but it must not be honestly brutal. It ought to be a loving exam.
But how can this exam be loving if our destiny hangs in the balance as we tremble before G-d? The answer is that though the exam will tell us precisely what we did right and wrong, it won’t thunder down on us in recrimination and humiliation. It will take a kind, soft, loving tone. A loving exam.
The Loving Exam
This exam should be more like a father talking to his son about something he needs to improve than a stern proctor administering a test. The father is no less rigorous and honest, but he in loving. My child, try to think before you speak. Or my child, try to listen to people rather than interrupt them.
The father doesn’t tell the child that he is an awful person. The father tells the child that he is a good boy and that he has every faith in his ability to improve. The father shines a loving light on the areas that require improvement. He is demanding, not demeaning. He is honest, not brutal.
The son should walk away feeling that he can and will do better. It is not a pleasant experience for the son. No exam ever is, no matter how lovingly it is applied. But it is a constructive experience.
When we self-examine and take an honest look at our shortcomings, we feel the same tensions and vulnerabilities that a child feels when his father points them out. And we need to acknowledge that these feelings are real. The baby in me, still vulnerable and insecure, recoils as tension washes over him. It falls to the adult me to acknowledge the fears and tensions of little me. To say, I know what you are feeling, and this experience can be bitter, but I am your big brother and I love you. I wouldn’t hurt you and I need you to trust me. Bear with me because from bitter we will soon transition to better.
Bitter Better, Sad Bad
This is a critical point. Self-examination is intended to be bitter because facing our faults and shortcomings is a bitter experience. But it is not meant to make us feel sad. If I grow sad over my sins, I will lose courage, fall into despair, and lose confidence in myself. This will become a self-fulfilling prophecy as I will certainly repeat the crime. If bitter leads to better, sad leads to bad.
The bitter experience of facing our failures is cathartic. It forces us to confront it and change it. Big me tells little me that these deeds require improvement, but they don’t define us. We are much better than them and we can turn the page. Once we acknowledge them, we can no longer ignore them. Thus, bitter leads to better.
But if big me thunders down on little me and engages in self berating and self-recrimination, how could you have done this and what does this say about you, little me will self-destruct. Sad will lead to bad.
We must, therefore, ensure that our exam is a loving exam. Little me must hear from big me that we are good people who slipped up and are very capable of improving.
The Follow Up
The best way to concretize this message is to follow up our inventory of faults with an inventory of strengths. Just as we must know our shortcomings so must we know our strengths.
After offering up a litany of the things you need to improve, make a list of the many things you do well. You will be surprised at how many there are. You will feel good about yourself again, but you won’t forget your task. On the contrary, if you feel good about yourself, you will feel empowered and motivated to be even better.
You will embark on the improvement project with gusto and confidence because, after all, you are one of the good guys.
I learned this lesson from one of my sons. We were walking to Shull one Shabbat morning, and I told him about some of the behaviors that he needed to improve. When I finished, I told him that it is not pleasant to hear about our faults. No matter how lovingly they are presented, it is a bitter experience. But since bitter leads to better, he should know that I love him. Moreover, notwithstanding the faults I had highlighted, there are many delightful things about him that I admire.
Displaying a wisdom far beyond his years, he made a proposal. Tatty, he said, if there are many good things about me, why don’t you list them for me on our walk home from Shull? I agreed and a huge smile appeared on his face. “This will be the best walk home from Shull ever,” said he.
Sure enough on the walk home from Shull, I enumerated and elaborated on his many strengths. I told him at length about why I admire each one and broke them down for him in detail. As we walked into the house, he said, “Wow, there were so many more good things than bad things.”
I don’t think I will forget this experience anytime soon. The bounce in his step, the sparkle in his eye, and the buoyancy in his demeanor all told me that he felt good about himself. He had not forgotten the things he needed to work on. He remembered precisely how many there were and kept count when balancing them against the good things. But the knowledge that he is really a good kid, empowered him to do the heavy lifting.
Are we adults any different? We each have a child in us, and that child begs for a loving exam.