As we approach the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days, known as Rosh HaShana, an anecdote involving one of our latter-day great Torah scholars can shed light on the direction in life that these days of introspection are to point us in.
In his Mekor Barukh, R. Barukh HaLevi Epstein, translated in My Uncle the Netziv, pp. 50-54, tells of an encounter he witnessed between the famed R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1820 – 1892) and a former student while R. Soloveitchik was meeting with a number of people as he happened to visit a given town.
After a few minutes of talking to him, R. Soloveitchik asked the student, “How are you doing?” The student responded, “Thank G-d, my business is going well. About a year ago my brother-in-law and I opened up a store that sells sugar. We have already seen blessing and, in fact, we just heard that the price of sugar has gone up and will probably go up again. We have great hope of making a handsome profit on our stock.”
After a little while passed, R. Soloveitchik again asked the student, “How are you doing?” The student patiently responded, “As I told my rebbe, my business is going well, and we are seeing great blessing from it.”
After more time passed, R. Soloveitchik again turned to the student and asked, “How are you doing?” The student, perplexed, like the others who were present during this discussion, and feeling embarrassed for his former teacher, turned to R. Soloveitchik and asked, “Why does the rebbe keep troubling himself to repeat the same question so many times? I have already answered you twice that, thank G-d, my business is going well.”
Seeing the confusion of his student and all present, R. Soloveitchik responded, “Although you answered the question in accordance with your understanding of it, you obviously misunderstood it and answered a question that I had not even asked you. So I decided to ask it again, in the hope that maybe this time your understanding would improve…Again, you gave me the same answer to the same unasked question. So I tried a third time…again you answered the wrong question…So I have no choice but to explain it to you in order to get a proper response.”
R. Soloveitchik continued to explain, “Everyone knows that a person’s lot in this world – his health and possessions, his wealth and poverty, his tragedies and joys, everything that happens to him – all come from the hand of Divine Providence. G-d looks down on every human being and blesses him in accordance with his deeds. A person who performs good deeds may be inspired from above to go to a certain place and acquire certain merchandise, to go into business with a particular person, to buy and sell at the most opportune time…Everything he accomplishes is only through the power granted him by Divine Providence…It follows that all a man does must not only be attributed to him alone, but rather to the One Who sent him…Yet there is one area of life from which G-d has, so to speak, removed Himself and which He has placed totally in the hands of people…fear of Heaven. In that area, man has free reign to act in any way he pleases. His decisions, his activities are truly his; he and no one else – not even G-d – creates them and controls them… Fear of Heaven includes all that is noble in a person’s life: love of Torah, perfection in Divine service, honesty, mercy, kindness, righteousness, justice, generosity, love of one’s fellow man, helping out a neighbor in distress, lifting up those that stumble, a good eye and a good heart, and everything else that shows an upright nature, both towards one’s fellow man and towards G-d. In short, all one’s physical and material attainments are called ‘acts of G-d,’ for He is the one who accomplishes them through man, but a person’s spiritual attainments are called ‘acts of man,’ for only man performs them and has total control over them.”
“For this reason,” R. Soloveitchik concluded, turning his face toward the student, “had the purpose of my question been to inquire about your material success, your business and your possessions, I would have asked ‘How is G-d doing by you?’ Then you could have properly answered me, as you did, that G-d has placed in your heart the inspiration to purchase sugar and is seeing to it that you succeed in your business. But as I asked you, ‘How are you doing?’ it should have been clear that I was referring to actions that are dependent upon you – totally within your will and ability to perform, actions that are completely yours. It should have been clear that I was referring to your spiritual attainments. You should have answered the question by telling me if you set aside a fixed time to study Torah every day… if your hand is stretched out to perform acts of charity or kindness…if you are modest and straightforward in business…if you act in a way that is pleasing both to Heaven and to your fellow man. Instead, all I hear about is your sugar purchases! But I did not ask about that aspect of your life at all!”
As we engage in introspection of our actions during the High Holy Days, G-d is asking of us, “How are you doing?” and is looking to us to think about how we are performing those actions that are exclusively ours – our adherence to His precepts, our charity, our kindness, our honesty. May we have the wisdom to properly answer G-d’s question and the sense to truly perform our actions as they should be and to continually improve upon them – for our own sakes.