Oh, the images associated with judging, and especially at this time of year! I can picture them vividly some days. I’ll share what I see with you and you can tell me if it rings true – if it looks right.
You walk into a room – you can’t see the wall, you can’t see floor or ceiling very clearly, but maybe it’s a bit like an assembly hall or a court room. There are definitely shadowy figures at the sides – whether they are audience or record keepers, monitors or guards you do not know. They are not shadowy because of darkness, they are shadowy because you cannot seem to focus precisely on their shapes. Their shapes do not stay in your mind, as if your mind doesn’t have quite enough capacity to hold them. The more you try to examine them, the harder they are to make out. Pictures and ideas that you understand appear in your head. They look like angels with wings standing stern with arms crossed, They look like random people, sitting around observing the proceedings. They look like newspaper reporters, or dragons, secretaries or storks. The images flicker and you realize each of them has as much accuracy as the other. Your mind settles on an image that works for you, stays there for a while, and then moves to another. The room is quite bright – the light so piercing that it should hurt your head, but strangely soft, too – so instead of causing pain, it calms and strengthens. Most of the room is like the recording figures, hard to perceive clearly because there’s more going on than one can see. The only clear part of the room is the line of people in which you stand.
For you are in a line-up. People stand in front of you, all walking towards a grand table on which rest two books, one crisp and clear and white, and one bent and broken, torn and sad looking, dark, but not a nice black – more a dirty brown-black-green which makes you feel uneasy. A quill pen is being used to write, first in the one book, then the other. The image flickers – the pen is now a shepherd’s staff, held just above people’s paths, with two different paths ahead of the staff. The image flickers once again. The staff becomes a mirror, held before people, showing their true reflection. Another blink of your eyes. It’s a balance now, weighing good deeds and bad on the scale.
Sins are what is being weighed. All the times that a wrong choice was made, that something important was missed. As you look, you realize that although you are not the person at the front of the line, the sins are yours. It is the time that you made a promise to your kid to take care of something important and forgot to do so that’s being carefully written in that book. The scale holds the money you spent frivolously when you had bills that needed paying. Under the staff, you can see the disappointed faces of the friends you didn’t find time to contact. In the mirror, you see your face the last time you had that screaming fit of hysterics. It is overwhelming, heart-breaking, unending. Sin after sin, letter after letter, detail after detail, every mistake of the last year (and your life before, if there was anything left unresolved) – every time you missed the mark is there in stark relief. You want to look away, but you cannot. It goes on and on until you are certain you’ve been there much longer than the year it took to live through it all – until you feel you’ve been there forever. You are broken , undone, despairing.
And in the second column of that same dark book you see the consequences. There are your visions of fire and brimstone, of all of the horrible deaths of the Unetane Tokef (the prayer calling us to reflect on the year during the high holidays.) There, down the dark path behind the shepherd’s staff are the more mundane results of your actions. That same boring job, the distance between you and your loved ones, your body wrecked through careless misuse. After the catalogue of your sins, the punishments seem almost reasonable.
Finally, you wrench your eyes to the side and look at that other book – the bright one. Is there anything there at all? Did you do anything right? You did. Every positive choice you made is here too. Every time you picked up a piece of garbage on the street and put it away, every kind word you said, every day you kept going though you really wanted to collapse and every time you didn’t scream although you were hurt – they have been noted. You may have felt no-one knew – now, there is an audience who does. You stand a little straighter. Although the future in the mirror still holds difficulties – there’s still that job, and the hard relationships and the illness – you know that these are not something you are to blame for. You realize that you’re looking forward to working through the challenges, and remember with a rueful smile that the reward for a job well done is a harder job. You look up.
For there is Someone holding the pen, the staff, the balance, the mirror. The light now gets unimaginably bright and it is only because of a veil that you are not consumed by it. Your mind tries to resolve what you see behind the veil – a Judge with a pen and a gavel? A Shepherd with the staff? An Earth-Mother holding the mirror? A blind Lady Justice with a scale? You cannot even try to understand. Even Moses could only see the tefilin knot – the very very back – of God’s head. All you know is that God is There and that God is judging.
And you are next in line. The line has moved forward and you are next. You reach out, hoping for a positive verdict and your hand is enveloped in Something – not a hand, but the very essence of hand, holding and supporting you in a way you hadn’t been supported since you first learned to walk, the hand of a Parent and a Friend, a Lover and a Ruler. With your hand so held, you realize it doesn’t matter to you any longer which way the balance tips. You are on your path into the next year. The only thing that matters is that you have been found worthy of being so judged.