I don’t pay much attention to my birthdays, but last week’s was particularly significant. I could pontificate on my years now equaling the number of prophets in mentioned in scripture, but I’ve long been anticipating this milestone for a different reason.
With this birthday, I have now been Torah observant for half my life.
Approaching Rosh HaShonah, we can’t (and shouldn’t try to) escape Rambam’s famous allegory of the scales of merit upon that will determine our fortunes for the coming year. Every one of us should consider himself 50/ 50 — half meritorious and half guilty, with the next action tilting the scales one way or the other. Every action could mean the difference between a good decree and a bad decree, between health and illness, between wealth and poverty, between continued exile and redemption, for ourselves as individuals and, possibly, for a world that is also evenly balanced.
Latecomers to Yiddishkeit haven’t necessarily lived wicked lives. Some of us even sought truth before we found it, and we may have tried to live lives of virtue even before we had the Torah to guide us. But hit-or-miss righteousness is hardly reliable, and even the best of us probably found that the temptation and impulse defeated our most sincere intentions before we developed a solid defense against them.
So the image of 50/ 50 carries a special poignancy for me this year, as I reflect on half a lifetime of playing catch-up, learning aleph-beis two decades too late, struggling with ritual and halacha, and trying to help my children and my students benefit from the double-vision glasses through which I see the world of Torah and the world of no-Torah. It’s painful to witness how casually many who are born into Torah society take Torah for granted, see it more as an inconvenience than an inheritance, and treat it with careless indifference.
It would be easy for me to claim that I’ve more than tipped the scales toward the side of merit. But with the scales evenly balanced in years, what better moment than now to reflect on the catastrophic consequence of one false move, or the incalculable heroism of a single step at the right moment in the right direction?