Adapted from Pachad Yitzchak, by Rav Yitzchak Hutner

We are told that there are three books that are open before Hashem on Rosh HaShana. In one book, those who are completely righteous are inscribed for life; in the second book those who are completely evil are inscribed for death; and those people who fall in between these two poles hang in the balance until Yom HaKippurim. If they then merit life, they are inscribed for life, and if not then they are inscribed, God forbid, for death.

(Rav Hutner does not discuss the fact that this seems to imply that there are only two books that exist, with three groups of people that are to be divided up between the two books. This nuance of the gemara is one that I have not seen addressed and I would appreciate any feedback that anyone may have regarding it.)

Rambam, in writing over this baraita, changes the wording a bit. In describing what happens to a person who is neither completely evil nor completely righteous, he does not say that "if he merits..." but rather "if he does teshuva (repentance)..." then he will be inscribed for life. While the original statement of the Sages spoke about such a person having any sort of merit that can tilt the scales of judgement in his favor, Rambam limits the deciding factors to repentance alone. Rav Itzele Belzer of Petersburg wondered about this situation. Such a person in the middle is one whose deeds are evenly balanced, with his good deeds lacking the strength to overpower his bad deeds. This being so, then any good deed that he does, regardless of what it is, should be sufficient to swing the balance towards the good side and earn him a place in the book of life. If this is in fact the case, then he should not need to do something as momentous as teshuva, but rather can, for example, give a small amount of charity and with that decide his fate for the year to come!

This exclamation of wonderment can open up new vistas for us in our understanding of the terms "a majority of his deeds are meritorious" and "a majority of his deeds are sinful." We tend to think about these terms in a quantitative way. Even though the precise number of merits and sins is not the sole and absolute factor that determines which book a person will be inscribed in, there is no escaping the quantitative aspect of one's actions. There is no doubt that there are some good deeds that will single-handedly outweigh a number of evil actions, and vice versa. Nevertheless, even if this particular calculation is one that only Hashem can make, and even given the fact that there is a qualitative aspect involved here, the fact remains that the general approach taken is a quantitative one - each deed has a certain value, some higher and some lower, and all of those values are added up and balanced against each other to determine a person's "final score" in heaven.

However, while the quantitative approach is the one that most people operate with, deeper analysis will reveal a more complex way of dealing with the notions of merits and sins and the preponderance of one over the other. This new notion does not deal with these terms in terms of being absolute numbers. If that was the best way to deal with them, then a person whose merits outnumbered his sins need only confront several difficult and trying situations, and fail in them, in order for him to be transformed from a person with more merits than sins to being one with more sins than merits. A person's status changes every day and every hour when everything is seen as being a function of absolute numbers, and such a conception of divine justice is not one that is easily accepted. Rather, these terms should be seen as referring instead to the characteristics of an individual. The person who is described as having more merits than sins is one whose general nature it is to do good. As such, just as a person who is generally patient can get angry from time to time, so too is it possible for such a person to sin from time to time, even sometimes having more sins in a quantitative sense than he does merits. Nevertheless, these actions do not change the fact that such a person is inherently disposed towards doing good.

Furthermore, just as there is a difference in the ferocity of the anger of a person who angers easily and the ferocity of the anger of a patient individual who momentarily loses his cool, so too is there a difference between the sins of a sinner and the occasional sins of a person who usually strives to do good. Since the sins of the characteristically good individual do not stem from the deepest parts of his character, they will tend to be more on the surface - mere actions - and thus will not be as likely to become habitual.

With this new perspective we can deal with a point raised by Rav Itzele. He argued that since a person in the middle has the same number of merits and sins, then all that he has to do is do one mitzva, no matter how small, in order to be inscribed in the book of life for the entire year. This being the case, he asked, why did Rambam hang this individual's fate on teshuva alone? Now we can see the answer to this problem. Just as having more merits than sins is a human trait and just as having more sins than merits is a human trait, so too is having the same number of merits as sins a human trait. There is a type of person who has no particular inclination. On some days he is good and on other days he is bad, but neither is motivated by a desire to be one or the other. Even if he happens to perform a number of mitzvot, by virtue of his character he is still hanging in the middle, not distinguishing himself as a meritorious individual. Thus, Rambam changes the language of the baraita and says that such a person does not need to merely "merit" a little bit in order to be inscribed in the book of life, but rather that he actually has to do teshuva, he has to change his personality totally. Rambam describes the process of teshuva as saying that "I am now a new person and am no longer the person who performed all of these sins." In this spirit, the person with an ambivalent personality has to take a stand and proclaim that he is no longer a wishy-washy individual who will sometimes, by chance, do the right thing. Rather, he is now a person who actively chooses to do what is right, and by virtue of that he joins the ranks of those who are inscribed in the book of life.

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