Rav Huna the son of Rav Yehoshua became ill. Rav Pappa went up to inquire about him, and saw that Rav Huna was on the brink of death. Rav Pappa told the people around him, “Supply him with provisions for his journey (i.e. dress him in burial shrouds).” In the end, however, Rav Huna recovered. Rav Pappa was embarrassed to face him. They said to Rav Huna, “What did you see?” He said, “Indeed it was as Rav Pappa said – I was about to die, but at the last moment, the Holy One, Blessed is He, said to the Heavenly Tribunal, ‘Since he does not stand on his principle, do not take a strict stand against him.’ As it is stated, He pardons transgression and overlooks sin. Whose transgression does He pardon? One who overlooks sins committed against himself.” (Rosh Hashanah 17a, Talmud Bavli, Schottenstein Edition)
This year I approach the Days of Awe with great trepidation. I am no Sage. I am neither as righteous nor as pious, not as learned nor as successful, as Rav Huna and Rav Pappa. These Sages of blessed memory were close friends, spiritual leaders, and wealthy partners in the beer business. How they balanced all those responsibilities is a mystery to me. I feel like my to-do list gets longer every day, even the high-priority items.
One such overdue item is posting a new piece here on Accidental Talmudist. I’ve been writing for the Huffington Post in relation to history and politics, often channeling my Talmud energy into Abraham Lincoln-related insights that help me reach a broader audience, and thus spread the word about my new film, Saving Lincoln. The truth is, I am terrified by the financial instability that accompanies my filmmaking career, because I have a wife and children who depend on me.
I have never been able to pursue stories about sex, violence, horror, etc. because I couldn’t bear to throw years of my heart and soul into those subjects. Please don’t get me wrong – I often enjoy movies that contain those elements, but I feel called to create something different. So I have endeavored to both entertain and inspire with films like When Do We Eat? and Saving Lincoln. I feel good about my choices, but inspiring films simply don’t pay the bills as readily as nudity and gore. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve picked the wrong principle to stand upon.
Rav Huna tells us he was rewarded with a life-saving cure because he did NOT stand on principle. Of course, he’s talking about a different kind of principle. He was rewarded for not holding grudges. The Talmud includes this story in its discussion of Rosh Hashanah because we all come before the Heavenly Tribunal during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The resulting decree determines who will live and who will die in the coming year, who will fall sick and who will be healed, who will gain respite from financial stress and who will not. Our Sages tell us there are some few individuals who are so righteous that they are sealed for a favorable decree on the first day, and a few more who are so wicked that they are immediately sealed for the opposite. The vast majority of us, however, occupy the middle ground. We must pass before the Heavenly Tribunal and have our deeds examined. During that ten day trial, we are permitted, and even encouraged, to throw ourselves upon the mercy of the Court.
If we cry out sincerely to God for forgiveness, and commit to making positive change, it is likely that we will be forgiven, because God pardons transgression and overlooks sin (Micah 7:18). God will not, however, forgive the wrongs we do to each other, because only the wronged can forgive (Rosh Hashanah 17b). And so, we must examine our interactions with other people carefully, rushing to make amends and seek forgiveness in the little time which remains before the Days of Awe come upon us.
My friends, please forgive me for being distant as the Accidental Talmudist while I’ve been striving to promote my film. I do not kid myself that you’ve been anxious over my absence, but I have indeed failed you, as I came to understand this past Shabbat, when I had the honor to teach a bit of Torah at the Library Minyan, here in LA. In preparing my remarks for a congregation that includes many, profoundly learned rabbis, professors and righteous individuals, I realized that I have something unique to contribute as the Accidental Talmudist, and therefore I have to do it. As Moses tell us, this thing is very near to you, in your mouths and in your hearts that you may do it (Deut. 30:14). For me, that "thing" is learning and teaching the ways of Torah from my unusual perspective as a Jewtino husband, father, son of a Holocaust survivor, filmmaker, writer, and ex-lawyer, who stumbled into, stayed with, and read the whole Talmud.
With God's help, I have managed to remain active at Facebook.com/AccidentalTalmudist, where I try to post a bit of our tribe’s ancient wisdom every day. Even if you are not on Facebook, you can visit the page and see the posts. It’s a valuable forum because it’s easy to comment, discussion flows freely, and we’ve formed a vibrant community of 8,000+ people who enjoy walking the path toward wisdom together.
Rav Huna teaches us that the Lord forgives those who forgive others. I remember a great phrase from Jonathan Franzen’s novel, The Corrections, in which a character is continually “compiling evidence” of her victimhood at the hands of loved ones. Oy! Terrible idea, and yet, we all do it. We’ve got to let go of that stuff, so we can move forward. There’s just not enough time in our days, nor in our lifetimes, for that junk.
Rav Huna’s story also reminded me that “letting go” applies to more than the grudges we nurse over deep hurts and years of aggravation. It’s also about not “standing on principle” when that principle blocks the ways of peace. In other words, being right is not so important. Recognizing that we all make clumsy mistakes, and that we do it all the time, goes much further. Once we enter that frame of mind, we’ll be much slower to create those grudges in the first place. If on the other hand, we don't pursue the forgiving frame of mind, then we won't really make any positive change at all, and we’ll find ourselves regretting a whole new crop of grudges next year.
My prayer for all of us is that we treat one another with a little more forgiveness in the coming year, emulating the humility and friendship of Rav Huna and Rav Pappa. And may we all be blessed with infinite health, sweetness, friendship and prosperity! L’shanah tovah!