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Maximizing Our Spiritual ROI

For most of us, particularly those of us who have long since entered adulthood, five years may not seem like such a long time. However, particularly for those who had planned to retire during the past half-decade, the five year period that just concluded felt anything but quick and normal.

In Fall 2008, the financial markets experienced an acceleration to the bear market that was already well into formation. Unlike most bear markets, however, this decline was protracted and seemingly endless, a fall unseen in length and scope since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Financial stalwarts, including Bear Sterns and Lehmann Brothers, collapsed under the burden of toxic debt and inflated balance sheets. Other banking giants, large insurers, mortgage lenders, leading automobile manufacturers and other “untouchable”, “too big to fail” entities faced similar fates, only to be rescued by the greatest government financial bailout in world history. By the time that the Market carnage was complete in March 2009, the Dow had fallen to 6547 and stocks had already lost more than half their value.

Five years later, we see a completely different picture. Since the beginning of the 2009 bull market, housing prices have rebounded and mortgage rates have begun to rise considerably, both bullish indicators of the economy’s strength and long-term health. Perhaps most significantly, stocks on the aggregate have seen a return of 174%. A pretty significant ROI (Return on Investment).

Understandably, ROI is something that we think about routinely. Investors want to know what type of return they can expect to receive on their money. Students want to know the average benefit of pursuing advanced degrees. People in distressed relationships seek to understand what they can expect to gain from their investment of time and resources into therapy or other interventions.

In most cases, ROI is measured by the Bottom Line. If the effort and investment result in a meaningful profit or gain, then the investment is considered to be worthwhile. If not, then the ROI is said to negligible and the enterprise not worthy of future investment. However, there is one notable exception to this rule. It relates particularly to this time of year, when we stand before our Maker in solemn hope that we will experience a positive judgment. 

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu, Vol II, pp. 96-97) writes that when stand before God on Yom Kippur, our entire judgment rides not on our “bottom line” actions, but on the inner desires and motivators that exist within our hearts. He supports his argument by citing Ramban (Nachmanides), who writes that Rosh Hashana is a “yom hadin b’rachamim” (day of strict justice couched in mercy) and Yom Kippur a “yom harachamim b’din.” (day of mercy couched in strict justice)

The explanation to Ramban’s words, says Rabbi Dessler, is as follows. Despite the seriousness of Rosh Hashana, we have the capacity to stir divine mercy on that holy day by demonstrating such qualities of giving and compassion towards others. Conversely, we have the ability to transform the compassionate day of Yom Kippur into one of strict judgment if we are unable to engage in meaningful change. He studies our inclinations and desires deeply to understand what really motivates us and judges us accordingly. As with the ben sorer u’moreh (wayward son who is ki8lled prematurely following a series of insolent behaviors), God may deem it more appropriate to consequence us at present so as to ensure that we not become even more sinful in the future. In this sense, our motivations and inner drives are most important, as they shed valuable light on what the spiritual ROI might be from bestowing upon us a year of health and prosperity.

This explanation helps us better understand the roles and relationship between God’s attributes of din and rachamim. Typically, we perceive these two attributes as mutually independent elements of divine justice. God either chooses to judge a person strictly or He applies compassionate mercy, and softens the severity of the true judgment against sinners.

However, this understanding is wholly inaccurate. Rashi, commenting on the first verse in the Torah, questions why it is that throughout the entire first chapter of Genesis only the name “Elokim” – the divine name used to express strict justice – is used when referencing the Creator. Yet, at the beginning of the following chapter (2:4ff), the combined term of “Hashem Elokim” is utilized (a term indicating that not only had rachamim become incorporated into God’s mode of judgment, but had even bypassed  din  as the primary means of ruling). Rashi’s response provides us with a new insight into our discussion.

In the beginning it was His intention to create (the world) with the Divine Standard of Justice, but he perceived that the world would not endure, so He preceded it with the Divine Standard of Mercy, allying it with the Divine Standard of Justice. (Rashi to Genesis 1:1)

Since the earliest stages of creation, God deemed it necessary for din and rachamim to be melded together to form one complete entity, working together harmoniously in response to Man’s misdeeds.

When we stand before God on Yom Kippur and beseech Him for mercy, we need to consider the situation from His perspective. He asks, “What benefit will there be for im if I were to extend his life by another year and grant him the blessings that he seeks? What is the potential ROI in such an arrangement?” If God can discern a true desire for growth and teshuva within us, then He will see the investment as worthwhile. If not, then He may see the best recourse to be something very different than what we request, God forbid.

As we approach God this week, let us aspire to give Him every opportunity to see us as spiritual bull markets, individuals and communities who are on an upwards trajectory, even if the final results and outcome are a few years out, if not longer. Let Him see the many efforts and strong desire for growth, efforts that will, in the long haul, produce the kind of positive outcome that God and we all desire.