Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
A woman was in the hospital. Her doctor would come daily to visit her, would check her over very quickly then walk out of the room. She grew very angry at this, and one day she confronted him, “You come in every day, give a quick look, never say anything, then walk out. You never even ask me how I feel.”
He said, “You’re right, I’m sorry.”
The next time he visited her, he walked into the room and said, “Well Mrs. Cohen, how are you feeling today?”
She replied, “Oy Doctor, don’t ask!”
We all know that questions are the primary way we learn about life. Now that’s OK if you are doing the asking, but there are plenty of times in our lives when we don’t like being on the receiving end of questions. Like, “Where were you all night?” or, “What happened to the allowance I just gave you?” or “Where did that dent in my car come from?”
And of course all of us who have been in school remember those famous end of the year questions called, “The final exam.”
What if life itself had a final exam. What questions would be on it? Believe it or not, the rabbis of the Talmud asked themselves exactly that question, and imagined that indeed there was a final exam at the end of life, and God did the asking. It’s God’s Final Exam.
The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) discusses God’s final exam questions for each of us when our lives are over, and teaches that when we die and stand before the heavenly judge, there will be four questions that God will ask us all.
The bad news is that they are tough, challenging questions. The good news is that it’s an open book exam - and I’m going to give you all four questions in advance - right now in fact - so you can study and prepare your answers for the rest of your lives.
QUESTION # 1 - NASATA VENATA BE-EMUNAH
As remarkable as it may seem, the first place the rabbi’s turn to examine our behavior is the realm of business ethics.
Did you conduct your business honestly? or literally, “Did you conduct your business with faithfulness” - that is with integrity, in a way that was worthy of the trust of others, where your word was your bond.
What a strange place for God’s final exam to begin - with business ethics. What does it mean - nasata vinata be-emunah? I remember that the great banker/financial J.P. Morgan was once asked what he considered to be the best bank collateral. Without hesitation he replied, “Character.” That’s nasata vinata be-emunah.
Readers digest recently ran an article on auto repair shops - when 226 garages were randomly selected to repair a car with only a missing spark plug wire, 74% (167 shops) repaired something not broken, or did nothing and charged up to $500.
There are two places in the Torah where our secret mission on earth is revealed - first in Genesis when God first appears to Abraham the first Jew. God tells Abraham - and therefore all of us who claim to be his spiritual descendents - that his job on earth is to be a blessing, so that all the families of the earth shall be blessed because of him, because of us.
The second place our secret mission is revealed is in Leviticus 19 - there God simply says, “Be holy.” Both of these related to Final Exam Question #1.
Because acting in our everyday business life as a model of Jewish ideals, values, principles, character, ethics is what it means to “be holy,” is what it means to “be a blessing.” Nasata vinata be-emunah . For Jews, being a blessing and being holy isn’t some far-off, unattainable lofty ideal. It reflects real expectations for living in the real world and dealing everyday with real people.
You may remember the famous Davis Love golf story in 1994. During the second round of the Western Open he called a one-stroke penalty on himself. He had moved his marker on a green to get it out of another player’s putting line. One or two holes later, he couldn’t remember if he had moved his ball back to its original spot. Unsure, Love gave himself an extra stroke.
As it turned out, that one stroke caused him to miss the cut that year and get knocked out of the tournament. If he had made the cut and even finished dead last, he would have earned $2,000 for the week. At the end of the year, Love was $590 short of automatically qualifying for the following year’s Masters - Love began 1995 needing to win a tournament just to get into the event.
When someone asked how much it would bother him if he ended us missing the Masters just for calling a penalty on himself, Love responded, “How would I feel if I won the Masters and wondered for the rest of my life if I cheated to get in?”
QUESTION #2 on God’s final Exam will be - ASAKTA BIFIRYA VIRIVYA
“Did you fulfill the Mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying?” i.e.. Did you have children? That might be the literal way of reading the question, but another way to interpret the Hebrew is not did you have kids, but rather “Did you occupy yourself with the business of raising kids?”
The mitzvah isn’t about biology - it’s about engaging yourself in the lives of children in a meaningful way - yours or someone else’. Physical lives - moral lives - social lives
The coach who spends evenings and weekends working with kids that aren’t “his;” the teachers who give their lives every day to inspire kids who aren’t “theirs;” the big brothers and big sisters, mentors, step-parents, authors who books for parents or children or curricula for schools, therapists who work with kids, obstetricians and pediatricians, filmmakers and musicians, puppeteers and clowns, a hundred different vocations and avocations that nourish the emotional, spiritual, physical, intellectual lives of children.
Dr. Tom Cottle, a psychiatrist, has said that the most reliable predictor of how well or how badly a child will do in school, all other things being equal, is how many times a week he/she has dinner with his/her parents. Why? Because “paying attention” to your child is one of the most powerful gifts you can give. It tells your child that who they are matters, that they are important, that you value them enough to give them your attention one on one.
Asakta befirya virivya - means care more about the value of children than the value of things.
QUESTION # 3 on God’s Final Exam is KAVATA ITIM LATORAH
“Did you create time for Torah in your life?” What does “Torah” really mean? More than simply the scrolls of the Torah that we keep in the ark.
Torah = Jewish identity
Torah = Life long learning
Torah = take Judaism seriously
It means in a free society like America, where you have the luxury to opt in or out of Jewish identify, did you stand up with pride for who you really are.
Final question #4 on God’s Final Exam = KIVITA LAYESHUA
It’s a question of attitude. Do you have faith in the future? Do you think redemption is possible? Have you given up on yourself and others in disgust? Given in to cynicism, adopted an attitude of doing unto others before they can do to you?
Ultimately, Kivita layeshua means do you believe that life has meaning? Are you willing to live your life that way? Do you still have faith in others? That people are basically good? That no matter how bad things get, there are things in this universe worth having, worth fighting for, worth standing up for, worth putting your faith in?
Have you grown angry, hostile, cold to new immigrants forgetting the miracle of American freedom and the American dream?
Alan Abramsky and his family in Roanoke, Texas were hosts to a rabbi from Russia one winter. They decided to introduce him to their favorite Chinese restaurant. Throughout the meal, the rabbi spoke of the wonders of North America in comparison to the bleak condition of his homeland.
When they had finished eating, the waiter bought the check and presented each of them with a small brass Christmas tree ornament as a seasonal gift.
They all laughed when Abramsky’s father point out that the ornaments were stamped “Made in India.” But the laughter subsided when they saw that the rabbi was quietly crying. Concerned, Abramsky’s father asked the rabbi if he was offended by being given a Christmas gift.
He smiled, shook his head and said, “No, I was shedding tears of joy to be in the kind of country where a Buddhist gives a Jew a Christmas present made by a Hindu!
There they all are - all four questions on God’s final exam.
This is what Judaism teaches will happen when you die – God’s Final Exam.
1. Have you lived your life with integrity? Nasata vinata be-emunah
2. Have you contributed meaningfully to the lives of children? Asakta befirya virivya
3. Have you enriched your mind and soul with Torah and stayed committed to the values of Jewish life? Kavata itim laTorah
4. Is the world kinder, better, more hopeful for the future because you are in it? Kivita layeshua
Ultimately these questions come to teach us something much more important than the question of what happens when our lives are over. The Talmud tells us to live each day as if it is our last, because in their wisdom the sages of our tradition recognized that what really matters is not what happens after we die, but what happens after we are born. It is how we live our lives today and every today that matters most. And if we live in such a way as to pass the tests that today will bring, we won’t have to worry when the inevitable comes for us all and the final exam arrives at last.
Copyright ©2014 Kehillat Israel.