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 “untouchables,” too-big-to-fail entities faced similar fates, only to be rescued by the greatest government financial bailout in world history. By the time the Market carnage was complete in March 2009, the Dow had fallen to 6,547 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 return on investment (ROI).
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 what benefit they can expect if they pursue 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.
Harav Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav MeEliyahu, Vol II, pp. 96-97) writes that when we stand before Hashem 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 in Parashas Emor, who writes that Rosh Hashanah is a yom hadin b’rachamim and Yom Kippur a yom harachamim b’din.
Despite the seriousness of Rosh Hashanah, explains Harav Dessler, we have the capacity to stir divine mercy on that holy day by demonstrating mercy 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. Hashem studies our inclinations and desires deeply to understand what really motivates us and judges us accordingly. As with the ben sorer u’moreh, Hashem may deem it more appropriate to give us consequences at present so as to ensure that we do 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 Hashem’s attributes of din (strict justice) and rachamim (mercy). Typically, we perceive these two attributes as mutually independent elements of divine justice. Hashem either chooses to judge a person strictly or He applies compassion and 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 Hashem’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 Bereishis 1:1)
Since the earliest stages of creation, Hashem 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 Hashem on Yom Kippur and beseech Him for mercy, we need to consider the situation from His perspective. We need to ask: What benefit will there be for G-d if He extends my life by another year and grants me the blessings that I seek? What is the potential ROI in such an arrangement?
If Hashem can discern a true desire for growth and teshuvah 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, chas v’shalom.
As we approach Hashem this week, let us aspire to give Him every opportunity to see us as spiritual bull markets, individuals and communities on an upwards trajectory, even if the final results and outcome are still a few years away, 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 Hashem and we all desire.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is President of Impactful Coaching and Consulting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.