Halacha Date: 20 Elul 5780 September 9 2020
Our Sages (Kiddushin 40b) teach us that one should always view himself as half innocent and half guilty. If one performs one Mitzvah, one is praiseworthy, for one has tipped the scale to the innocent side. If one transgresses one prohibition, woe unto him, for he has tipped the scale to the guilty side.
This means that one should always view himself as mediocre, for one should certainly not consider himself righteous, as the Gemara (Niddah 30b) states, “Even if the entire world tells you that you are righteous, view yourself as wicked.” The reason for this is that if one views himself as righteous, one will begin to treat his Mitzvah observance lightly, for one will think to himself, “What else is left for me to do?” One must therefore view himself as less than righteous in order to continue to strive and put forth effort in the service of Hashem and growing to higher spiritual levels, based on one’s personal strengths.
On the other hand, one may not view himself as wicked, for by doing so, one will despair from performing Mitzvot and good deeds, just as Elisha ben Avuya (who sinned and erred by thinking that he was unable to repent) told himself that “if I am so sinful that I have lost my share in the World to Come, I may as well enjoy this world to the fullest.” He was certainly terribly mistaken and as a result of his error, he lost out on eternal goodness, for if he would have put forth effort and repented fully, he would have been accepted lovingly by Hashem and reached lofty levels that he never merited reaching.
Thus, one must view himself as “average”, neither righteous nor wicked. Let us illustrate this point further: Once a man came before a sage and asked him, “What is my status?” “You are an average individual,” the wise man replied. “If so, what must I do in order to become righteous?” asked the man. The sage replied, “Go and perform one Mitzvah and by doing so, you will tilt the scale to your innocence and you shall then be righteous.” The man then went and performed the great Mitzvah of Tzedakah. The man then returned to the sage and asked, “Am I now righteous?” The wise man replied, “No, you are still average.” The man inquired, “If so, why did you tell me that I was average before?” The sage replied, “I only told you that before out of respect for you in order not to be insulted. However, you were still lacking the Mitzvah of Tzedakah in order to be considered average. You are now actually average.”
The man then went to the Bet Midrash and sat down to study Torah enthusiastically for several hours. Later, he returned to the sage and he asked him, “Now am I righteous?” The sage replied, “No, you are still average.” The man inquired, “But now I performed another Mitzvah?!” The sage explained, “Before, you were missing two Mitzvot in order to be considered average. Now you are average.” And so on and so forth.
It is for this reason that our Sages said, “One should always view himself as half innocent and half guilty,” for if one thinks this way all the time, one will constantly strive to add more Mitzvot and good deeds to his load until one eventually becomes a truly righteous individual.
As we near the Days of Repentance, we must remember that Hashem has performed a great kindness for us by granting us the gift of the Month of Mercy and Forgiveness. One must perform self-introspection to determine what one’s spiritual status is regarding one’s service of Hashem. It is impossible though to know exactly what one’s status is, for even one who is completely upright, G-d-fearing, and performs all of the Mitzvot at all times cannot know what will be of him and whether he is truly righteous and will be invited to the World to Come or if he will be judged harshly for improper deeds he has performed throughout his life. One must therefore put forth the maximum amount of effort and not let the month of Elul pass as though nothing has happened and nothing is wrong. Only an individual who is aware of the essence of these days, accepts positive resolutions, and strengthens himself in general in his fear of Heaven shall be worthy of being inscribed in the Book of Life amid much goodness and peace. Such an individual shall merit a good and sweet new year and a life of Torah and fear of Heaven.