The topics of repentance and Yom Kippur need not be all fire and brimstone. There is much about repentance that is positive, inspiring, and meaningful.

Maimonides writes:

"Each and every person has merits and transgressions. Whoever has more merits than sins is called a tzaddik - a righteous person. Whoever has more sins than merits is called a rasha - a wicked person. If someone has half and half, he is called a bainoni - a person in the middle. This applies to entire countries as well. If the merits of all of a country's inhabitants are more numerous than its sins, the land is called righteous, and if it has more sins than merits, it is called wicked. This applies to the entire world as well." (Laws of Repentance 3:1)

Rambam continues:

"A person who has more sins than merits will "miyad" (normally translated as "immediately," but we will discuss this point later) die as a result of his wickedness, as the verse states, "I have struck you ... because your sins were so many" (Yirmiyahu 30:14). Similarly, a country who has a majority of sins over merits will be destroyed "miyad" as it says (regarding Sodom), "The outcry against Sodom and Gemmorah is great" (Bereishit 18:20). The same is true regarding the entire world. If the whole world has more sins than merits, it is wiped out "miyad," as it states (regarding the Flood), "God saw that the evils of mankind had increased greatly" (Bereishit 6:5). (Laws of Repentance, 3:)2

There are a number of questions on the Rambam that we must ask:

  1. Why do we need both of these paragraphs? Don't they both say the same thing? The key is whether you have more merits than sins or vice versa and this gives you the status of righteous or wicked? Why the seeming repetition?

  2. The proof from Sodom appears to be a non-proof because if you continue in that verse it says: "I will descend and see if the outcry that has risen to Me has brought destruction and if not, I will know" (Bereishit 18:20). This indicates that Sodom was not wiped out immediately after it had more sins than merits. Rather, God was first evaluating if Sodom would be destroyed even though they had already earned the status of the wicked. What then do we make of this "proof"?

  3. We encounter the same problem regarding the verse of the Flood cited by Rambam. God does see "that the evils of mankind had increased greatly" (Bereishit 6:5) but He doesn't bring the Flood until much later, after Noach is commanded to build the ark which took 120 years (see Rashi 6:14) to build. How is this a proof that God punishes right after the world becomes laden with a majority of sins when it shows the opposite?

  4. There is the famous question asked by many: We know many wicked people that live long lives. If indeed the procedure is that God exacts punishment as soon as a person has more transgressions than merits, how could it be that these wicked people continue to live, year after year? And has there never been, since the time of the Flood or Sodom, a country (or even the whole world) that didn't have more sins than merits? Yet, we have not seen such countries become destroyed.

  5. Finally, Rambam himself writes further on (Laws of Repentance, 3:3) that God evaluates each individual's sins and merits every Rosh Hashanah and whoever is found to be a rasha - wicked - is "sealed for death," but he does not say that a rasha dies immediately. So how could he write differently here?

Due to all our questions, we must understand Rambam as follows. There are two points being made. In 3:1, Rambam is describing a person's status and reality of relationship with God. You are a tzaddik if you have mostly merits, with or without justice being carried out and with or without reward and punishment. You are defined as a rasha, a wicked person, whether God judges you with death and destruction or not.

In 3:2, Rambam describes the evaluation and judgment of those who have earned their individual descriptions in 3:1.

Judgment and the administering of justice do not happen on a constant basis. There are certain set times when God judges. One time of justice is after death, as Rambam describes later in Chapter 3. Another is on Rosh HaShanah. There are specific sins which bring about a judgment (see Talmud Brachot 55a with Rashi). Other times, God is drawn to judge and evaluate a person for reasons known only to Him. But just because a person is wicked by status does not mean he will be judged in the near future. And even if he is judged, he will die, as Rambam says, "miyad" which unlike popular opinion, does not mean immediately, but inevitably or necessarily. The death and destruction will occur when God has decided the proper time. But it does not happen immediately. First, a judgment must arise and then the punishment is determined but that punishment can take a long time to occur.

Concerning the Flood and Sodom, they had been called wicked for a period of time before God judged them and even then it was "an outcry" or specific injustice in Sodom (as with the Flood - see end of Parshat Bereishit for the story of the immoral relations between specific men and women that occurred then) that brought about its judgment. It took some time for the "miyad" and inevitability of the justice and destruction to present itself.

This may very well be the explanation as to why we haven't seen a nation become destroyed very often. God chooses not to sit in judgment against them, albeit they have the status of being wicked. As far as the entire world is concerned, God's promise to Noach (Bereishit 8:31) related this very idea. He made an oath that no matter how wicked the world would become in terms of status, He would never again sit in judgment over the entire world.

So, there are two concepts. There is justice, reward, and punishment and there is the status of being righteous or wicked. But what difference does the status make? We will see that it makes all the difference in the world.

Rambam writes:

"How great is repentance! It brings one close to God's Divine Presence... Yesterday, the sinner was hated by God, dirty, disgusting, abominable, distant, and today he is beloved, close, and a true friend of God's... Yesterday, he was separated from God... He would cry out and pray without being answered... He would perform commandments and they would be ripped up... But today, he is attached to God, he calls out and is answered immediately... He fulfills the commandments and they are accepted with great joy...and God desires his Mitzvot!" (Laws of Repentance 7:6-7)

Repentance not only saves one from punishment but it re-creates a strong bond between God and the one who is repentant. It transforms you from being called wicked, having your prayers ignored and your Mitzvoth deflected, to being called righteous and being a friend of God's. And who can ponder the amount of things one can accomplish if they are God's friend? The amount and power of Divine assistance one receives to accomplish all of one's goals would be immeasurable.

One need not only ponder reward and punishment when struggling with the approach of Yom Kippur and repentance. A main motivating factor should be the relationship and status one has in God's eyes. Does He view you as wicked or righteous? Are you beloved to Him or despised?

Nobody wants to be called wicked, especially by God. Repentance and the atonement of Yom Kippur restore our righteous status, as long as we do our part to repent sincerely.