7 Questions You’ll Be Asked By the Heavenly Tribunal

Rabbi John L. Rosove

When my father died young, I began to take stock of my own life. I even wondered: If I died at his age, how would I make a case for myself before the heavenly tribunal?

I was surprised to learn that none of my own priorities for a life well lived was among the top seven measures the Talmudic sages believed to be the most important (Shabbat 31a).

Here are the questions our tradition says you will be asked when you pass from this world:

1. “Were you honest in business?”

The first question the tribunal will ask is, “Did you deal honestly and faithfully with people in your business practices?”

Why start here? Perhaps because our sages understood that it’s human nature to look after number one first, to get all we can for ourselves. If we can’t have it, then the tendency is to seek an advantage over others, even if it means cutting corners, lying, and deceiving. But if we can be impeccable in this most fraught arena, chances are, we can navigate the rest of life more honorably as well.

2. “Did you make time for your spiritual life?”

Specifically: “Did you set aside time for Torah?”

Our sages understood how easy it is for busy people to dispense with Torah learning, rationalizing that it has only marginal value in their lives. Yet Torah always has been the epicenter of Jewish identity, the pathway to God, and the way Jews have nurtured the heart, mind, and soul. Even if we are nonbelievers, Torah has been the central source helping Jews perpetuate, preserve, and enrich our collective Jewish memory.

When we neglect this aspect of our lives, we lose our connection with our identity, and we lose touch with what has made us who we are as a people.

3. “Did you busy yourself with creation?”

This question also focuses on Jewish continuity: “Did you busy yourself with procreation?”

The underlying issue here is far broader than parenting. Each of us is responsible for creating something lasting, something that will ripple through time and feed those who come next. In your time on earth, the Talmudic sage Raba asks: Were you busy planting seeds?

4. “Were you hopeful?”

In its traditional phrasing, this question asks about belief in salvation and the coming of the Messiah at the end of days. It may not seem relevant in modern life, but viewed more broadly, it challenges us to maintain a life-affirming attitude, to focus on the half-full glass. Staying positive and hopeful may be the most difficult challenge we ever have to face. Raba teaches that we’ll be measured in heaven – or can measure our own lives – by how well we try.

5 – 6.  “Did you seek wisdom and learn to discern what’s true and what’s false?”

Raba is talking here about our capacity to differentiate between true and false and right and wrong, as well as our ability to be critical and self-critical. In a way, he’s talking about our ability to see the impact of even our smallest actions upon others and to understand the cumulative power of those actions.

Raba asks, “Are we being honest and kind? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel affirmed the importance of kindness when he reportedly said, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I’m old, I admire kind people.”

7. “Have you been true to yourself?”

This final question is based on a story from the Talmud: “Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said, ‘In the coming world, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They’ll ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim)

In the end, the question asked of each of us is simple: “Were you true to yourself, do what you were meant to do, and do your best with what you were given?”

If we spend our lives yearning to be someone else, who will be me and who will be you? The greatest bit of wisdom in this final question is to learn to accept yourself as unique – never has there been anyone exactly like you – and to be empowered to impact in the world as only you can. 

Rabbi John Rosove is the senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood and national chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. This article is adapted from Why Judaism Matters: Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to His Children and the Millennial Generation (Jewish Lights Publishing/Turner, 2017).