The Audit

The Audit

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon, 5771/2010

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg 

This year I got audited by the IRS. I had to gather records for a particular year and submit them for review.  I had to appeal the initial decision by the IRS concerning their assessment of back taxes owed.  All this culminated with a face to face meeting with an IRS auditor who went through every statement and expense receipt with me.  I provided explanation and justification and awaited the verdict of the auditor as he painstakingly reviewed my finances for one year of my life.

It is actually quite anxiety provoking to reconstruct a year based on one’s spending and financial dealings.   I would end up second guessing myself.  “Why did I choose that particular charity?”  “What illnesses or conditions required those medical expenses?”  “What made this a business trip as opposed to a vacation?”   

A felt a lot of trepidation and frustration during the 2 and 1/2 hour interview with the IRS auditor.   “Why is the IRS picking on me instead of some Wall Street banker?”   “Would I be judged wanting?”   “Had I forgotten something that would assure me of a favorable judgment?”   I was nervous wondering if I would be assessed higher taxes.  How much would the penalty be?   Would they audit me more often? 

I felt relief when the long session ended with a satisfactory conclusion.  The decree was not harsh.  The IRS officer heard my appeals and accepted justifications.   But the memory of the anxiety of the audit has stayed with me. 

During the audit I kept on coming back in my mind to the vivid imagery of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer that is so prominent on Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur.  In that prayer we read,

“You, indeed, judge and admonish, discerning our motives, and witnessing our actions. You record and seal, count and measure.  You remember even what we have forgotten.  You open the Book of Remembrance, and the record speaks for itself, for each of us has signed it with our deeds.” (p. 282, Mahzor Hadash)

The Mahzor depicts a God who audits our actions and judges our fate.  Instead of bills, the subject of review is our actions.  A heavenly clerk has opened our file and gathered our actions from the last year. We are thoroughly scrutinized and the bill we have to pay is decided.

The audit of the Days of Awe culminates with a listing of the possible consequences of this scrutiny.  “How many shall leave this world and how many shall be born; who shall live and who shall die; who in the fullness of years and who before…….” (p. 284, Mahzor Hadash)

No matter how the Rabbis try to dress up the high holidays, I do think this sense of existential audit hangs over the day.  If we take the prayer seriously we cannot help feel some guilt or a sense of lack about our actions of the past year.  There is a natural anxiety to this day.  For some this is the draw to High Holidays. For others the stark imagery is very troubling.    

Our current life situation influences how we experience this depiction of the Divine Audit.  If I am suffering, the prayer seems punitive and overly judgmental.  On the other hand if I have gotten stuck in my life, there is something to be said about being held accountable.    There is value to feeling the audit, for entering the sense of scrutiny.  Even if you don’t believe in God, the intent of the prayers of these days is to provoke self-scrutiny, a self-audit.  It is time to be truthful to ourselves, to see our actions in their true light. 

Just as the Mahzor tries to lead us into self-scrutiny, it also guides us into a way of responding to the burdens of insight we discover about ourselves.  

“But repentance, prayer, and deeds of kindness can remove the severity of the decree.” (p. 284, Mahzor Hadash)

This is the message put simply:  Yes, you will be audited whether you like it or not.  Yes, you will be found lacking.  But there are three ways to soften the impact of our failings and our flaws.   

Teshuvah-repentance.     The audit gives us the truth: Here are the facts.  But the facts are not destiny.  There is a path to change if we choose.  Teshuvah is the act of hope, initiative, and determination to change.   Most of all it requires honesty to look at our own limitations and failings without deception. This is very hard to do.  But if we can accomplish this we can begin to the process of Teshuvah.      Teshuvah is a courageous act to look inside and see what is really there. 

Tefillah-Prayer.  Prayer is essentially the appeal of the audit.  It is our way of letting God know that we accept our accountability just as we request leniency as the consequence.   But prayer is also the awareness that we should not endure the heavenly audit alone.  God wants our hearts.  The connected heart is made through prayer.  Prayer not only connects us to God, but to others who join us together in prayer.   In prayer, we transcend loneliness and alienation and discover the consolation of shared community. 

Tzedaka-Charity. We cannot avoid the audit, but we can make the world a more selfless place.  The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shneur Zalman taught that there are moments in every spiritual life when we lose faith, lose touch with the divine, lose hope. What does one do at such moments?   Perform one selfless act of goodness. 

Unlike the IRS audit, the audit of the Days of Awe is reason for us to go beyond ourselves. God is auditing us not for any payback or severe accounting, but in order to spur us to acts of unselfishness and self-transcendence.  The image in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer of the Severe Judge and Stern Accountant is a sort of Shock and Awe tactic of the liturgist.   Fear and Awe sometimes move us to do the right thing or to choose the proper path.  But that is not the end of the matter.

Rather it is a God who delights in our caring, our kindness, and our goodness to others.  The most powerful image of God in the Mahzor is toward the end of Yom Kippur in the Neilah service which describes God with this comforting image: 

“You reach out your hand to transgressors, and your right hand is extended to accept the penitent.” (p.794, Mahzor Hadash)

The image of the tight faced auditor melts away and the compassionate God is revealed.  Like God, we must move from the seat of severe self-judgment to the seat of self-compassion.  Likewise we see the response to the divine audit as a renewal of commitment to caring for others in place of judgment.   

My IRS audit helped me to understand one of the key metaphors of the High Holidays.  The audit of the High Holidays is for the purpose of moral and spiritual renewal which must start by a deep reflection on how we conducted our lives in the past year.   The scrutiny of my IRS audit made me realize the seriousness which our tradition places on the moral-spiritual audit of these 10 days in the fall.  Like a real IRS audit, we must review the books and clear our names. But unlike the IRS we stand before a God who is forgiving and patient. If we move toward God, God will move toward us. 

May all of us succeed in going through the ERS audit this year. You ask, What is the ERS?-It is the Eternal Responsibility Service.  The ERS conducts the annual audit we are about to undergo. Please send your Teshuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedaka to PO Box 613, Heavenly Heights Ave, Heavenly Jerusalem.  And do so before the end of the 10th of Tishrei, the late afternoon of Yom Kippur. 

Bhatzlacha, Good luck.

Shanah Tovah.

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