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Rosh Hashana – Day of Judgment or Day of Celebration?

By: Rav Yonny Sack

Rosh Hashana appears to be a day of contradictions. The intensity of the day doesn’t seem to find expression in the way that we celebrate it. On the one hand it is Yom HaDin, Judgment day, where every living being passes by the Master of all for scrutiny, the spotlight on, focusing on the slightest detail, scanning down to see if there is potential and worthiness for renewal for another year. As such, the intensity and reality of Yom HaDin and the charged words of “ who will live…” become impossible to ignore. On the other hand, the Yom HaDin aspect seems to find little expression in the joyous way in which we experience the day.  Surely, considering the severity of what is at stake, we should be spending the day in quite introspection, doing some chest beating teshuva and fasting, focusing on our sins and asking for forgiveness. Instead we focus our celebration of Rosh Hashana as the day of renewal, crowning the King, sounding the Shofar as we coronate Hashem over the world with moving Tefila, festive meals, and special clothing.  Like the Talmud Yerushalmi writes (Rosh Hashana 1:3) on the pasuk “ Mi Goi Gadol” – “ who is such a great nation..” the following encouraging words about Rosh Hashana ;

‘Which nation is like this nation ( Israel), the normal way of the world is that when a person knows he has a judicial hearing, he wears black, and enwraps himself in black… but with Israel it is not so, rather they wear white, enwrap themselves in white, cut their hair, eat and drink and are joyous knowing that the Holy One blessed be He will do for them a miracle.’

How is it that we can approach this day with confidence and celebration, licking our lips with honey and apples , ignoring the sins we have done, as if there is no looming judgment over our heads.  Imagine turning up to the courtroom, being asked to explain your deeds before the Judge writes down his verdict, and all you can say to him is “ Shana Tova UMetuka”! Do you have nothing to say for yourself? No explanation or apology for ending up so far away from the holiness that I brought you into the world to shine?

No. We don’t focus on ourselves or our misdeeds at all. We just look back at the Judge and say “HaMELECH!”.

How are we to understand this seeming confusion?

Let’s gain some clarity with the famous words in Sefer Nechemya, chapter 8, where we have the following encouragement from Nechemya and Ezra to the people on Rosh Hashana: 

“‘Today is holy to Hashem your G-d, do not mourn and do not cry’  for all of the people were crying when they heard the words of Torah”..  This was on Rosh Hashana, and Rashi tells us that the people were crying: “because they had not kept the Torah properly, so he said to them, do not mourn, for it is Rosh Hashana”. Nechemya continues: “And he said to them; ‘go and eat delicacies and drink sweet things and send gifts to those who have nothing prepared, for today is holy to our Master, and do not be sad for the enjoyment of Hashem is your strength.” 

Nechemya’s message is clear – this is not a day to be sad, nor to cry over having fallen short in living up to one’s potential greatness. The focus is not mourning the past , weeping over one’s failures, but rather something much more positive. In line with the message from Nechemya, many great Chasidic masters taught that one should distance themselves from any slight negative thought of punishment, or negative consequence for one’s sins on Rosh Hashana for “in the place where one’s thoughts are , that is where he will be entirely” (Baal Shem Tov) . In the words of the Maggid of Mezeritch:

The verse says “and the one who trusts in Hashem will be surrounded in Chesed” ( Tehillim 32:10) and when it is the opposite, when he is scared all the time from the mida of din and onesh, then attaches himself to dinim G-d forbid… as it says “And their fears I will bring upon them” ( Yishaya 66:4)  because what ever place a person is occupying with his thoughts , that is where he will attach himself, and if he thinks of din, he clings to din , but when he trusts in Hashem’s chesed, then his soul will cling to that and so “chesed will surround him”.  Therefore, always immerse yourself in thoughts of G-d.  (Likutim Yekarim, 207)

How can we marry these seemingly contradictory ideas of strict judgment and chesed?

The answer perhaps lies in the powerful words of Rabbi Akiva in the Mishna in Yoma:

אמר רבי עקיבא: אשריכם ישראל, לפני מי אתם מטהרין, ומי מטהר אתכם? אביכם שבשמים

How lucky are you Jewish People!  Before whom are you purified? And Who purifies you? Your father in Heaven.

While the judgment is very real, and we certainly need to take responsibility for our past, and look forward to an improved future, we sometimes forget who exactly is the Judge, who is the one in front of which we are to purify ourselves. It is not some tyrant out to get us, waiting for our next mistake so he can say “look at you! You did it again! You are a good for nothing failure!” – No. That image of Hashem needs to be uprooted and cast away. Rabbi Akiva reminds us that this time of year is the greatest gift from a loving Father to His children that He loves more than we love ourselves. It is a chance to come back, to make amends to renew and restart and recalibrate after a year of slow unconscious drifting away from where we are meant to be. Hashem, our ‘Father in Heaven’ is the judge, not some scary angry person who doesn’t know us. He knows where we have come from and the potential we have to be so great. Hashem, the Av Harachaman, the compassionate Father, is the one who is purifying us. He is the one who is lifting us up from our falls, and if we access and focus on that – on His Chesed - then we can even hope for miracles, like the Yerushalmi says, undeserved second chances, because He is the “Melech Chafetz BeChaim” the King who wants us to live – not just physically, but to be alive, joyful and connected to the Life of all life.

Thus we enter these days hopeful, leaning into the light of Hashem’s chesed and wearing nice clothes, eating sweet foods and yearning for blessing, and doing a different type of Teshuva, a return to what we really, really want – our essential higher desire – for “Meloch Al Kol HaAretz” – for Hashem’s Kingdom of light to shine over the entire world. And we do this in quiet confidence, like David Hamelech said: “And I have trusted in Your Kindness, my heart is joyous in your salvation.”

Shana Tova


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