Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Rosh Hashanah: Apples or Cigarettes?

If you think about it, the structure of the High Holiday season seems quite backwards. The High Holiday season, otherwise known as the Ten Days of Repentance, culminates with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We regret our failings, admit that we were wrong, and resolve to be better. If we are sincere, God accepts our efforts at self-improvement and forgives us on Yom Kippur. This makes sense. But why do the Days of Awe start with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year? Wouldn't it make more sense to clean up the old year before we start the new one? Shouldn't the Day of Atonement come first?

The more we look into this question, the worse it gets. Rosh Hashanah is the “Day of Judgment.” Every year on Rosh Hashanah, G-d reviews our record, reevaluates His investment in us, and then decides our fate for the New Year. Happiness or misfortune, wealth or poverty, life or death—all are inscribed by God on Rosh Hashanah.

Now things are really backwards. What is the sense of having the Day of Judgment first and the Day of Atonement last? Wouldn't it be a lot more logical for God to allow us the opportunity for forgiveness before He judges us?

Another question: If Rosh Hashanah is indeed a Day of Judgment, why do we make a holiday of it? Have you ever seen a suspect sitting in the dock munching on apples and honey? Wouldn’t a cigarette be more appropriate? On a day that we would expect to be fasting, we enjoy festive holiday meals. Is this the right way to face God when He sits in judgment?

It would certainly make sense for us repent on Rosh Hashanah; after all, the two days of Rosh Hashanah are the first two days of the Ten Days of Repentance. Strangely enough, there is not one word of repentance in the entire Rosh Hashanah service! You would think no one sinned! Not only is there no repentance, there’s not much prayer either. That is, all of the personal requests that appear in the regular daily prayers have been excised from the Rosh Hashanah service. Instead, we spend the day praying for the nation and we ask God to bless the Jews and Israel with redemption and peace. This is all very nice, of course, but don’t you think the sages could have at least left in some of the ordinary prayers for wisdom, health and material success? After all, this is the day when God makes all the decisions!

How can we explain the strange behavior of Jews on this most frightening of days?

The answer to these questions, says Rabbi Aaron Kotler (1891-1962), provides the key to understanding the entire High Holiday season. The structure of the Days of Awe is very deliberate, and it is guided by the nature of both God and man.

The fact is, nobody could ever survive God's exacting judgment of who we are and what we have done. God, by definition, forgets nothing and overlooks nothing. According to the Rosh Hashanah service, even the angels tremble before the judgment of God. But there is one approach that works. On Rosh Hashanah we make no mention of sins at all; we don't even repent in the service. Instead we say to God, 'Forget the past. All I have done wrong, my mistakes and failings, the bad and the ugly—that's not the real me. Look at the present. Look at me now!' And we make Rosh Hashanah a day of renewal.

We make the first day of the year the most beautiful day of the year. We demonstrate our inner goodness and we insist that our shortcomings are merely superficial aberrations. We make Rosh Hashanah a day immersed in selfless prayers, a day of celebrating with family and friends, a day of being our very best in our relationships with our fellow man and God. We show God how good we can be, we reveal our appreciation for the truly important things in life and we demonstrate that despite our many mistakes all year long, deep down our priorities are straight. We then hope and pray that God will base His judgment on that.

But it is not only for G-d that we are presenting our true selves. We need to see it too.

The Ten Days of Repentance begin with Rosh Hashanah because we need to get a taste of our forgotten potential before self improvement can begin. So we begin the New Year with a Rosh Hashanah in which we strive to be our best. We follow it through with ten days of repentance and introspection and we devise a practical plan for implementing Rosh Hashanah into our daily lives. In this way we grow and develop as Jews and inspire God’s infinite compassion for the verdict on Yom Kippur.

Such is the magnificent structure of the Days of Awe.


  1. Very intersting. I used to hear this quoted in the name of Rav Shneur Kotler- it is a favorite of my father-in-law.

    Ksiva V'chasima tova!

  2. The last Parasha states that HaShem will "turn his back to us" if and when we turn away from Torah laws and commandments. It seems to me that has occurred a number of times in our history. The last time, it seems to me, was for about 2000 years, from about the time of our exodus from Israel to about the time the state of Israel was founded.

    The question to be answered is "Has HaShem fully turned back to us?"
    It seems to me that we are in a transitional stage and it can go either way.

    Let us hope that for the new year the situation will begin to be more positive. That requires us to put more effort into improving ourselves. In doing so, our wishes for a good, sweet year will turn toward being realized with the help from HaShem.