Delivered with some variations between Minha/Maariv on 1 Tishrei 5768 at Mt. Sinai Congregation
First let me take this opportunity to wish everyone a Shana Tova, a good new year.
I’m sure that by now most of us are familiar with our traditional formula of Rosh Hashana. We stand before God in judgment. We reaffirm his kingship over us, ask him to remember us favorably, and sound the shofar in anticipation of redemption. We may also be familiar with our tradition’s dramatic narrative of the day. We pass before God like sheep to be judged individually. We have our spiritual accusers and defenders, though according to the Talmud we can confound our accuser by varying the shofar blasts (B. Rosh Hashana 16b). Based on our merits or shortcomings, on Rosh Hashana our fates for the year are written, and on Yom Kippur they are sealed (B. RH 16a).
For those with a Yeshiva education, this is how we have been taught from a young age and as such, how we have been conditioned to approach the Yamim Noraim. For a child, the vivid imagery of a cosmic judicial narrative does not fade easily and as adults we are assured by placing faith in cosmic order and justice. Practically the judicial narrative inspires fear of judgment, which in turn, inspires us to repent. When confronted with our shortcomings we must take the necessary steps to correct them and we instill in ourselves the perception of immediate consequences and the corresponding sense of fear and dread.
However, in recent years I have found this traditional depiction wanting for several reasons. First, this tradition assumes the existence of angelic lawyers, easily distracted ones at that, and God’s need for their employment.
More seriously, the Talmud itself is not consistent with the conventional theology of Rosh Hashana. For example, in B. Bava Batra 10a we are told that our mazon (sustenance)and losses are evaluated on Rosh Hashana, ostensibly based on our merits. But Rav in B. Sota 2b implies that land ownership at least is predetermined before we are born, and Rava in Moed Katan says that mazon is not determined by righteousness, but by “mazal” – luck or fate.
The Sages also provide conflicting statements regarding the emotional tone of Rosh Hashana. In explaining why we do not sing the praises of Hallel on Rosh Hashana, the Gemara asks, “is it possible for a king to sit in judgment with the books of life and death open, and we should sing songs?” (B. RH 32b). And yet earlier in Masechet Rosh Hashana we are told that servants return to their homes, drink, and are merry (usmeichim) (B. RH 8b). Furthermore, the Yerushalmi distinguishes between mortal trials and our spiritual one in that in mortal trials, the defendants dress in black, and act in mourning because they do not know the outcome. Whereas the Jews on Rosh Hashana wear white. We eat, drink, and are merry, knowing that God will do miracles for us (Y. RH 1:3 57b). We have dread and awe on one hand, and on the other we have simha – rejoicing.
Finally, the effect of this spiritual narrative – how we respond to this cosmic episode of Law and Order – seems equally deficient. We learn about teshuva, repentance. We talk about the possibilities of change, perhaps inspiring ourselves and others to be better people. Some perform a “heshbon hanefesh” – a personal spiritual accounting of good and bad. And despite everything we do, acknowledging our merits and faults, and after all the changes and improvements we make, we still assume that “we’re not worthy,” and throw ourselves on the infinite mercy of the court.
This last point I find particularly difficult for three reasons. First, Torah discourages personal self-deprecation. For example, Jewish law does not recognize self-incrimination: ein adam mesim atzmo rasha – a person cannot make himself out to be a wicked person (B. Yevamot 25b). We are further told in Pirkei Avot “al tehi rasha bifnei atzmecha” – do not consider yourself to be a wicked person (M. Avot 2:16). Secondly, it’s simply false. We will be singing in the last line of Avinu Malkeinu “ki ein banu ma’asim” – that we have no deeds. But if we are singing this in synagogue, we are praying – that is a deed. If we hear the shofar earlier in the day, that is clearly a ma’aseh as well.
But my main objection to how we react to imagery of God as the One True Judge, is that in trying to make our case before God what we actually do is assume the role judge ourselves. We pass judgments on ourselves that we’re not good enough or unworthy. I introduced my talk with the words “Shana Tova” – a wish to have a good year in the future. But let’s say I asked you how was last year, what would you say? “All right?” “Could be better, could be worse?” How else would you come to an answer aside from mentally noting all the plusses and minuses? In other words, judging.
Before I’m accused of being a nihilist I would like to add that yes there is good and evil and most of the time it’s apparent. But thinking solely in such terms can also be disingenuous. Rambam writes in the second section of his Guide to the Perplexed that the consequence of Adam’s sin in eating from the Tree of Good and Evil was not a reward, but a punishment. For Rambam, knowing the difference between good and evil confuses people, because with enough rationalization, any action can be spun as being good or bad.
In fact cognitive psychologists have found a pattern of what author Daniel Gilbert calls Presentism: the tendency to project or retroject current emotions and feelings onto past or future events. The innateness of the actions do not change, but our perceptions of them do – and they do so constantly as we change in the present.
This is particularly ironic given that on Rosh Hashana, we are supposed to recognize “ein dayan yehidi elah ehad” there is only one Judge who sits alone (M. Avot 4:8). But the corollary of God being the one True judge means that we are not. This is not limited to us judging other people as R. Yitzchak warns (B. RH 16b), but to us judging ourselves. And practically speaking, what is accomplished by this sort of introspection? One more year of Rabbis calling for teshuva, and inevitable, our relapsing into familiar patterns.
I would like to offer an alternative by first revisiting the relevant biblical verses. When the Torah references Rosh Hashana, there is no mention of it being a “Rosh Hashana” let alone a Day of Judgement. Rather it is called a “day of sounding” (yom t’ruah) (Bemidbar 29:1) or a day of remembering the sounding (zichron t’ruah) (Vayikra 23:24). Notably, the Torah in both verses assert that this day, like other holidays, should be lachem – for us.
How then could Rosh Hashana be a day for us, possibly even a day from which we may benefit? As I mentioned at the beginning, our Sages established three main themes of the Rosh Hashanna service: Malchiut – reaffirm God’s kingship, Zichronot – remembrance, and Shofarot – the call of redemption. I suggest that these themes in the liturgical sequence provide a guideline for how we can approach life in general.
As we have discussed, the first step is recognizing that we will be held accountable for our actions, but that indeed it will be God who will be doing the judging. This realization is a prerequisite for the second step – that of zechira, remembering. As we will read this coming Shabbat, zechor yemot olam (Devarim 32:7) – we must remember the days of the world, our history. It is important to note however, that we are not told how to remember. In the liturgy, we ask God to remember us, but how do we remember ourselves, or more importantly, how to we remember what Hashem has done for us up until this point? How do we look back on our lives and our experiences? Do we assume God’s role of being our own judges determining what was Right and Wrong? Who was Good and who was Bad?
Or maybe when we do our own zichronot – when we remember our history we do so with gratitude and appreciation for what we did have. We do so by acknowledging the invariable setbacks and challenges of life and instead of rejecting, dismissing, or judging them, we learn from them. We grow from them. We accept them and move on.
If we look back on our lives with regret, we remember the failures and we judge ourselves harshly then our future will likely be just as bleak as the past because we will keep fighting with ourselves and the way we think things ought to be. Or to paraphrase Professor David Shatz, the overexamined life is not worth living either.
We cannot know what may be transpiring in the heavens and God’s plans for us. Hanistarot l’ahashem elokeinu – those secrets are God’s alone (Devarim 29:28). When we remember our past with compassion to ourselves, and gratitude for what we had. Yes, we look to improve ourselves and our situations, but we can do so with support and hessed instead.
If this is how we approach life, then subsequent years will always be lechayim, for life for instead of judging life we will be living it. And I will conjecture that if we can shift our own focus, and if we on Rosh Hashana, on this Yom Hazikaron this Day of Remembrance, can remember and look back leaving the judging to the Melech – to the king, that we will be ever so closer hearing the ultimate shofar having achieved the personal and national redemptions for which we seek.
Very nice perspective. When I was in Stern, I recall Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg discussed the idea of being a beinoni, versus a rasha or a tzadik. He pointed out that if the definition of a tzadik is someone who has performed one more mitzvah than his avaros, then most of us would consider ourselves tzadikim — because how many of us honestly believe we are reshaim? — and can enter this season with a certain amount of confidence.
Another perspective I heard this R.H.: since wicked people live from year to year and tzadikim eventually die, it is clear that death is not just a punishment for sin. (even considering the argument that one does not know the relative “value” of various deeds) The speaker suggested that being inscribed l’chaim means being assured that the person’s life in the next year will continue to be one devoted to fulfilling mitzvos, whereas the other book isn’t one for immediate death, but for a meaningless existence, as though one were dead.
And, finally, it strikes me as quintessentially Jewish that R.H. is both a time of trembling and of joyous celebration. The yom tov is both of those things, and even though it seems paradoxical, in the end it works.