I did not grow up in a religious home but we did go to shul (synagogue) every Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I remember one Rosh Hashana the rabbi got up and said, "We're about to open the ark. It is customary for the congregation to stand while the ark is open, but it will be open for quite some time. So if you get tired, you can sit down."
I thought to myself, "I only come here twice a year, so if standing and going through a little torture is going to take away my sins, then why not stand for the whole thing?" When they opened the ark, everyone stood and then everyone sat. I was the only one who remained standing. I figured, how long could it last, five minutes, ten minutes? I stood there in terrible pain for an hour and a half, figuring 'no pain no gain'. What else could I do to appease God's wrath and escape His judgment.
The next morning at my high school locker, the boy next to me glared around the locker door and said, "You had to stand!" He did not speak to me for the rest of the year. I found out later that he was sitting behind me in shul, feeling terribly guilty for sitting while I stood. For many people, guilt and torture is their image of Rosh Hashana.
As a teenager I often felt resentful toward God, especially around Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment.
A little voice says, "Eat it -- just this one bite!"
I thought, "Who is God to judge me? Does God have a yetzer hara, the force within that encourages us to do negative and destructive things, that He has to fight everyday? Does God live in this seedy world, where people will do the unthinkable to make money and where magazines of half-clad models grace the aisles of every supermarket checkout?"
No, God does not have a yetzer hara. It is only we who have to battle this powerful inner foe.
The yetzer hara is a profound Jewish concept. We all have an inner adversary that tries to keep us from doing the right thing. What's so conniving about this evil inclination is that we think it is really our true selves talking.
Take dieting, for example. When most of us decide to start a diet, we hear a little voice that says, "Eat it, eat it -- just this one bite!" It certainly happens to me. And when I try to start a morning exercise regimen, that same voice says, "This morning you need to rest in order to exercise better tomorrow." Can you relate?
As soon as we decide to do something positive, the little voice tries to get us to do exactly the opposite of what we really want to do.
Equal & Opposing Force
When I first began learning Torah and was introduced to this truth, I was shocked to discover how real the yetzer hara is. It is as if we all struggle with split personality. On one hand, we have an inclination to do good (which Torah tradition calls the yetzer tov), and on the other hand, we have an opposing inclination to do what's not so good.
The power of the yetzer hara, our inner adversary, is quite amazing. The Torah says that the yetzer hara increases its strength with every passing day. This means that it does not become easier to fight, and once we do fight it, it renews itself. Therefore, the tactics that it used to make us stumble yesterday are completely different from the ones it will use today. For this reason, the sages warn us, "If not now, when?" In other words, if you think you could do better tomorrow, you are wrong. Tomorrow your evil inclination will be even stronger and the challenge even greater.
The Talmud teaches that as soon as God gives us a mitzvah, the mitzvah actually creates its own yetzer hara against performing it. Therefore, as soon as we are commanded to do something, we are concomitantly inspired with the desire not to do it. Conversely, if we learn that God wants us not to do something, suddenly we want to do it.
Many people believe that Torah seeks to remove our drives, but the opposite is true. Torah seeks preserve and stimulate our drives and then guide us to use them to their greatest potential.
The challenge of the yetzer hara is significant and constant. We cannot but wonder what right God has to judge us, since He created us this way and put us in a world so seductive and distracting.
It doesn't seem fair.
Empowerment, Not Guilt
While this concept may sound heretical, it is actually the very point about which Adam challenged God in the Garden of Eden. The Midrash says that after the sin of Adam and Eve, Adam said to God, "Wait, this is a set-up! Did You have to put the tree in the center of the garden, where I could see it and be tempted by it wherever I go? In fact, until You told me not to eat from it, I didn't even notice it! Then You create that conniving snake to seduce us to eat!"
Imagine that you spend thousands of dollars on a new computer. You put it in the middle of your son's bedroom and you then tell him not to touch it. And then you pay his little brother to try and get him to turn it. And once he succumbs to temptation you walk in, catch him, and penalize him.
It seems as if God is in His holy temple up in Heaven, and we are down here on earth, struggling with our yetzer hara and the plenty of distractions to entice it. Then we stand in front of God on Rosh Hashana, waiting to be judged. What right does God have to judge us?
Adding to this seeming injustice is a Torah principle that teaches, "Do not judge your friend until you are in his place" (i.e. in his shoes). How can God judge us if He has never been in our place?
If people knew the truth about Rosh Hashana, they would anticipate it rather than dread it. The Jewish idea of judgment is not about guilt or pain. It is about compassion, empowerment and transformation. It is not about God thinking that He can do better; it is about knowing for ourselves that we can do better. And God's assessment indeed helps us to do so.
On Rosh Hashana, God determines how to get us back on track to fulfill our potential.
Rosh Hashana, although referred to as a day of judgment, is actually an annual review. The English definition of "judgment" is not quite indicative of the true feel for the day because the theme of Rosh Hashana is God's compassionate manifestation of Avinu Malkeinu, "our Father, our King." Perhaps it would be better, therefore, to call Rosh Hashana the Day of Assessment.
Think of it as a work-performance evaluation. A boss would not judge his employee by saying, "Well I can do better, and therefore you are fired." Employers generally hire employees because they cannot do what the employees can do.
So too, God's assessment of us on Rosh Hashana is not a judgment of who we are as people. Rather, it is a compassionate evaluation of what we have done and how we have used our potential that year. From this, He determines what measures must be taken to get us back on track to fulfill our potential. If God makes a judgment at all, He makes it with tremendous respect and love for us; with enormous sensitivity and consideration for the challenges He has given us.
Laugh with the Sinners?
If Rosh Hashana were a day of judgment then we would simply be classified as sinners. But if Rosh Hashana is really an annual review, whereby God assesses our actions and performance based on our potential, then the question is really whether we have succeeded or whether we are failures.
For most people to be a loser is much harder to handle than being a sinner. In fact, we live in a society where it is actually glamorous to be a sinner. A song by Billy Joel, aptly describes much of our society:
They say there's a heaven for those who will wait Some say it's better but I say it ain't I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints The sinners are much more fun...
When I was growing up, there were clear distinctions between the bad guys and the good guys, and people always rooted for the good guy. Today, there are movies that persuade us to root for the bad guy. We admire the guy who is trying to pull off an incredible theft. We marvel at his engineering, planning, decision-making and courage. And we hope he will get away with it. To be a sinner is macho and hip. For many to be a naughty sinner is glamorous, but for Torah is means you are a loser; an existential failure.
Torah, however, is not just trying to protect us from becoming a sinner. It protects us from becoming a loser.
With great love and compassion, God built into the year an annual review to evaluate our performance. It is meant to be a very empowering time for us. It should not depress us or make us angry with God for being judgmental. God is not out to get us. He knows that He created us with much inner conflicts and put us in a world full of challenges. The annual review is only to help us achieve our optimal personal performance and protect us from becoming failures. He evaluates and assesses us with compassion, empathy and forgiveness. Rosh Hashana is really about getting in touch with what we need to do this year to actualize our potential. What an opportunity!