GOOD MORNING! This upcoming Monday night, September 7th, begins the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. The literal translation of Rosh Hashanah is “head of the year” – otherwise known as the Jewish New Year. There are many aspects to this holiday, but perhaps the overarching theme is that Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgement, and in fact, another name for this holiday is Yom Hadin – Judgement Day.

It is rather curious that “Judgement Day” should be associated with a holiday. I once had to testify at a trial for a close friend of mine (who in my view was wrongfully charged). The trial dragged on for weeks and I attended many of those sessions. There wasn’t a moment while in that federal courtroom when I didn’t feel a sense of dread and foreboding. My heart was in my mouth every time I entered the courtroom.

This same feeling of fear and apprehension was what I felt when I experienced Rosh Hashanah at rabbinical schools in both the United States and in Israel. The prayer service during the day was close to eight hours long and had a distinct “heaviness” to it. It was emotionally draining and psychologically taxing.

This attitude towards Rosh Hashanah can be traced to a passage from the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b); Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, “On Rosh Hashanah three books are opened before the Holy One, Blessed be He: One book of wholly wicked people, and one book of wholly righteous people, and one book of middling people, whose good and bad deeds are equally balanced.

“Wholly righteous people are immediately written and sealed for life; wholly wicked people are immediately written and sealed for death; and middling people are left with their judgment suspended from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, their fate remaining undecided.”

Based on this one might easily conclude that on Rosh Hashanah we are quite literally praying for our lives. That would explain the feeling of dread and foreboding that is commonly felt on this very important day. However, if we take a closer look at this concept then we will see that it is simply not so.

If we are really honest with ourselves, we can easily see that whether or not a person goes to synagogue and prays their heart out on Rosh Hashanah has little to do with him or her meriting another year of life. There are no actuarial tables definitively proving that those who plead for their lives on Rosh Hashanah have longer life spans.

In addition, we all know many wicked people who are not immediately “sealed for death.” So what does this passage in the Talmud mean?

Perhaps the most critical question we must ask ourselves is: What are we really trying to accomplish on this important day?

The primary mission that each and every person is supposed to achieve on Rosh Hashanah is to coronate the Almighty as our king whose dominion spans all of creation; hence our pledge of fealty to Him. This is the day when we proclaim God to be our King and that our lives revolve around fulfilling His will, for us and all of creation.

A consequence of placing ourselves in a theocentric world is that we are immediately granted life. Why? Because being connected to the Almighty means a connection to the infinite and everlasting life. By contrast, if we unfortunately choose to live in an egocentric world, one where everything revolves around ourselves instead of God, we are choosing a finite reality, which means we are inexorably headed towards death and obliteration.

There is, in fact, a judgement that is made on Rosh Hashanah – the Almighty examines our deeds from the prior year and uses that as a basis for concluding whether we live in a theocentric world or in an egocentric world. Our goal on Rosh Hashanah is to reaffirm our allegiance to the Almighty and His goal for the world; a world unified under His sovereignty. This is what the judgement of Rosh Hashanah is all about.

The Talmud also makes a remarkable statement about how the Almighty, in His infinite kindness, actually grants people the benefit of the doubt – if they are so deserving. What makes a person deserving of this kindness?

With righteousness you shall judge your fellow man (Leviticus 19:15).

The famous biblical commentator known as Rashi (ad loc) explains that this verse is referring to the obligation that we are required to give a person the benefit of the doubt.

In other words, upon seeing that the nature of someone’s actions are questionable, we are required to give him the benefit of the doubt. This can take different forms; you may presume that you do not know the entirety of the situation or that the person only had positive intentions for his actions.

One of the sources for this is found in the ancient book Jewish ethics known as Pirkei Avos – Ethics of our Fathers, which states that we must judge everyone to the side of merit (1:6). The Talmud (Shabbos 127b) takes this one step further and states, “anyone that judges his friend to the side of merit will be judged (by heaven) to the side of merit.” Rashi in his commentary on Pirkei Avos likewise says that the Almighty judges favorably those who give others the benefit of the doubt.

This principle that God gives us the benefit of the doubt if we accord the same to others is difficult to understand. After all, when we give others the benefit of the doubt it is because we do not actually know what the person’s intentions were nor do we know the entirety of the situation.

On the other hand, the Almighty is omniscient and absolutely knows everything that everyone does and why they do it. How are we to understand that God gives someone the benefit of the doubt when in truth He knows exactly what a person’s intentions were and exactly what happened?

I am reminded of the time many years ago when a friend was telling me about an awful date he had gone on the previous evening. He started by complaining, “The minute I saw her I just KNEW she would be judgmental.” I stared at him, somewhat astonished by his breathtaking cognitive dissonance.

In truth, we all do this. When meeting someone new we open up a case file as to their worthiness of our friendship. We wait until this new acquaintance justifies a relationship with us. We hardly ever give someone the benefit of the doubt and extend ourselves until we are sure that they “deserve” our friendship.

But herein also lies a remarkable exception to Hashem’s system of justice, a system in which we must justify our existence. When a person judges others to the side of merit – when he gives other people the benefit of the doubt without making them justify their actions to him – the Almighty returns the favor.

God judging someone to the side of merit isn’t referring to a specific act; of course He knows what the person intended and what he did. But if we are willing to suspend our judgement of others then God does the same for us.

This is also the corollary to one of the most important principles in the Bible: “You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Just as you treated your neighbor the Almighty treats you. He doesn’t make you justify yourself to Him either, but rather judges you to the side of merit and considers you worthy of another year of life.

This explains why Rosh Hashanah is in fact a holiday. The opportunity for mortals to earn an eternal life, and cheat death, is in fact a great kindness from the Almighty. Yes, it is a somber day, a day when we must focus on the coronation of our King, but it is also an opportunity to transcend our physical reality and that is truly something worth celebrating.

May we, along with the entire world, merit a sweet New Year filled with good health, prosperity, and an uplifting relationship with the Almighty that will truly bestow upon us the ultimate infinite existence. Shana Tova to you and yours!

Torah Portion of the Week

Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:20

On the day of Moshe's death he assembles the whole Jewish people and creates a Covenant confirming the Jewish people as the Almighty's Chosen People for all future generations. Moshe makes clear the consequences of rejecting God and His Torah as well as the possibility of repentance. He reiterates that Torah is readily available to everyone. He warns us against idolatry (thinking anything other than God has power) and assures us that eventually the Jewish people will do teshuva (repent) and will be redeemed and brought back to the land of Israel – and those who hate the Jewish people and pursue us will get their just recompense.

Nitzavim concludes with perhaps the clearest and most powerful statement in the Torah about the purpose of life and the existence of freewill: “I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil […] the blessing and the curse. Therefore, choose life that you may live, you and your descendants.” (Now that's a real Quote of the Week!)

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 J. Aleksandr Wootton

Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Susan and Stanley Rosenblatt

 

In loving memory of
Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Kalman Moshe ben Reuven Avigdor
1950-2019

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

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