Rosh Hashana: Recognizing Reality

Why isn't Yom Kippur before Rosh Hashana?

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Rabbanit Shira Smiles,

Young women study Torah
Young women study Torah
Flash 90

While Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment, Yom Kippur is the day we are purified of our sins.

Wouldn’t it be more logical, asks Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer, to have Rosh Hashanah after Yom Kippur so that we can come to judgment with a clean slate?

Rabbi Blazer himself offers one answer: Yom Kippur is a day of such sanctity that it is very difficult to reach. By celebrating Rosh Hashanah first, we can use the sanctity of Rosh Hashanah and our trepidation as a stepping stone to reaching the sanctity of Yom Kippur.

Therein lies the key to this order of the holidays. the Siach Yitzchak, continues the analysis of the question. When one comes into court, one’s demeanor should be humble and full of trepidation, for who knows what we may be guilty of and what restitution may be required of us. If we have already been pardoned, we may become smug and haughty, expecting total dismissal of all charges.

This kind of attitude is totally inappropriate to Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, and so Hashem, in His wisdom, placed judgment before atonement, preparing the way for us to enter the higher sanctity of Yom Kippur.

We should be careful of our actions every day of the year, especially the first three hours of the day, cautions Rabbi Amsterdam in the name of his Rebbe, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. Every day we are judged for that day, but on Rosh Hashanah we are being judged for the entire year, and perhaps for many years into the future. How much more cautious must we be with every action we take and every word we speak on Rosh Hashanah.

Therefore we must enter Rosh Hashanah with a sense of broken heartedness and humility, says Rabbi Walkin. Even if we have all we need, we must remain humble by realizing that all we have comes from Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and we are still only paupers in His presence, says Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, Therefore, we must remain humble. By putting Rosh Hashanah before Yom Kippur we remain humble.

Using another perspective, Rabbi Gedaliah Eiseman in Gidulei Mussar makes note of the purposes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The entire focus of Rosh Hashanah is to coronate Hashem as King over us. Only after we accept His sovereignty can we accept His mitzvoth as binding commands we must obey. That is the reason Rabbi Yehoshuah Korcha writes in the Gemarrah that we proclaim Shema Yisroel and accept God as our Lord before we continue with the passage of vehaya im shamoa which explains the rewards for keeping Hashem’s commands and the punishments for disobeying them.

If we cannot accept Hashem’s sovereignty, the entire structure of Torah and mitzvoth falls apart. Like the pomegranate and the apple which are featured so prominently on many Rosh Hashanah tables, write Rabbi Itamar Schwartz in Bilvovi Mishkan Evneh, we must strive to be full of mitzvoth as the pomegranate is full of seeds, but we must ensure that the mitzvoth do not remain isolated, each in its own casing. Rather, the mitzvoth must be part of the core, like the seeds of the apple, belief in Hakodosh Boruch Hu and our acceptance of Him as our King. With that understanding, it makes no difference what the mitzvah is or how the mitzvah makes us feel; each is equally a command from my King.

This concept is reinforced in Sichot Hischazkus put out by Congregation Nachlas Yakov in Yerushalayim. R. Tzvi Meir Zilcerberg  in this Sefer  emphasizes that we must accept Hashem as our King not only in mitzvah observance but also as the One in control of every aspect of our lives. On Rosh Hashanah we accept that Hashem is intimately involved in our lives and we must sing His praises in every situation, both good and we perceive as “bad”, for only then will you feel accountable to Him.

We can understand this concept more readily if we use Rabbi Yaakov Neiman’s analogy in Darchei Mussar. If we are in the army, every open button or unpolished shoe is an infraction, especially during inspection. If we are not in the army, an unbuttoned shirt or unpolished shoe is irrelevant. And if we are lucky enough to become guards at Buckingham Palace, we feel highly honored and do not consider the inconvenient heat or heavy uniform deterrents to our mission.

Similarly, if we see ourselves in the army of God, everything we do, no matter how seemingly insignificant, can be either an infraction or a source of praise, and if we realize what an honor it is to be in God’s army, we will accept every mitzvah with joy and pride. Then, if we sin, we understand that we have sinned lefanecha, before You, at inspection.  Hence, Rosh Hashana establishes the relationship necessary in order to properly understand from before whom we have sinned and wronged which is the motif of Yom Kippur.

But we can take these ideas to a deeper level. Rabbi Chaim Hacohen Hachalban asks why the Gemarrah focuses on Sovereignty, Remembrance and Shofar blasts as the themes of the day instead of on judgment.  Because, Hachalban explains, all year long Hashem seems distant from us, and we go about our business by rote, thinking this is all natural, without being aware of Hashem’s presence.

During the month of Elul, Hashem is in the field, perhaps on our block or in our backyard. But on Rosh Hashanah He reveals Himself to us and His presence is palpable. Life is no longer a superficial series of events. Life has meaning. I have meaning. I have a purpose. We recognize our core and our essence as a reflection of the Divine, and the superficialities become meaningless in our lives.

From the start of Elul until Yom Kippur we recite the Psalm, “LeDovid Hashem ori veyishi - to David, Hashem is my light and my salvation.” Our Sages interpret “light” as Rosh Hashanah and “salvation” as Yom Kippur. How is Rosh Hashanah similar to light? Rabbi Pinchas Roberts explains this connection for us. Rosh Hashanah approaches, and a beacon of light shines upon us, guiding us toward our mission and toward fulfilling the mitzvoth. The illusions of this world, created by the Satan fade away, and we see the world and our purpose in their true light.

Rabbi Roberts cites an enlightening analogy from Rav Yehudah Leibowitz Chasman that illustrates this point. If you go into a movie theater, you will observe all kinds of wonders appearing before you on the screen. But the entire room is dark. Turn on one light and the entire illusion fades, and you are left with the reality of the empty space around you. Now you can see what you can do to create concrete reality. With the light of Rosh Hashanah shining on our world, we are forced to examine our world. We recognize the truth that God is the Creator, and that we were put into the world to fill it with His presence by doing the work he ordained for us to do. Working on our purpose rather than acquiring more possessions is what will create true happiness and joy within us.

God is a spiritual entity, and if I am created in His image, I too am a spiritual entity and have a spiritual purpose. My work on Rosh Hashanah is to find that spark of the Divine within myself and nurture it so that I will become a true eved Hashem, servant of God, and thereby create meaning and purpose in my life. The King leads us, and I, as part of His entourage of servants, have tremendous status and worth.

Rabbi Benzion Kook in Biikvot Moadei Hashem reminds us that we should not take the narrow view of mitzvah observance, that its performance affects only oneself and one’s small circle, but one should take the cosmic view that every action we take, every mitzvah we observe brings more Godliness into the world. Our small step can have ripple effects throughout the world and for all eternity. This is the image of the shofar, narrow at one end and even closed up. But when it’s opened up, and we blow into it from the breath of life Hashem breathed into us, the effect t is enlarged and comes out the other end in a loud, spirit inducing sound.

We must search deep within ourselves to produce that breath, for if we concentrate just on the superficialities and technicalities of life, we will never produce that sound that is part of our essence. I call you from narrow straits, whether from the difficulties of life or from the narrow end of the shofar; please, Hashem, answer me in expansiveness.

Expanding on these thoughts, Rav Chaim Hacohen, the Tallelei Cheim, notes that if I realize my greatness as a servant of the King, I act from my potential for greatness rather than from smallness. The shofar sound is then not a teruah that frightens us, but an expression of reius, close friendship, the relationship we hope to nurture with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. That shofar call is not just to awaken us to our potential for greatness, but to ask Hashem to help us achieve that goal, to raise us from the trenches of the mud of this world to higher levels of meaning and spirituality.

The judgments we receive on Rosh Hashanah are meant to help us reach this goal. If we are going in the wrong direction, Hashem will send us a “flat tire” to reassess our rout; if we are headed in the right direction, Hashem will top off our fuel tank.

Whatever we have done this past year that does not fit into this model of the ideal me is really not who I am. I want to show my love for you, but sometimes I err. The Tallelei Chaim offers an analogy to beautifully expresses this idea. A young child wants to surprise his mommy by baking her a cake. When she’s out of the house, he takes out all the ingredients he’s seem Mommy take out and starts pouring and mixing. One can only encounter the mess that greets mommy when she returns and enters the kitchen. She gets furious at the mess, but when her little one starts crying and tries to explain his motivation, that he loved her so much he wanted to surprise her, her anger melts away, she draws him close and hugs him.

Similarly, we often make a mess of things, even when we try to come close to Hashem. But on Rosh Hashanah we try to explain to Hashem how much we love Him and want a relationship we Him. We want to try to clean up our mess, and with His help, we will succeed. We hope that He too will draw us close and give us what we crave for the New Year.   It is within this context of love that we enter into Yom Kippur to ask for forgiveness.

May Hashem bring us in to His presence, allow us to recognize the greatness within ourselves, and help us achieve the potential He envisions for us.

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