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Torah Attitude: Rosh Hashanah- Parashas Haazinu-Shabbat Shuvah: Amnesty by the Rock
One of the highlights of the prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is Unesaneh Tokef. All aspects of a person's life in the coming year are being decided on these days. What is the significance of Rosh Hashanah that G'd chose to make this day the Day of Judgment rather than any other day of the year? The first of Tishrei was established as the primary Day of Judgment, thus giving everyone the opportunity to utilize the final days of this period of mercy and, if needed, to change the judgment during the Ten Days of Repentance. "The Rock [G'd], His work is perfect for all His paths are justice."
One of the highlights of the prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is Unesaneh Tokef, just before Kedushah in the Mussaf service. In this prayer, we describe the awesomeness of these days of Judgment where G'd sits on His Heavenly throne and scrutinizes the acts of every human being. Everyone passes in front of the Heavenly throne and G'd decides their individual judgment. We continue and say: "On Rosh Hashanah they are inscribed, and on Yom Kippur, their judgment is sealed: How many are going to pass away, and how many are going to be born. Who will live and who will die. Who will die in their designated time and who will die before their time … Who will have a peaceful life and who will be unsettled … Who will be rich and who will be poor. Who will fall low and who will rise."
Alter the judgment
All aspects of a person's life in the coming year are being decided on these days. Everyone who hears the detailed account of the judgment stands in awe. Even the angels above are shaken by this awesomeness, as we mention in the same prayer. But at the same time we are informed that we have the ability to alter the judgment as we say, "And repentance, and prayers, and charity annul the bad decree."
Rabbeinu Nissim (the Ran) in his commentary on the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a) asks, what is the significance of Rosh Hashanah that G'd chose to make this day the Day of Judgment rather than any other day of the year? He quotes a Pesikta (Paragraph 23) that explains that this is the anniversary of the day when Adam was created. On this very day, Adam sinned when he ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and he was judged by G'd. G'd had warned him that on the day he ate from this tree he would die. G'd's words were fulfilled in the sense that his eating caused his physical mortality and he eventually died. However, G'd's judgment was merciful and very lenient. He did get punished, as it says (Bereishis 3:19): "By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread …" but he did not die immediately. After the verdict G'd said to Adam, "You will be a sign for your children. Just as you stood before Me today and came out with amnesty, so will your children in the future stand before Me on this day and come out with amnesty." Obviously, not every person merits a merciful judgment. Rather, everyone has the potential to follow in Adam's footsteps and repent and pray to G'd for forgiveness, as he did, and thereby merit a lenient judgment.
10th of Tishrei
The Ran later gives an additional explanation for this time of the year to be the days of judgment. He explains that after the sin of the golden calf, in the desert, on the 17th of Tamuz, Moses ascended Mount Sinai for forty days to pray to G'd and ask for forgiveness for the Jewish people (see Devarim 9:18). Only at end of this period was G'd ready to start the process of forgiving the Jewish people for their great sin. G'd instructed Moses to ascend the mountain for a third time and stay there again for a period of forty days. This period started on Rosh Chodesh Elul and culminated on the 10th of Tishrei when G'd gave Moses the second set of tablets with the Ten Commandments. These forty days became days of mercy and forgiveness for all generations to come. For this very reason, G'd, in His great lovingkindness, decided that this should be the time when He would judge mankind, in general, and the Jewish people, in particular. The first of Tishrei was established as the primary Day of Judgment, thus giving everyone the opportunity to utilize the final days of this period of mercy and, if needed, to change the judgment during the Ten Days of Repentance. Who knows what kind of final judgment we would get on Yom Kippur had it not been established on that very day when G'd forgave the Jewish people their sin at the Golden Calf and gave them a second chance to accept the Ten Commandments and the whole Torah?
In the beginning this week's Torah portion (Devarim 32:4-5) it says: "The Rock [G'd], His work is perfect for all His paths are justice … Corruption is not His, [rather] His children are at fault." We do not understand the judgment of G'd. We see righteous people suffering and evil people having a good time. We see young people die whereas old people who feel their time is up live a long life lacking quality of life. Moses taught us that just as G'd is firm as a rock, so is His justice firm and fair. We trust in His righteous judgment and accept that only He, in his infinite wisdom, knows what is good. Throughout the Ten Days of Repentance we constantly remind ourselves that, besides being our Judge and King, G'd is also our loving and merciful Father Who only wants the very best for us. We see so much lovingkindness in the establishment of the Days of Judgment, at a time when G'd is ready to deal with mercy and provide amnesty. However, it is up to us to utilize these Ten Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in repentance, prayer and giving charity to nullify any evil decree that might be part of our judgment. In this way, we have the power and ability to help that we, together with the rest of the Jewish people and all of mankind, will be inscribed and sealed for a good year for everyone.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network