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Torah Attitude: Yom Kippur: Judgment in mercy and mercy in judgment
On Rosh Hashanah G'd judges all nations of the world. Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment in mercy, whereas Yom Kippur is the day of mercy in judgment. The Ten Days of Repentance correspond to the ten Sefirot. The Jewish people were not chosen in our own merit but in the merit of our three Patriarchs. The character traits a righteous person develops with hard work and much effort becomes second nature to his children. G'd told Abraham in a prophetic vision that only part of Isaac's offspring would be considered his spiritual heirs. Rabbi Dessler offers a parable of two juvenile thieves who were brought in front of a judge. This parable illustrates how the two attributes of judgment and mercy can go hand in hand without contradicting each other. There is no such thing as total amnesty from G'd's judgment. Yom Kippur is a day full of mercy, but the mercy will be applied in such a fashion that it is still acceptable as the only fair judgment. As G'd's servants the Jewish people enjoys the special privilege of the Ten Days of Repentance. This is due to our being descendants of our Patriarchs.
All nations judged
The Ramban (Vayikra 23:24) writes that on Rosh Hashanah G'd judges all nations of the world. This corresponds to what we say in the Mussaf prayer on Rosh Hashanah, "And regarding the states [of the nations] it is being decided on that day [of Rosh Hashanah] which one will be at war and which one will be at peace, which one will suffer from hunger and which one will have plenty. And all creatures will be mentioned and [it will be] decided who will live and who will die. Is there anyone who will not be mentioned on this day? The remembrance of all creation comes before You. The deeds of man versus his purpose … The thoughts of every human being and his ideas."
Mercy in judgment
The Ramban continues that after Rosh Hashanah throughout the Ten Days of Repentance G'd is ready to forgive His servants (the Jewish people). It is clear, says the Ramban that both the initial judgment on Rosh Hashanah and the final verdict on Yom Kippur all depend on teshuvah (repentance). However, Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment in mercy, whereas Yom Kippur is the Day of Mercy in judgment.
The Ramban concludes with a Kabbalistic note that these Ten Days correspond to the ten Sefirot, They start on Rosh Hashanah with the lowest Sefirah of Malchut when G'd acts as a judging king. And they culminate on Yom Kippur when G'd raises His conduct to the highest Sefirah of Keser. As it says (Isaiah 5:16), "And the G'd of the Hosts rises in judgment."
These words of the Ramban need clarification. First of all, how can it be that the whole world is being judged on Rosh Hashanah but only the Jewish nation is being notified and given the opportunity to repent? It does not seem fair that G'd gives special privileges to one nation above the rest of the world. Secondly, what does the Ramban mean when he says that Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment in mercy, and Yom Kippur is the Day of Mercy in judgment?
In order to answer these questions we need to understand the concept of the Jewish people being G'd's chosen nation. The Torah clearly sets the record straight, when it says (Devarim 9:4-5) "Do not say in your heart … 'because of my righteousness G'd brought me to inherit this land and because of the wickedness of these nations did G'd drive them away from before you.' Not because of your righteousness and the straightness of your heart … but only because of the wickedness of these nations … And in order to establish what G'd swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob." We were not chosen in our own merit but in the merit of our three Patriarchs, who were very dear to G'd because of their piety and straightness. G'd already announced this when he spoke to Abraham and said (Bereishis 18:19) "For I have loved him because he commands his children and his household after him that they shall keep the way of G'd to do charity and justice."
Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner in his commentary on Pirkei Avos (5:3) explains the Jewish people's special situation with a quote from Mishlei (20:7) "The righteous walk in perfection; fortunate are his children after him." He explains that the character traits a righteous person develops through hard work and much effort easily becomes second nature to his children. With little effort his offspring can tune in and follow in the footsteps of their great ancestor. Obviously, they also have free choice but they do not need to work hard to do what is right. The road has been paved for them already. Thus when Abraham overcame his ten tests he paved the way for his offspring, the Jewish people. This, says Rabbi Chaim, explains how throughout the generations many Jews were ready to sacrifice themselves and their children for their belief in G'd. Similarly, we find that right up till our days many Jews were ready to give up a life of ease and comfort in the Diaspora to go and live with much hardship in the land of Israel. This is all part of our spiritual heritage from Abraham.
When Abraham had to send Ishmael away G'd told him that only Isaac would be considered his spiritual heir. G'd further said (Bereishis 21:12) "Your offspring will be considered through Isaac." The Talmud (Nedarim 31a) comments on this that the words "through Isaac" indicate that only one of Isaac's children, namely Jacob, would continue in this path. As the offspring of Jacob, we are privileged to be G'd's special nation. G'd has promised us that He will never severe His bond with the Jewish people, but, as individuals it is our obligation to ensure that we and our children follow in the footsteps of our Patriarchs and do not end up on foreign paths like Ishmael and Eisav.
Two juvenile thieves
With this in mind, says Rabbi Dessler, we can understand how G'd, Who is the source of the ultimate truth and judges in perfect fairness, can give special privileges to the Jewish nation above the rest of the world. To illustrate the specialty of the chosen nation, and the privileges that come with it, Rabbi Dessler offers the following parable. Two juvenile thieves were brought in front of a judge. The judge investigated the case and found that they had both committed theft and were liable for a prison term. However, before delivering the final verdict, the judge further investigated the background of the two thieves. He wanted to find the best way to rehabilitate them to become honest, productive members of society. The judge found out that one of the thieves came from a respectable family who were all law-abiding people. The thief was the black-sheep of the family. He had fallen in with bad company who had enticed him to engage in criminal activities. The judge felt that under these circumstances the best judgment would be that the young offender would be obligated to move back home to be under the positive influence of his family and to enforce that he cut his ties with the criminal elements. The judge reasoned that this was also the fairest judgment: For if this young man would be put in prison, he would be living with other criminals and by the end of his term who knows where he would go. The case of the other offender was a totally different story. He had grown up in a criminal environment and had no immediate family who could be a positive influence on him. Under those circumstances, the only choice open to the judge was to send him to prison in the hope that the staff at the correctional facility would be able to help him give up his criminal ways.
Judgment and mercy
Rabbi Dessler says this parable illustrates how the two attributes of judgment and mercy can go hand in hand without contradicting each other. G'd has no interest in punishing anyone for the sake of punishment. As G'd says (Yechezkel 33:11) "I do not want the death of the wicked, but that the wicked should repent from his way and live." So G'd investigates to see who is likely to repent having a road paved ahead of them, and who is likely to only turn around if they are being punished. G'd shows mercy to the Jewish people because we are the descendants of our Patriarchs. In our case, this is the fairest judgment as it is very likely that this conduct will help us return to the ways of our forefathers and do what is right. On the other hand, in regards to the nations of the world, the conduct of judgment is the most merciful conduct possible, as this is the only way possible to help them do what G'd expects of them.
No total amnesty
G'd's conduct of mercy still does not provide total amnesty from a judgment (see Bava Kama 50a) as this would contradict the fairness of justice. On the other hand, even the strictest judgment will at the same time be the most merciful one possible under the circumstances. When the Torah rules that the rebellious son should be punished with capital punishment (see Devarim 21:18-22) our sages explain that this is due to this youth's disobedient behaviour. He has already proven that he has no intent to repent at any point. He will only fall deeper and deeper and harm himself and the society around him. In fact, the Torah construed the rules regarding this case so that it could never happen (see Sanhedrin 71a), but the Torah here teaches us the philosophy behind the Divine judgment.
We can now understand the deeper meaning of Rosh Hashanah being a Day of Judgment in mercy. It is a day when G'd primarily conducts Himself as a judge, but at no point will the judgment stand in contradiction to G'd being a merciful Father. On the other hand, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is a day full of mercy. But the mercy will be applied in such a fashion that it is still acceptable as the only fair judgment.
Descendants of Patriarchs
As G'd's servants, the Jewish people enjoy the special privilege of the Ten Days of Repentance. This is due to our being descendants of our Patriarchs. In their merit we have the opportunity to repent and follow in their footsteps and thus achieve atonement on Yom Kippur, the most holy day in the Jewish calendar. But it is up to us to utilize this privilege.
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