Rosh haShanah is usually thought of as a festive, celebratory day, while Yom Kippur is the day of prayer and aweful, awesome judgment, the day of repentance, prayer and spirituality.
But is it perhaps the opposite way around? Could Yom Kippur be actually more festive than Rosh haShanah, and Rosh haShanah be more aweful and awe inspiring? These themes are explored in the following sermon from 5768 (2007) that gave my German book Ein reissendes lärmendes Wildwasser its name.
A Great Mighty Torrent
There is one day in the year that is filled with paradoxes. It is, on the one hand, a beautiful holiday, but on the other hand a time to fear and tremble. It evokes both pleasantness and dread, terror but also awe. The day marks not destruction, but construction and forgiveness. This day, one might guess, is Yom Kippur, a day that combines festivity and fasting, love and dread rolled into one. Except it isn’t Yom Kippur.
True, Yom Kippur is the day for forgiveness, the anniversary of G”d’s reconciliation with His people after they repented from their terrible sin of the Golden Calf. But while Yom Kippur contains some apparent paradoxes of its own, it is not THE day of awe and fear, trembling and terror.
There is a day before which …
Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them – and they will say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the heavenly host for judgment!’- for they cannot be vindicated in Your eyes in judgment. All mankind will pass before You like members of the flock.1
This awe filled day, this day of judgment, is Rosh haShanah.
Two intertwined themes permeate the beginning of the year: human acceptance of the Divine Rule – a coronation ceremony for G”d, as it were – and G”d’s judgment of all existence. These two themes meet in the portrayal of the Judge-King:
Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seats, (counts and calculates); Who remembers all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles – it will read itself, and everyone’s signature is in it. The great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin sound will be heard. Angels will hasten …2
Must these two themes coincide? Must Rosh haShanah – our new year’s party – fill us with dread and fear while we are also called upon to crown the King of all kings’ kings over us, while we attend this solemn but essentially happy ceremony? By accepting G”d’s rule over us and doing so as part of a community, we are bringing humanity closer to G”d and His Word. This ought to essentially be a happy occasion, very much like the holiday of Shavu’ot celebrates the Revelation at Sinai. Why then does Rosh haShanah not only fill us with awe and gratitude, but also with subdued dread and fear? Why must judgment happen precisely on Rosh haShanah?
On a philosophical level, judgment must coincide with revelation. Furthermore, Rosh haShanah is a day of revelation. It is very much unlike Shavu’ot, in that Shavu’ot is a day of celebration, of remembering the Revelation at Sinai, of reenacting it festively. Rosh haShanah, on the other hand, is not so much about remembering the past, as it is about repeating the pattern of coronation of G”d in the present; rather than celebrating yesteryear’s event, we are now actively engaged in accepting the Divine yoke.
The active, personal participation in G”d’s coronation brings about a very personal and very powerful revelation here and now. This revelation flows from our open mindedness, from our willingness to see the world as it really is, not as we sometimes pretend it is. This revelation directly flows from our readiness to recognize that, while we often see secular realities, G”d’s Hand really is immanent. Therefore, Rosh haShanah becomes ipso facto the day of judgment.
Recognizing the Divine Presence and accepting His yoke, we wily nilly must recognize our own personal unworthiness in face of G”d’s ultimate Justice and Righteousness. The revelation is so powerful that it necessarily confronts us with our own hypocrisy and sinfulness. Realizing how we devalued our actual lives and clearly seeing that in contrast with the greater value of the life we could be living, coming on the heels of the recognition of the Source of the true values, overwhelms us and turns the revelation into a moment of judgment, as well.
The question arises, however, why must we then be confronted with this overwhelming revelation? Is life as usual, without this powerful, annually recurring moment of judgment, not preferable? No! (please bear with me)
Rosh haShanah is not just a personal engagement, nor is it merely a communal acceptance of the yoke of heaven. Were it merely personal or communal, every person and every community could decide whether to celebrate a Rosh haShanah and how. However, this holy day falls not on a random date, but on a fateful one.
The Talmud records the disagreement between Rabbi Eli’ezer and Rabbi Yehoshu’ah whether the world was created in Tishrey or in Nissan.3 Rabbi Ila’i, who shares Rabbi Eli’ezer’s opinion that the world was created in Tishrey, explains4 that creation did not really begin on Rosh haShanah, it started five days earlier, on the 25th of Elul. Rosh haShanah, however, was the sixth day of creation, on which Man became.
The most cursory reading of the Account of Creation5 confirms that time functioned differently during the six days of creation. Indeed, Rabbi Ila’i proceeds to explain that Adam’s entire existence in the Garden of Eden, including his sin, his judgment and subsequent banishment from the Garden all happened on the afternoon of the sixth day of creation. When we sing “hayom harat ‘olam” – “today is the anniversary of creation,” we mean the anniversary of the creation of man.
In contrast to the naive reading of Adam’s banishment, Rabbi Ila’i teaches that Adam, though punished, was forgiven. Not only was he forgiven, but G”d revealed to him that just like on that very day Adam was judged and pardoned, so too would his descendants – the entire humanity – be judged on Rosh haShanah … and find a measure of forgiveness.
Furthermore, explains Rabbenu Nissim,6 the High Holidays and the month preceding them – Elul – correspond to the forty days during which G”d not only forgave our ancestors for their terrible and unforgivable sin of the Golden Calf, but even mended the rift which grew out of their debasement. During these forty days, G”d reconciled Himself with Israel, a reconciliation which culminated with the command – on the tenth of Tishrey, Yom Kippur – to build a sanctuary for G”d to rest His Presence among the people in the desert: the Mishkan. The entire forty days, says Rabbenu Nissim, constitute a recurring period of particular Divine Mercy.
Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik famously wrote: “religion is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and desperate, an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging, clamorous torrent of man’s consciousness with all its crises, pangs and torments.”7 This utterly total refutation of the nonsense which Karl Marx spread (“religion is opium for the masses”) is the key to understanding the true and fulfilling religious experience. In this sense, Rosh haShanah cannot be truly grasped, truly experienced, unless we become conscious of its dramatic and even traumatic character. Rosh haShanah is itself “a raging, clamorous torrent of man’s consciousness with all its crises, pangs and torments,” and we must ride this torrent to truly experience the Jewish life. However, riding this torrent brings us the greatest fulfilling and hence satisfying religious experience. Furthermore, while we may be afraid of riding the torrent and may consider not entering the turbulent waters, we cannot truly avoid them.
A calendar in which we are not compelled to experience the overwhelming revelation that arises from the acceptance of Divine Rule and its concomitant judgment is entirely conceivable. It is conceivable that we not actively seek this revelation. However, then, life would oftentimes force us to face truth, anyway, and the burden would be too much to bear. Lacking even the merit of recognizing and accepting G”d’s Rule, we would be even less worthy of Divine mercy, all the while our sins would weigh us further down, not having been purged through annual prayer and repentance. Instead, G”d has commanded us to annually reaffirm our commitment as His subjects, to realize and internalize, in an open minded fashion, how He transcends the world and His Hand, His Presence, is immanent. Although this personal revelation necessarily subjects us to His judgment, His justice is now laced with mercy.
G”d’s justice on Rosh haShanah is mitigated by his mercy on account of His statement to Adam, but also on account of our willingness to subject ourselves to him precisely on the anniversary of Adam’s judgment, which is also during the period our ancestors became reconciled with Him. For riding the stormy seas of revelation, of increasing closeness to and recognition of Him is itself a source of merit and thus a reason to magnanimously be merciful with us.
Sure, personal revelation is dreadful, but it is also filled with awe and reverence. As we set out to navigate the Ten Days of Awe, let us accept our duty and recognize our mission head on, pray intensively and internalize the words we speak, that our emotions, our consciousness with all its crises, pangs and torments flow freely in the greater service of G”d, to fulfill our destiny on earth.
1Machzor, “Unetaneh Toqef”
3Talmud Bavli Rosh haShanah 10b-11a
4Pesikta deRav Kahana 23:1
5The first three chapters of Bereishit/Genesys
6Rabbenu Nissin (RaN) Rosh haShanah 16b, s.v. “BeRosh haShanah”
7“Halachik Man,” The Jewish Publication Society, 1983, pg. 142
Rosh haShanah and its acceptance of G-d as King forces commitments about the future. You would therefore think it should come after Yom Kippur’s confessions about the past.
I would suggest that the ordering is driven because accepting His Kingship is a necessary precondition for Yom Kippur. A ruler who is ruling despite his people has to impose his will. A king who rules by their acclimation has room for mercy and clemency.