Rosh Hashana Essay

A Season of Repentance


Imagine that you receive a notice from the IRS that you are going to be audited in one month. You are frantic. After all, receipts and credit slips are scattered in drawers and piles throughout the house; and, now you have only one month to find them. The beginning of the month of Elul marks the one month notice until the “Divine audit” on Rosh Hashana. Throughout the month of Elul, Jews search for every receipt and credit slip left by their behavior. “Did I belittle the secretary who couldn’t remember my name?” “Did I borrow $20 and forget to return it?” “Did I…?”

Elul is the time to look back over the past year, sort out our strengths and weaknesses, and see what impact our deeds have had. Like sorting the receipts, we can put our actions into little piles: wrong to G-d, our fellow humans or even ourselves, and good to G-d, our fellow humans or ourselves. Sometimes an action may fall into several categories. Reviewing our behavior is, according to the Medieval scholar Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), the beginning of the first step in teshuva, repentance. The Jewish view of repentance goes much farther than mere regret. Teshuva is a pro-active process that recognizes our fallibility and our ability to change.

People err. The Bible is full of people “messing up.” What is important, however, is that one learns from his/her mistakes; and, the first step in setting it straight is recognizing the problem and stopping the behavior. For many, recognizing a negative behavior is painfully difficult. After all, it’s so easy to justify our actions — “Well, he shouldn’t have cut me off, I had every right to yell at him!””The government already gets enough money, I don’t have to declare this on my taxes!” “Hey, so what if I told them that I saw her out last night, everybody knows she’s a real partier!” But rationalizations don’t make the action right, they only make the rationalizer feel better about their behavior. Admitting that an action was wrong or that it may have hurt someone, takes courage and honesty. Stopping the behavior is an even greater challenge.

Humankind, however, was created to meet this challenge. As the only one of G-d’s creations with a soul, humans alone are capable of spiritual growth. Unlike physical development, spiritual growth must be a conscious effort, with both short and long term goals. For instance: long term, one may wish to be able to read from the Torah, but the short term goal may be to learn the Aleph-Bet. When setting the long term goal of becoming the best possible person, Rosh Hashana is the date by which one sets a short term goal of evaluating the direction in which one is heading.

On Rosh Hashana the world came to life. It was the sixth day of creation. The trees had been planted, the seeds for the grasses were sown, fish, birds, mammals and all other creatures were formed…and then G-d created the human being. How can Rosh Hashana be considered the birthday of the world if the world was already six days old? A baby is conceived and exists for nine months before the child is born, yet only the day of its first breath is considered its actual birthday. So too, only on the sixth day, when G-d “formed Adam of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” did the world become actualized.

That first breath set the world in motion. It was also from that day forth that humankind has had to face the battle of free-will. While it may appear to be a burden, free-will, the ability to choose one’s actions, is actually the necessary ingredient for spiritual growth. After all, if one works solely upon natural instinct, one will always have the same reaction in similar situations. Without free-will there are no choices about behavior and there can be no reflection about right or wrong. With free-will, however, what we did yesterday is not necessarily what we do today or tomorrow. However, with free-will comes responsibility and accountability; and, on Rosh Hashana G-d holds each man and woman accountable for his or her actions over the last year

While people should strive to improve themselves throughout the year, as the month of Elul begins and the Shofar is sounded, we are reminded that there is just one month left. Thirty days remain to check one’s balance and settle old accounts. By using Elul to prepare, one is able to face the Divine audit on Rosh Hashana with clarity and confidence, knowing that one has moved towards his/her spiritual goal and has made a better connection with the power of the day, and with G-d.