“The Unexpected Joy of Rosh Hashana”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the first of last week’s double parashiot, parashat Nitzavim, we read Moses’ forceful charge to the People of Israel found in Deuteronomy 30:19: “Ha’ee’doh’tee va’chem ha’yom et ha’shamayim v’et ha’eretz, ha’chaim v’ha’mah’vet, nah’tah’tee l’fah’neh’cha ha’bracha v’ha’k’lala, oo’vah’charta bah’chayim, l’mah’ahn tich’yeh ah’tah v’zar’eh’cha,” I call heaven and earth today to bear witness to you; I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring!

In this most significant verse, the People of Israel are charged to choose life. The choice that is made is a most fateful choice, since it impacts not only on one’s own personal destiny, but upon the fate of all of one’s descendants, and indeed, upon all of humankind.

The famed metaphor drawn by Maimonides (Rambam,1135-1204, great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician) depicts the image of each human being’s merits and sins being weighed on the Divine scale. If the merits outweigh the transgressions, the individual is inscribed for life. If one’s sins outweigh one’s positive acts, that individual is destined for perdition.

But it is not only the individual’s fate that is determined at that moment, it is the fate of the entire world. When a tally is made of the collective scales of humankind, it may very well be that the actions of one single individual tip the balance for all of humankind for salvation or destruction!

The responsibility for the fate of all humankind is an onerous responsibility for any individual to bear. Given the ominous outcome that may result from one’s personal behavior, why is there such a joyous atmosphere on Rosh Hashana? It is, after all, a solemn day of reckoning before G-d that impacts on the destiny of all the world’s inhabitants.

In their attempts to explain this profound conundrum, the medieval commentators offer several clarifications. The Abarbanel (1437-1508, Spanish statesman, philosopher and commentator) explains that on Rosh Hashana, while it is true that humankind as a whole gives an account of itself, its fate may very well be already predetermined because of what is known in Judaism as “Hashgacha K’lalit,” universal providence. Given that the fate of the world is dependent upon the behavior of others, it seems that each individual is helpless to impact on the labyrinth of the laws of cause and effect. Since individuals cannot alter the way the world operates, they might often suffer for the deeds of the world as a whole. However, Jewish tradition also believes in what is known as “Hashgacha Pratit,” individual providence, which affirms that each individual is responsible for his or her own actions and is judged on the basis of these deeds because of the great gift of free will that is granted by G-d. Although G-d demands an accounting for these deeds, each human being has a good chance of avoiding severe punishment. After all, individuals are able to counterbalance the punishment for their sins by the reward for the good deeds that they have performed. It is for this reason that we rejoice on Rosh Hashana.

The Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) explains that the reason for joy on this holiday is because we are privileged that the Al-mighty allows us to settle our accounts with Him once a year. Even though giving an annual accounting is difficult, we are grateful that our slates are cleansed each year, rather than having to wait a longer time to be forgiven. After all, it would be much more difficult if G-d were to wait a long time to demand the payment for our accumulated debts. The effect would be crushing, and so we rejoice on Rosh Hashana.

The Alshich (a popular commentary on the Bible by R’ Moshe Alshich of Safed, 1508-1593?) explains the happiness of Rosh Hashana by drawing the metaphor of a fearsome and imposing king. Fear of the sovereign serves as an end in itself, hanging continuously over the people as a warning to them to keep in line and behave properly. Failure to do so may result in grave suffering and/or death. However, with G-d, the Sovereign of the Universe, who is our compassionate Father, the situation is quite different. After all, people who have fear of G-d in their hearts are undoubtedly in a state of repentance, and will be granted forgiveness by our merciful G-d. Thus, we are joyous on Rosh Hashana, because fear of G-d is already considered an act of contrition. And where there is repentance, there is forgiveness.

The Mishna, in Yoma 95b, cites Rabbi Akiva who sums up the propitious situation of the People of Israel by saying, “Ashraychem Yisrael, lif’nay mee ah’tem m’taharim, oo’mee m’taher etchem? Aveechem sheh’ba’shamayim!” How fortunate are you, Israel! Before whom do you purify yourselves, and who is it that purifies you? Your Father who is in heaven!

May we all approach the upcoming new year with great joy and optimism, knowing full well that our loving Father in Heaven is waiting for our return. This period of penitence, which can be so threatening, has become a period of joy because of a loving and forgiving G-d.

May you be blessed.

Rosh Hashana (click here) this year is observed on Friday evening and all day Shabbat and Sunday, September 18th, 19th and 20th, 2009.

The fast of Gedaliah (click here) will be observed on Monday, September 21st from dawn until nightfall.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life, and may all our prayers be answered favorably.