...But Repentance, Prayer and Charity Can Nullify the Decree... - from the High Holiday Prayers
The Birthday of the World... Time of Judgment For All Creation
Rosh HaShana, the anniversary of creation, is the beginning of the New Year, and it literally means The Head of the Year. We have now begun the year 5756 since the creation of the world. The days beginning with Rosh HaShana and ending with Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) are known as The Days of Awe. This is a very special time of year on the Jewish calendar, a time of introspection and commitment to self-improvement for the coming year. Most of all, this is the season for repentance, prayer, and charity, as illustrated by the quotation above - since we are taught that these three things have the power to influence the outcome of our judgment in a favorable way. We are taught that on Rosh Hashana, G-d sits in judgment on all His creations and decides their fate. Everything is decided on this day, for every aspect of the entire creation, each individual and each nation.
The entire world is likened to a flock of sheep which passes under the watchful eye - and rod - of the shepherd, who scrutinizes them. This is true both on an individual and national level. All the facets of a persons life - whether he will live or die, be rich or poor, weak or strong, powerful or insignificant - all these are part of his destiny and are determined by G-d at the start of each year. But the really amazing thing is that there is one detail of life which G-d does not decide, but which is totally left up to each one of us to determine and establish, namely: whether or not we will be righteous or wicked. How ironic! The only thing which is not pre-destined by the Holy One is the very question of whether or not we will listen to - and live our lives according to - the One who decided all these things in the first place! This phenomenon is expressed by the rabbis of the Talmud as Everything is in the hands of Heaven... except the fear of Heaven. G-d does nothing to influence a person in this direction, but leaves it up to each one - otherwise, there would be no reason to reward good and punish evil.
Those who are truly righteous, or those - Heaven forbid - who are truly wicked, have their decree sealed immediately on this day. However, for the majority, those on middle ground who possess both good and evil - for these, the decree is written on Rosh HaShana but not sealed until Yom Kippur. For the verdict is held hanging in the balance during the ten days in between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. These days are known as the Ten Days of Repentance.
These days are an aspect of the great love which the Holy One has for all His Creations... for when He examines the deeds of all men, even every nation, on Rosh HaShana - and while at that time, G-d may see that a mans own actions have sealed his own fate - still, that judgment is not sealed until the arrival of the great day of reckoning, Yom Kippur. Then the decree is sealed.
The Al-mighty loves His creations so greatly that in His mercy, He forgives even the greatest sins, as long as the individual admits his mistakes, feels sincere regret - and most importantly - takes it upon himself never to repeat these actions. The power of true repentance and the day of Yom Kippur itself are so great that they can erase even the worst of stains... all providing that the individual means what he says.
Of course, even Yom Kippur does not atone for everything. For there are two categories of sins: those committed against G-d, and those committed against ones fellow man. The first type are forgiven on Yom Kippur, if the conditions we have discussed have been met. But as to the second type: unless one asks his friend for forgiveness for the hurt he has caused him, and until that individual is appeased, even Yom Kippur cannot atone for sins committed between man and man.
How markedly different is this New Years desired by the G-d of Israel, from the concept of New Years Eve and the wild hullabaloo that goes along with the Western (or should we say Babylonian) idea of what the holiday of the New Year means, and how it should be spent. True, some folks talk - albeit somewhat in a tongue-in-cheek manner - of their sincere New Years Resolutions, and their fond hopes for new beginnings. But the majority of people in the so-called modern world celebrate their New Years with drunken abandonment and immature revelry. The only ritual for these masses - the closest thing to a religious experience - is watching the ball in Times Square fall to the ground on TV.
It is interesting to note that although everyone knows and thinks about the need for repentance on Rosh HaShana, it is not even mentioned in the prayers for the day. We do not utter words of repentance on Rosh HaShana as we do later, on Yom Kippur. For on Rosh HaShana, the birthday of the world, there is only one theme which runs through all the prayers: The realization that G-d is King over us, and over each aspect of His creation. We express the hope that all mankind will unite together as one band and unit to serve Him together in complete harmony. Through our prayers, we literally renew our obligations to Him by coronating Him as King over us... and of course, a Kings subjects are duty-bound to none but Him.
This is the reason we do not mention repentance on Rosh HaShana. We must first do our utmost to truly internalize the message of G-ds rule over us; to make Him a part of us so completely that we realize and understand how every breath we take is His... as one rabbi has written with simple and stark beauty, G-d created everything - and He is everything. There is nothing else but Him, and as long as we think of ourselves as being separate from Him, we are not truly connected.
If we can accomplish this task on Rosh HaShana - to begin to truly comprehend our obligations to the King as His subjects... then, during the Ten Days of Repentance and leading up to the climax of Yom Kippur, we can at least have some hope of approaching Him properly as penitent subjects who realize the error of their ways