Life, says Shlomo HaMelech, is full of circles. There are so many things that we do and experience over the course of the day and the course of our lives which are circular in nature. Whether we are talking about our routine, whether we are talking about the cycles of nature, and whether we are talking about time. Indeed, the Hebrew word for year is shannah, whose root means “to repeat” as in shoneh halachos (to repeat or relearn the halacha). A year is called that due to its circular nature as the seasons change in a set cycle which repeat at the beginning of each year. But one of the problems that a circle presents us with is where to begin? Technically a circle has no beginning, rather an arbitrary point which is decided upon and which becomes symbolic of the beginning. Left to its own devices the circle represents an unending cycle.
Which leads us to the Torah’s outlook of the yearly circle, the shannah.
Our sages, ob”m, teach us that the cycle of the year is not an unending one. It has a beginning which we call Rosh haShanna. It’s also not arbitrary, as we believe in a finite universe with finite time. Therefore, the beginning for us isn’t arbitrary, it’s the starting point of the year and the official starting point of all human time. As our sages, ob”m, taught us that the halacha is like the opinion which states that the world was finished being created on the first of the month of Tishrei.
They also teach us that according to Jewish tradition there are not four seasons that comprise a year, there are five: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Rachamim (mercy). At this time of the year, beginning with the month of Elul until the day of Yom Kippur is the season of Rachamim, the season of mercy. The reason for this is because it was during this time, after the giving of the Torah at Sinai, that Moses, our teacher, ascended the mount to receive the Second Luchos, (the second set of the Tablets).
The season of Rachamim is not a static one. It begins with a little and slowly but surely grows in intensity until we reach the day of Judgement, Rosh haShanna, then continues until we reach the tenth day of the month of Tishrei, Yom Kippur, when the season of Rachamim reaches its ultimate pinnacle, the day that HaShem pronounced to the people of Israel Salachti ki’devarecha, (I have forgiven you, like you asked). Then in an instant … it is gone.
There are many interesting questions asked on this season of the year, let’s address two:
Why do we need a day of judgement in the first place?
If the ultimate goal of the time is to achieve forgiveness, why does the day of judgement precede the day of atonement? Shouldn’t we first get the atonement and only then be judged? Wouldn’t our slate be cleaner if we did it the other way around?
These are important questions. To answer them we first need to know a little bit about who G-d, HaShem, is.
There is a fundamental difference between the Jewish understanding of HaShem as opposed to the Christian one.
In Christianity G-d is, (how should I put this?), a sadist. After all, according to their theology G-d gave us a Torah that we couldn’t possibly keep, punished us for not keeping it, then took it away from us and gave the “real” laws to someone entirely different. But this time they were not only do-able, they were doable in an effortless way. Just believe. That’s all you have to do.
The Jewish G-d, HaShem, isn’t like that at all. Our sages, ob”m, tell us that the world was supposed to be created with strict judgement “before” taking into account human nature, which would never be able to keep up with strict judgement. At the same time to live in a world of only mercy would defeat the purpose of creation. A balance needed to be struck between the two. In the language of the machzor (the book of prayers for the high holiday season (Rosh haShanna and Yom Kippur)) HaShem is makdim Rachamim la rogez, (who precedes anger with mercy). In this world HaShem gives us many opportunities to get it right, but they are not unending.
As opposed to the Christian god, the Jewish understanding of G-d (read the Bible (i.e. the OLD Testament) for more info) is that He made man with a purpose and that is to grow and to learn and work at perfecting him/herself. Learning is a process, and although it would be great if we got things right the first time, in most instances we get in our own way, whether because of lack of skill and understanding, or many times due to our fundamental difficulty with allowing ourselves to be different, to change.
HaShem would never give us a Torah that we couldn’t keep, but He may give us a Torah that we have to work at, failing many times along the way, in order to allow ourselves to grow and fit it. HaShem never punishes the Jewish people outright, unless it becomes clear that our path, like that of the previous generations, is stubbornly going in the wrong direction and missing the point of it all.
There is rhyme and reason to the world, there is a path and a purpose that we are all supposed to walk on, Jew and Gentile alike. Therefore, if we ignore it, if we stubbornly walk our own way, then occasionally HaShem must make a statement that helps the world get back on track. After all, even though the world at large is wont to admit it, (and following the Christian version of G-d) everyone admits that there is something called an “act of G-d”. It even says so in your insurance policy. (It’s just that it only applies to the terrible tragedies that occur in the world, like the Christian version).
Which brings us back to the season of Rachamim and the questions that we asked.
Why do we need a day of Judgement?
Say our sages, ob”m, (see Sefer HaChinuch mitzvah 405, “Blowing the Shofar”), that it is one of the greatest gifts that HaShem could give to man. What would the world be like without a day of judgement? Well, it would be a world of day to day, by day to day. We would wake up today, go through our day, go to sleep, ad infinitum until we grew old and died. We would then take a look back at our lives and say, “How did I let my life slip by like that without ever really doing anything with it?”
But you don’t do that when at least once every year you need to stop and think about what you did with your year. Not when you need to make an accounting. Not when you need to ask yourself “Am I deserving of another year?
By informing us of the impending judgement day, by giving us the opportunity to get ready for it we are given a tremendous lease on actualizing our life in the positive way proscribed by the Torah. To get in touch with our real selves. To live lives of meaning and purpose.
It is for this reason that the Day of Judgement precedes the day of atonement.
Who is deserving of atonement? Only a person who has utilized his time wisely during the days of Judgement, of course! Only a person who has asked him/herself the difficult question “How am I going to change for the better?” is deserving of atonement on the Day of Atonement. But you only get to that by judging yourself, and you only judge yourself when you know that you are to be judged.
How do you know this to be true? Well there are two clear indicators. The first is our innate drive to want to “fit in” with society (however good or bad they may be). We judge ourselves in this regard and only leave the house upon concluding that we, indeed, as we are now dressed and groomed, “fit in”. Otherwise who in their right mind would ever have worn a pair of parachute pants? Zoot suits? Wide lapel shirts? The list is, of course, endless.
There is also the tremendous story of the death of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai in the Gemara Tractate Berachos 28a. Although the story itself is amazing I am only going to focus on the pertinent part for us.
RYB”Z’s students ask of their Rebbe before he dies “Our Rebbe! Please bless us!” RYB”Z turns to them and says “May it be His will that you should fear Him as you do your fellow man!” Upon hearing this his students ask, stupefied, “That’s it? That’s the extent to which we should fear Him (and no more)?” RYB”Z responds “If only you would fear Him that much! You see, when man commits a sin he says to himself ‘I only hope that one of my friends doesn’t see me’!”
Why do we care what other people think? Because they are going to judge us for the way we dress, the way we walk, the way we talk, the actions we make, the amounts of money that we spend (or don’t) and more. We change because we are going to be judged by others. It’s a fact.
Because of all the above HaShem decided that He would give us the greatest gift of all: Rachamim, mercy. So, if we did a bad job last year of making the necessary changes to becoming a meaningful human being we would be given other opportunities to make them later. But you can’t have only Rachamim. Din, judgement is also necessary. He therefore gave us both.
May it be His will that we judge ourselves well, that we reach appropriate conclusions, that we make real strides to actualize our conclusions and live a life of meaning. If we do that we will avoid the ultimate fail: to have been given the gift of life, but having failed to use it for its intended purpose.