Self-Interest, Spirituality and Rosh haShanah (Ideas #113)

In preparing for Rosh haShanah, one cannot but wonder about the idea of having only one (or at most ten) day(s) reserved for Divine judgment. Though the idea first appears in the Talmud, the Talmud itself turns around and ponders how this could be fair. It asks, what is G-d able to do to people that receive a negative judgment on Rosh haShanah as a result of improper behavior last year, but then in the middle of the following year change their ways for the better. Should they not be given a new judgment based on their current behavior?  It is true that the Talmud finds a resolution in certain cases, but it leaves the underlying problem unanswered.[1]

At the same time, it cannot be denied that the fact that He does judge us, more at this time of year than at any other, has created some amazing realities: On other days, it is very rare to find appropriate decorum in a Jewish place of worship. Frankly, it is embarrassing to see the joking and irrelevant conversations that go on in these holy places – places where, at least during our amida prayers, we stand in the presence of G-d.  In contrast, on Rosh haShanah (and Yom Kippur), our shuls are transformed into what they really should be all year round. All of a sudden, there is a sense of awe and majesty. We are finally conscious of G-d’s presence and act accordingly.

Still, the decorum on the high holy days may sound like an exercise in hypocrisy – why can’t we act this way throughout the year? In dealing with this issue, we should remember that this is not the only Jewish concept invoking enhanced consciousness of G-d at specific times or places.

When the Jews ask Moshe to speak to G-d in their place for fear that they will die, it is another way of saying that the Jews were not yet ready to be constantly aware of G-d’s presence. As a result, G-d allowed even the Jewish people to be essentially unaware of His presence on a daily basis. Instead, G-d required that we only occasionally focus on how we should really be thinking all the time and in every place. This occasional focus serves as a model of what we must work towards during the rest of the year and of what we must seek to develop historically in all of mankind. Indeed, it is this consciousness which will typify the messianic era.

 A model does not portray itself as the current reality. Rather, it purports to be an educational demonstration on a small scale of what might be done on a larger scale. Similarly, when humans present theoretical or physical models, they do so to show what could be done, not what is. Thus holidays and Shabbat, Jerusalem and the Mikdash, blessings and set prayer times, the Jewish people and the Cohanim are all selected to show what could be, not what is.

In order to get the whole project off the ground on Rosh haShanah, however, G-d needs a mechanism through which to grab our attention. Having created us, He knows that there is no greater tool to bring this about than the evocation of our own self interest. Were He to judge us throughout the whole year, He would have to forego the dramatic effect created from the one yearly universal and central day of judgment. Instead of foregoing this, it seems that He pushed away all the theological and philosophical problems to the side and established Rosh haShanah as the one day of judgment. In doing so, He powerfully helps us to bring to the fore our otherwise only latent awareness of Divine justice and our resultant accountability. In turn, the awareness of G-d thereby stimulated, motivates us to improve our ways. Concurrently, the more we are involved in the process of mending our ways, the more we are conscious of G-d, whose call to accountability has set this in motion, and to Whom we have a greater affinity, the more our actions get recast in His image.

We need to remember that the central theme of Rosh haShanah is not repentance but rather G-d’s rulership (malchut). It is, after all, cognition (zikaron) that the Torah speaks about in describing the nature of this day. Nonetheless, without the repentance brought about by the initial call to judgment, our awareness of G-d would soon lose our interest and dissipate, as it does so often during the rest of the year.

In sum, we need not feel the hypocrite if we are moved to heights of devotion and teshuva at this time of year. We shouldn’t stop ourselves from making resolutions, knowing that it will be almost impossible for us to keep them once the intensity of the holiday season has worn off. Rosh haShanah and the days surrounding it are meant to be a bubble – it is meant to be a time to express our innermost strivings. Granted, simply to wish we were perfect tzaddikim is irresponsible. We must have a concrete plan of action. Even so, that plan of action can be one that we could only carry out were we to stay on the religious level that we experience during these special days. Indeed, our prayers to G-d at this time are that he should help us to retain as much of this heightened consciousness as possible during the rest of the year.

Many have cautioned that what really goes on during this period is very hard to understand. But the key here is not really to understand. G-d does not necessarily want us to comprehend it. He wants us to act upon it. With or without understanding, the task at hand is to respond to the notion of Divine judgment that the Jewish tradition puts into the air at this season. If we do so, our national past bears witness that we will come to an awareness of G-d that is not only the object of Rosh haShanah, but ultimately of human existence as a whole.


[1] Rosh haShanah 17b. Moreover, we could ask another basic question: The Torah tells us not to delay justice – even generally, the phrase “swift justice” is meant to convey an ideal. If so, should we not expect G-d to be at least as swift as He wants us to be? Why should He limit Himself in such a way that he cannot fully reward or punish an individual until Rosh haShanah?