Days of Judgment and Repentance
Q: Rabbi, can you please explain the concept of judgment on Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and the Ten Days of Repentance? Are we judged during the month of Elul as well?
A: Every year God creates new life for each and every one of His creations. So that his benevolence is not attained by the wicked, on Rosh Hashana God judges all his creations, granting abundance and blessing to the good and reducing it from the evil. This is the meaning of Rabbi Meir’s statement in the Talmud: “All are judged on Rosh Hashana and their fate is sealed on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).”
Granting good reward to the righteous and punishment for the wicked is not only just and appropriate, it is also necessary for tikun olam (rectifying the world), because if the wicked continually receive an abundance of life and blessing, they will be strengthened in their wickedness, causing evil and affliction to the entire world.
Thus, the days on which God grants new life to his creations are also days when he judges them, and are also the days when he is close to his creations and accepts their repentance. Therefore, although repentance is worthy every day of the year, during these days it is accepted more readily, as it is written: “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6), and for this reason, these days are called the Ten Days of Repentance (Rosh Hashana 18a; Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 2:6).
The Significance of the Month of Elul
Although the judgment itself occurs on Rosh Hashana and the Ten Days of Repentance, it is preferable to awaken to repentance even before judgment starts, so that when the Ten Days of Repentance arrive, we can truly return to God. Furthermore, it is better to take preventative measures, for such are the conventionally accepted rules of law – before indicted for one’s sins, it is relatively simple to be remorseful and repent, and thus annul or reduce the charges. But once the proceedings have started, and the prosecutor is set to make his case, it is harder to annul the accusations. Therefore, Jewish custom is to awaken to repentance during the month of Elul.
With a sense of awe and joy, every year anew, we approach the Days of Repentance. Awe – not knowing how God will judge us and what our verdict will be; for many are those who were complacent in the beginning of the year, but are no longer alive, or were made to suffer great agony.
Together with awe, however, is also a sense of joy for having the opportunity to return to God in repentance, to cleanse ourselves from the bad that clung to us, to once again stand before him in prayer and supplication, and reflect on all the truly important things. And even if this involves suffering, after all, they are for our best, for through them, we merit a complete tikun and a good life.
Without this yearly reckoning, everyday life would cause us to forget all the grand ideals our souls long for. Lacking a vision, the evil inclinations prevail, and one becomes enslaved to his desires and immersed in his physical needs. On account of the High Holidays, each and every year we can recall all the good aspirations we had, all the Torah we had hoped to study, and all the good deeds we wanted to perform. As a result we loathe the sins that clung to us, confess and repent over them, and re-examine our priorities so that in the coming, good year, we can excel in Torah, mitzvoth and good deeds, and continue building our families, society, and nation. Thus, we are able to rise from one year to the next, and participate in improving and developing the world.
The Sequence of Judgment
Q: Rabbi, if in any event a person’s verdict is sealed on Yom Kippur, why should we pray for our troubles during the year?
A: Although one’s verdict is inscribed on Rosh Hashana and sealed on Yom Kippur, a person’s behavior has a significant effect during the year. This is because the abundance of life allotted on Rosh Hashana descends gradually to the world, by way of roshei chodashim (the beginning of each month) and Shabbatot, and in the sequence of events, it can be positively or negatively inclined. The general rule is that the holidays are intended to affect a plenitude of blessing for the world, each holiday according to its unique essence, and along with the blessing, judgment is introduced in order to monitor that the blessing arrives to those who deserve it.
And since the blessing descends via roshei chodashim, they too are days of judgment, and consequently, are worthy of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness. Those who enhance mitzvoth are accustomed to repent on the eve of Rosh Chodesh.
The Sabbath day is holy and blessed as well, and by means of it, blessing is drawn to the six working days of the week. So that the blessing can flow properly, on Shabbat one must return to God in repentance, out of love. The word ‘Shabbat’ in Hebrew stems from the word ‘teshuva’, meaning ‘repent’ or ‘return’.
The Effect of the Weekdays
The abundant blessings received through the roshei chodashim and Shabbatot descends to the world via the weekdays, because every individual day also has a unique holiness through which Heavenly inspiration is revealed, distinct from any other day. Consequently, a person is judged each day in regards to the unique blessing of that specific day, as Rabbi Yossi said in the Talmud: “A man is judged every day.” And even every moment has its own uniqueness, in which a particular attribute of holiness can be revealed, therefore, a certain aspect of judgment exists every moment, as Rabbi Natan said: “A man is judged every moment” (Rosh Hashana 16a). Parallel to the judgment and blessing of each day, we pray three times a day – Shacharit(morning prayer), Mincha (afternoon), and Ma’ariv (evening) to improve the unique blessing and judgment of each specific day.
The Verdict Sealed at the Beginning of the Year Does Not Change
The judgment made on roshei chodashim, Shabbatot, and every other day of the year does not change the judgment inscribed and sealed at the beginning of the year, because although the verdict was inscribed and sealed at the beginning of the year, its method of execution – which has significant impact for better or worse – is not determined. This is analogous to the State budget which is determined by law, and the government has no authority to alter it, but nevertheless, each individual minister has the ability to determine how the money is distributed; even the bureaucrats can sway matters for better or worse (see, Berachot 58a).
In the same way, our Sages said that actions taken during the year can sway the judgment for the good, or for the bad: “How sometimes for good? Suppose Israel were [in the class of] the thoroughly wicked at New Year, and scanty rains were decreed for them, and afterwards they repented. [For God] to increase the supply of rain is impossible, because the decree has been issued. The Holy One, blessed be He, therefore sends down the rain in the proper season on the land that requires it, all according to the district. How sometimes for evil? Suppose Israel were [in the class of] the thoroughly virtuous on New Year, and abundant rains were decreed for them, but afterwards they backslided. To diminish the rains is impossible, because the decree has been issued. The Holy One, blessed be He, therefore sends them down not in their proper season and on land that does not require them”, and thus, they fail to gain benefit from the rains (Rosh Hashana 17b).
Can the Outcome be Changed?
Sometimes it is impossible to sway the judgment favorably because the decree was decisive, such as a situation where the rains allotted were so few that even if they fell efficiently, the drought would still be harsh. Nevertheless, the tzibor (general public) has tremendous power, for if as a collective they repent completely and pray to God concerning their situation, they can even rescind their sentence. In this regards, Rabbi Yochanan said: “Great is the power of repentance that it rescinds a man’s final sentence” (Rosh Hashana 17b).
And although an individual cannot completely rescind his sentence, by repenting and crying to God from the depths of his heart, he can improve it – for example, even if there is the slightest reason to reduce his punishment, he will be dealt with leniently. If, for example, a person is destined to die, but the decree is still open to interpretation, by repenting completely and crying out to God, his death sentence can be converted into poverty, or galut (exile), or extreme humiliation, because all of these examples contain a certain aspect of death. Regarding this, Rabbi Yitzchak said: “Supplication is good for a man whether before the doom is pronounced or after it is pronounced” (Rosh Hashana 16a; 18a) – in other words, supplication is good and beneficial, but it does not rescind the decree (Maharal, ibid). This was the tradition of the house of King David: “Even if a sharp sword rests upon a man’s neck he should not desist from prayer” (Berachot 10a).
Individual and Collective Judgment
Furthermore, it is important to understand that although the judgment of Rosh Hashana is both for the nation as a whole and each and every individual personally, nevertheless, the main judgment in this world is determined apropos the overall situation of the nation – each nation according to its own merits. So we have learned in the Torah, in the portions dealing with the blessings and the curses, BeChuko-thai and Ki Thavo.
At times there is no contradiction between the judgment of the nation and that of the individual, because even when the nation as a whole merits abundant blessing, the blessing is not hindered by the fact that some individuals are punished for their sins. Also, when the nation as a whole is punished, the punishment is not affected by the reward of certain individuals. Occasionally though, the judgment of the nation as a whole and that of the individual do conflict, for example, in times of national, harsh decrees of destruction and exile, where inevitably, the righteous are also punished. Nevertheless the judgment remains unaffected, because in theolam ha’neshamot, in Gan Eden, the righteous will receive their full reward. Sometimes the judgment of the nation as a whole is good, making it impossible for the wicked to receive their full punishment, but nonetheless, the judgment will be completed in the olam ha’neshamot, in Gehinom. The full completion will be in the World to Come, at the time of techiyat ha’maytim(Resurrection of the Dead), when the souls return to reunite with their bodies.
Sin and its Rectification
By the sin of Adam ha’Rishon (first man), a separation was created between the worlds, and between body and soul – this was man’s punishment of death, that his soul was separated from his body. As a result of this, a situation was created in which justified, full reward cannot be completely received in this physical world, but rather, a small portion of it exists in this world, while the larger portion comes to pass in the olam ha’neshamot – in Gan Eden and Gehinom. The main reward is at the time of techiyat ha’maytim, when the world will be rectified and reunited, and the soul and body will once again unite. Clal Yisrael (the entire physical and spiritual community of Israel, past, present, and future), even in this present world, represents this unity between the soul and the body, between vision and deed, so that even if Clal Yisrael is spiritually or physically damaged, its core remains unaffected, and therefore, even in this world, its life is one of truth.