Rosh Hashanah: A day of insight not atonement -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

September 21, 2011

What is the difference between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?  We often refer to both as days of judgment, yet they seem as different as night and day.  Rosh Hashanah is a Yom Tov, a joyous holiday, on which we eat and drink and have simcha, joy.   In contrast, on Yom Kippur we are filled with awe and perhaps anxiety, asceticism, and standing for long periods of time, almost the opposite of the Yom Tov of Rosh Hashanah.


The Rambam, Maimonides, writes that the shofar (ram’s horn) is like an alarm that wakes us from the everydayness of the year, the wasting of time, the banal passage of day in and day out.   The sound of the shofar shocks us into evaluation, into reflection upon the rest of the year.


But if Rosh Hashanah is such a day of reckoning, why not say vidoy, confession, on Rosh Hashanah as we do on Yom Kippur?  Indeed according to the halacha, Jewish law, there can be no tishuvah, no repentance, without all of its steps, one of which is verbal confession before God.


Rosh Hashanah, according to the Talmud is the main Day of Judgment.  Yom Kippur is a kind of last resort for those not forgiven on Rosh Hashanah.  As the Talmud says, “On Rosh Hashanah all pass in judgment like sheep…the righteous are judged for life, the wicked for death and the judgments of others are suspended until Yom Kippur.” Then why is Rosh Hashanah a holiday filled with food and drink?   Why not have Yom Kippur on the first of Tishrey (the Hebrew date upon which Rosh Hashanah falls) and be done with the process of judgment?


Perhaps Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are fundamentally different and necessary modes of doing tishuvah (repentance and return).  We see this I think from Maimonides.  According to Maimonides Rosh Hashanah with its shofar sound is not a day of achieving atonement, of the steps of repentance, but of waking up, of coming to terms with life.   Rosh Hashanah lacks the four steps of tishuvah, one of which is formalized confession, yet it is indeed a day of judgment.


There are two stages to tishuvah one which is achieved on Rosh Hashanah and one on Yom Kippur.   One is not complete without the other.   If  we had only Yom Kippur, we would go through the formalized steps of repentance, regretting our sin, stopping it, asking and receiving forgiveness, verbal confession, and becoming someone who will not do it again.   But this would be an incomplete tishuvah.   This would be a tishuvah, though real and transformative with regard to each sin itself, of formality.   The tzadik, the completely righteous person, who has no sins to speak of does not require Yom Kippur and is, according to the Talmud forgiven on Rosh Hashanah, but the righteous individual still does require Rosh Hashanah.   Why?


The tishuvah of Rosh Hashanah is not atonement for individual sins but an essential day of waking and reckoning, of evaluation and insight, which even the person who has not sinned must undergo.  As Maimonides points out, this day with the sound of the shofar, and not Yom Kippur with its atonement, conditions the rest of our year, makes us see the rest of our year as one in which every moment is significant, one in which every moment is a test of making choices, of being at a spiritual crossroads.


Before we can engage in the formalities of the tishivah process of Yom Kippur, we must experience the more global life changing insights of Rosh Hashanah.  To do tishuvah on all of our sins, to feel regret for each of them, ask forgiveness, confess them and not do them again is not enough.   The New Year must be a time of whole life insight and existential transformation.  Such is the call of the Shofar.


My blessings for a New Year of insight, light and transformation,

Rabbi Hyim Shafner

Why are we so childish when it comes to Yom Kippur?

September 25, 2009

Yom Kippur will arrive this week and thousands of Jews will attend synagogues.  Why is it that so many attend synagogue on Yom Kippur, but not the rest of the year?  What is it about Yom Kippur that draws us?  No doubt because it is a holy day, we want to be present.  But many of us are just hedging our bets.  If we have a bad year we don’t want to have to kick ourselves for not participating in Yom Kippur as we should have.  If we go on Yom Kippur and pray with sincerity at least we will not have ourselves to blame for whatever bad happens.   We will have done what we could.

For many of us even quite religious Jews who go to synagogue every day or every Sabbath, this kind of thinking is still part and parcel of our Yom Kippur.  Some of the liturgy in fact serves to reinforce it, such as the Unisaneh Tokef –which hinges on,“Who live and who will die?”  But such an approach is a very selfish take on the holiest day of the year.  If I am going to pray on Yom Kippur just so that I can have a good year it’s really just about me and my physical welfare, its really just selfishness.

As Morethodox Jews I think we need to turn to the Chassidic commentaries to reclaim the true nature of Yom Kippur.   Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger in his book the Sefat Eemet says that the phrase, which we repeat many times in this season, “Remember us for life God who wants life, and write us in the book of life for your sake, living God” means that we are asking not for lengthened physical life, but rather for the life of the spirit.

Rabbi Levy Yizchak of Bardichev, in his book the Kedushat Levi, asks why we beseech God to write us in the book of life and to remember us, is God is a person who remembers and writes?  God is God, and furthermore no evil can come from God, only goodness.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak answers by way of a mashal, a metaphor.  He says it is akin to putting a piece of cloth in the sun.  If it is a white cloth it will reflect the light, if it is a black cloth it will absorb the light, if it is a red cloth it will reflect the red color of the light, if blue the blue waves of the light.  The sunlight does not change, only the cloths are different.

So too there is a flow coming from the Eternal One all the time.  It is a flow of goodness and it is our job on Yom Kippur to become people who can absorb the light for goodness.  We are not trying to change God’s mind, God is infinite.  We are not pulling the wool over God’s eyes trying to convince him that we are more religious than we are by coming to shul on yom Kippur, or hoping that somehow that our prayer will magically help us to have a good year.  No, Yom Kippur is the process of changing ourselves, changing our own colors so that we can receive the Divine light that is always flowing for goodness.  God does not change.  Only we change.  May we all change for the better this Yom Kippur.