Rosh Hashanah is a bit of an enigma in the Torah. Although we should know that the deepest meanings in the Torah are not clearly or simply revealed; nonetheless all the holy days in the Torah can be simply characterized or associated with notions, events, or qualities that we can understand fairly readily and are mentioned in the Torah fairly clearly. Not so for Rosh Hashanah. To understand Rosh Hashanah, and the implications for us, we have to dig a bit deeper.
In the Rosh Hashanah prayers the day is characterized in three ways: זכרון/remembrance, מלכות/Divine dominion, and דין/judgement. Only זכרון, or remembrance, is used in the Torah. The very holy, awesome, and connected notions of Divine dominion/מלכות and דין/judgement are known to us from our holy tradition. In many ways, they are the more pervasive notions of the day; and of all of them, it seems that יום הדין – the Day of Judgement – is key.
The centrality of דין, or judgement, to Rosh Hashanah is readily apparent. This is most clear from the prayers we are saying today. Just before the kedushah in the repetition of the amidah for Shaharit, for instance, we repeat the phrase יום דין – Day of Judgement – eleven times. In Musaf, the famous section ונתנה תוקף (which was the inspiration for a well-known Leonard Cohen song) tells us “angels hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them – and they will say, ‘behold, it is the Day of Judgement, to muster the heavenly host for judgement.” The mishnah in masechet Rosh Hashanah (1:2) tells us that during four occasions the world is judged, including that בראש השנה כל באי העולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון, ‘on Rosh Hashanah all the world’s inhabitants pass before Him like sheep in a flock.’ Each of us is individually and collectively judged on Rosh Hashanah.
For all that, my impression is that many, maybe most people, don’t like to focus on this aspect of Rosh Hashanah as יום הדין/the Day of Judgement. I don’t think many people want to treat this notion with much gravity. For some, it may be because they simply don’t know how to respond to this fact. Many, I suspect, don’t really believe it or don’t take it seriously. Some people just don’t like the idea that we are judged in this life or the next. Some people are inherently insecure, even if not obviously so; and they will avoid any notion that will just add to that insecurity. Some people resent the idea that anyone might be in a position to judge them, even if it is God we are talking about. Some don’t like the idea that there is a judge and a standard to which we must answer, and over which we have no control. And I think that some of us do not dwell on this moment of Divine judgement, because it is disquieting, unsettling. If we are judged and held accountable for who we are and what we do, then common sense demands that we do something about it. A rational response requires that we judge ourselves, in earthly and existential terms, and alter our thinking and behavior in response to that judgement. If Hashem indeed judges us, and we are concerned about the outcome of that judgement; then we surely must prepare ourselves, and do what we may to avoid a bad outcome. Many of us simply don’t want to confront that necessity – and so we do not.
Now that we have named the elephant in the room, let’s address it directly. The truth is, I think it correct to say that מידת הדין, Hashem relating to His world in a ‘judging’ and therefore demanding manner, is the Divine default. Rosh Hashanah is just a focal moment of a Divine attribute which is often held by our Father and King in the background. Judgement is the baseline, the default, that we must contend with, and that we expend effort trying to avoid, or delay, or mitigate. Hashem Himself sets that example of mitigating judgement and its consequences in the very beginning of the Torah.
The Torah relates בראשית ברא א-להים את השמים ואת הארץ. The very first verse of the Torah tells us that ‘at the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ The name used here to refer to the Creator is א-להים. Ostensibly, one of the other names referring to God in the Torah could have been used. Specifically, we might have expected to see the four letter name י-ה-ו-ה. The name E-lohim typically refers to God as judge. It has a connotation of law, judgement, and justice. In fact, elsewhere in the Torah it is used to refer to human judges in a court sitting in judgement (שמות כב:ח); and it is even used to refer simply to people in a social position to wield power and coerce (בראשית ו:ד). Here, in the very first verse of Torah and creation, Hashem Himself uses the referent which is associated with wielding power. Rashi wonders about this. Although we don’t know explicitly what caused Rashi’s question, we may infer that since creation is a gift, an act of nurturing and sustaining, we might have expected to see here the four letter name, שם הוי”ה, which we associate with God’s nurturing and mercy; the name whose very letters spell out the Hebrew word for ‘existence’.
Rashi, based on the midrash of our sages (בראשית רבה יב:טו), notes that the Torah says ברא א-להים – that E-lohim created – and comments: ולא נאמר ברא ה שבתחלה עלה במחשבה לבראתו במדת הדין ראה שאין העולם מתקיים. הקדים מדת רחמים ושתפה למדת הדין היינו דכתיב ביום עשות ה א-להים ארץ ושמים. “The Torah doesn’t say that Hashem (using the name connoting mercy) created, because originally it was intended to create with the measure of judgement. He saw that the world couldn’t exist that way, so He brought forth first the attribute of mercy and partnered it with the attribute of judgement. That is why the Torah later says (בראשית ב:ד) on the day that Hashem E-lohim made earth and heaven.”
The presentation of the original midrash is even more striking:
למלך שהיו לו כוסות ריקים. אמר המלך אם אני נותן לתוכן חמין הם מתבקעין. צונן הם מקריסין. ומה עשה המלך ערב חמין בצונן ונתן בהם ועמדו. כך אמר הקב”ה אם בורא אני את העלם במדת הרחמים היו הטייה סגיאין. במדת הדין היאך העולם יכול לעמוד. אלא הרי אני בורא אותו במדת הדין ובמדת הרחמים. והלואי יעמוד
‘This resembles a king who had empty cups/vessels. The king thought, ‘if I pour hot water into them they will burst. If I pour cold, they will crack.’ What did the king do? He mixed hot into cold and poured that and the cups withstood it. So thought the Holy Blessed One, ‘if I create the world with the attribute of mercy there will be a great distortion; but if I create with the attribute of judgement how will the world withstand it? Rather I will create it with the attribute of judgement and the attribute of mercy; and I hope it will withstand it.’
As Rashi explained the midrash to us, the original Divine will was to create the world according to an absolute measure of true justice. What’s more, the midrash indicated that creating the world resorting only to untempered mercy would create an insufferable distortion or deflection of the Divine intent. So we see that Hashem’s intent to create began with midat hadin, the element of absolute justice; and was only tempered out of necessity and consideration for the frailty of the creation He desired.
From a more earthly perspective, let us consider that we wouldn’t really want a world that did not operate according to דין, according to rules or legality. Imagine a world where you couldn’t build a house, because there are no reliable, unbending laws of physics to guide you. There is no demanding law of nature that assures you that what you build will be safe and endure. Imagine a world where your doctor has no reliable laws of biology and chemistry that he might employ to diagnose and heal your physical illnesses. Imagine a world where you can’t plan anything, because there is no reliable notion of cause and effect. Imagine a chaotic, almost psychotic existence where you can never reasonably and rationally anticipate anything; because there are no absolute rules by which the world is bound. I am reassured every time I read King David’s words (תהילים צו:י) אמרו בגוים י-ה-ו-ה מלך אף תכון תבל בל תמוט ידין עמים במישרים, ‘Hashem rules, He has established the world so it will not collapse, he will judge the nations forthrightly.’ Do you see the elements tied together in one verse? God is the king of this universe, He has established a world which exists reliably with laws of nature, He judges mankind directly. A world that is founded on דין, on judgement and law, is a world we can function in and rely on. It goes together with a world where Hashem judges man and holds him accountable. A world with laws of nature which cannot be bent, is also a world with moral and spiritual demands that we must answer. A world with laws of nature that we can rely on and use to our benefit and advancement, is also a world with moral and spiritual verities that we can rely on and use to grow and rise and draw closer to our God and to do His will.
In light of this, I suggest that our material world indeed operates according to an uncompromised aspect of demanding judgement or legality. The laws of nature bear witness to this. The unbending consequences of violating the laws of nature bear witness to this. There is no aspect of mercy, of מידת הרחמים, in the laws of nature. We have no voice, no control where the laws of nature are concerned. We can master those laws and harness them to our purposes; but we cannot control what those laws are nor what they demand. And woe to anyone who violates the laws of nature, or thinks are there are no consequences.
The frailty that God takes into account, which caused Him to temper דין/judgement with רחמים/mercy is a moral and spiritual frailty. Our moral and spiritual weaknesses and failures mean that we wouldn’t survive the sort of immediate demand and answerability that the material realm of creation exhibits. Our moral and spiritual frailty, failures, and slowness-to-learn and change mean we wouldn’t survive a moment without Hashem’s mercy. We need to work towards morally and spiritually improving and perfecting ourselves and our world so that we can approach the ability to live with מידת הדין, with judgement. Hashem’s mercy doesn’t do away with judgement; it delays it. Ultimately, whether in this world, the next one, or both – we are accountable and answerable. But the aspect of Divine mercy delays our judgement and makes תשובה, turning back to God, possible. The judgement before which each and every one stands on Rosh Hashanah certainly includes whether or not we are utilizing and thereby justifying the Divine compromise, or not. Judgement has been mitigated only because of our moral and spiritual failings, and only to allow an opportunity to make right our shortcomings.
Rosh Hashanah itself resembles the judgement and mercy nexus of creation. On Rosh Hashanah itself we live with what appears to be a contradiction. We stand in trembling and awe before Divine judgement; and we eat and drink and celebrate together. This is well illustrated in the narrative in Nehemia (נחמיה ח:ט-יב). Ezra and Nehemia had gathered the people on Rosh Hashanah in Jerusalem during the return from the Persian exile to read the Torah and to teach those present and to exhort them to a path of teshuvah. The people responded with dread and tears, and Malbim explains that was because they realized it is Rosh Hashanah, and the Day of Judgement.
ויאמר נחמיה הוא התרשתא ועזרא הכהן הספר והלוים המבינים את העם לכל העם היום קדש הוא לי-ה-ו-ה א-להיכם אל תתאבלו ואל תבכו כי בוכים כל העם כשמעם את דברי התורה. ‘Nehemia the tarshata and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites who taught the people, said to all the people, This day is holy to Hashem your God; do not mourn or weep; for all the people cried when they heard the words of the Torah.’
ויאמר להם לכו אכלו משמנים ושתו ממתקים ושלחו מנות לאין נכון לו כי קדוש היום לאדנינו ואל תעצבו כי חדות
י-ה-ו-ה היא מעזכם. ‘Then he said to them, Go and eat sumptuously and drink sweet beverages and send portions to those who don’t have; for this day is holy to our Lord, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’
The initial crying of the assembled people wasn’t unreasonable. They realized that it was Rosh Hashanah, Day of Judgement. They took that judgement seriously. Having just heard the Torah read, they sensed urgently how the influence and guidance of Torah had diminished in the past generation. This worried them, as it should have; and they cried. They responded to דין, to judgement.
But they were told to stop. God does what no man dare do; He tempers and mitigates the character of Divine justice with the quality of mercy. We don’t know the measure of either; but we must have faith in BOTH Divine judgement and Divine mercy. And so the people were commanded to go eat a proper holyday meal; and to be sure that those who haven’t got will also be cared for.
We see that the Creation, which by Divine default is founded on justice and judgement, but cannot continue without Divine mercy; is also a template for Rosh Hashanah. Even the Day of Judgement requires that we have a sense of Divine forbearance.
Now maybe we can understand an idea taught by Rav Yaakov Moshe Harlop. Rav Harlop says that the judgement of creation on Rosh Hashanah is to see whether or not the universe is ready to exist according to the terms of Divine justice. Are we ready to exist according to the terms of דין, true Divine intent; even without resort to רחמים. If the Torah taught us of a Divine desire for creation to come about through judgement, then it is somehow indeed possible and destined to be. Are we ready to overcome our moral and spiritual frailty and failings, and join with Hashem in finally completing and realizing His intent for creation?