Every year at Rosh Hashanah we are scrutinized intensely

Rosh Hashanah

Genesis 21:1-34

I Samuel 1:1 – 2:10

On Rosh Hashanah we are judged and on Yom Kippur the judgment is sealed. Once we are judged, why must we wait 10 days to have this judgment sealed? What should this seal of Yom Kippur mean to us?

To understand we must attempt to define the basic difference between the nature of these two Holy Days.

Rosh Hashanah, which begins tonight at sundown, is the anniversary of the Creation of Adam, the first man. There are some obvious disadvantages to being the only person in the world, and some are not so immediately obvious. There is, for example, no one with whom to share the blame when things go wrong. (Once Eve came on the scene, Adam was able to try to lay the blame on her for the forbidden fruit incident.)

Also, the Almighty pays his full attention to that one person, putting him under intense scrutiny. The inclination to maintain one’s self-esteem by comparing oneself to others is also unavailable. “I’m not as bad as so-and-so” doesn’t work if there is no so-and-so. Jonah, the prophet, actually ran away from his appointed task of urging the people of Nineveh to repent because he feared he might succeed, thereby showing the unrepentant Jews in an unfavorable light.

Every year at Rosh Hashanah we acquire Adam’s lonely predicament. It is as if each person is the only individual in the world and is therefore scrutinized by God with total attention. The Mishnah says, “All mankind passes before G-d like members of the flock.” (Rosh Hashanah 6d) The Talmud explains that this means as each of us appears in front of our Creator, comparison with others is precluded. On Rosh Hashanah we are stripped of the cloak of collective anonymity. (This concept of collective anonymity is one premise behind the obligation to pray with a minyan, a quorum of 10.)

The intense scrutiny the individual experiences on Rosh Hashanah also means that all of our deeds are examined separately. Rationalizing that we are “basically good people” is no comfort at this time. The phenomenon is not unlike what happens in a secular court. A person’s crime is regarded without considering anything else about the person, his past or future.

Our sages taught that G-d is exacting in his judgment of tzaddikim (righteous people) “like the shaft of a hair.” While the hair on a person’s head is usually looked at as one unit, when it comes to tzaddikim, G-d divides and dissects their deeds. At certain times, such as Rosh Hashanah, G-d looks at the details of all our lives irrespective of mitigating factors such as favorable comparisons to others. That kind of scrutiny can be very difficult to withstand.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there is an evolution of perspective. The Almighty changes his focus from seeing one person at a time to seeing the whole Jewish nation as one.

On Rosh Hashanah the verdict is decided, whereas on Yom Kippur the sentence or seal is handed down. Similar to our secular courts, we distinguish between the delivery of a verdict and the sentencing, and they generally occur at different times. This is because at trial we are only interested in guilt or innocence. When it comes to punishment, however, the whole situation may be considered, the past record of the accused, his remorse, the circumstances surrounding the crime and so on.

The trial is done with narrow vision, while the sentencing is done with wide vision. The sentencing and sealing are one and the same. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, and atonement is achieved only when we are able to break down the barriers between G-d and the Jewish nation. When the nation prays, fasts, repents and gives tzedakah, its members are acting not out of personal goal but out of a sense of belonging to G-d and to the Jewish nation. This brings about the necessary components for forgiveness and drawing closer to our Heavenly Father.

Shabbat shalom and g’mar chatimah tovah.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is dean of Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.