The Rosh Hashanah / Yom Kippur Reset
Ben Azzai omer: Hevey ratz l’mitzvah kala, uvoreyach min ha’avera; sh’mitzvah goreret mitzvah, va’avera goreret aveyra, shes’car mitzvah mitzvah, u’s’car avera avera / One should run to perform a mitzvah and flee from doing a transgression; (because) a mitzvah enables (the opportunity to do another) mitzvah and a transgression enables (the doing of another) transgression. The reward of a mitzvah is (the doing of) the mitzvah and the “reward” of the transgression is the transgression. Babylonian Talmud Pirkey Avot 4:2
We’ve come together on this special day To sing our message loud and clear Looking back we’ve touched on sorrowful days Future pass, they disappear “That’s the Way of the World” by M. White, C. Stepney, and V. White from the Earth Wind and Fire album, That’s the Way of the World
The question is often asked, “Why does Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, fall on the beginning of Tishrey, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar?” There are, of course, numerous reasons given that one can find in the vast sea of rabbinic lore. Some commentaries like those of the Kabbalistic and Chassidic variety focus on mystical explanations describing Rosh Hashanah as the “birth” of the physical world following its “conception” in the first month of Nisan, which would actually be a premature birth; but those types of commentaries use this metaphor as a launching site for deep and complicated mystical musings, and the details of nature aren’t an impediment to this variety of thought. Most likely the actual reason comes from how years were determined according to the coronation of kings in ancient times, and one of the major traditional themes of Rosh Hashanah is our coronation of God as our king (this is also borne out by modern Biblical scholars and archeologists who find parallels in the rituals of pre-Israelite cultures). This is interpreted by traditional Jewish theology as understanding that God is the ruler of the universe regardless of our consent or not; but when we willingly accept God as our king, we then establish a positive and loving relationship with our ruler. Obviously, this concept is rooted in a world now alien to us, where kings ruled as absolute despots and it was best to show obeisance to such a ruler rather than risk the danger of getting on his bad side.
I would like to offer an explanation that while modern in its orientation is backed by our Talmudic tradition. I’m sure that all of us would like to believe that we are good people who live good lives and make a positive contribution to the good of our families, community, and country, the Jewish people, and the world. However, the teaching of Ben Azzai quoted above alerts us to the reality that we tend to trend both up and down in our actions, both positive and negative. We can clearly see that when we do a mitzvah (literally a commandment), a positive life-enhancing act, we seem like we are energized to put more positive energy into our environment. We can also be truthful and acknowledge that when we go off in the wrong direction, it seems that the errors seem all too easy to repeat.
The Talmud (Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 40b) presents a fascinating perspective on this. There it is taught that a person should see himself as being half guilty and half meritorious. He should be overjoyed, because should he then only do one mitzvah, the scales will tip in his direction and he is judged meritoriously. He must also, though, be aware that should he commit one negative action, the scales will tip in the opposite direction. The Talmud then goes on to quote Rabbi Eleazer Ben Shimon, who says the entire world is judged exactly in the same manner. Therefore, when one does that mitzvah that ensures his own positive judgment, he also tips the scales in the favor of the whole world. This is why the reward of the mitzvah is the mitzvah itself and why the repercussions of negative acts are in the doing of those unfortunate actions.
On Rosh Hashanah we hit the reset button. We spend our “new year” loading up on mitzvot as we spend a two-day period celebrating the opportunity to transform our energies to the doing of good. On Yom Kippur we seal this by fasting all day and separating ourselves from the temptation to do any negative act. Through our “High Holidays” we empower ourselves to follow the path of mitzvah goreret mitzvah. We transform ourselves into creators and enablers of liberty, justice, and peace in our world. However, we understand we are but human, and the truth is we will likely slip off that path from time to time. However, we also know that next year we again will have a chance to hit the reset button and have a go at it again. That’s what being a Jew is all about—we never give up.
Wishing us all a L’Shana Tova U’Matuka, A Sweet and Wonderful New Year,