Every Rosh Hashana, I come to the first night of services and am surprised at the brevity of the liturgy. We always remember Rosh hashana and yom kippur for their lengthy amidahs and countless piyutim, but tonight, despite the shaliah tzibur’s best efforts to get us into the sounds and emotions of the high holidays, it’s almost as short and unremarkable as any erev yomtov service. I’m starting to wonder why there are so many people here and why I even put on a suit and tie.
One of the few new additions are the lines we will be inserting into the first two and last two blessings of the amida throughout the aseret yemai teshuva, up until the last amida of yom kippur. These all make reference to being written up for life in God’s book – kotvenu basefer hahayim – write us in the book of life, zokher yetzurav lehayim – God who remembers all creations for life, and so on.
This is without doubt one of the key images of the period, God judging us and deciding who is worthy and who is not. Rosh Hashana is Yom haDin, the day of judgement.
This key motif is described in the second mishna of Rosha Hashana. Among the times when the world is judged, Rosh Hashana is identified as the day that:
בראש השנה, כל באי עולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון
… all the inhabitants of the universe pass before God like troops.
שנאמר: היוצר יחד ליבם המבין אל כל מעשיהם
As it says in psalms: God who created the heart of each of them, Who understands everything they do. (Mishna Rosh Hashana 1:2)
On Rosh Hashana, we are all soldiers parading before the general who will inspect us, and this commander is not just checking that our boots are shined and our berets are straight – that who we appear to be on the outside seems good, but, even our innermost secrets are on display before our Creator.
This annual inspection of all people does make it understandable that we are all here, why we feel compelled to come to services and put on our finest clothes and most serious demeanour, to join in the singing and put on the best show we can. But, the Mishna taught us that “all the inhabitants of the Universe pass before God” – seemingly whether or not we are ready! If we have not prepared, or aren’t in the right state of mind, how different will it really be? After all, this is an inspection of our character and deeds, not our fashion sense, our voices and our solemnity, and it is here regardless of our actions.
It is therefore curious that the Tosefta – a parallel text to the Mishna – puts this same line about God’s inspection of the troops together with the following midrash – which is based on one of this evening’s other new pieces of liturgy :
ואומר תקעו בחודש שופר וגו’ ואומר כי חק לישראל הוא וגו’ אם קדשוהו ב”ד הדין נכנס לפניו ואם לאו אין הדין נכנס לפניו
Psalms also says: blow the the shofar on the new moon, etc. because it is a statute for Israel and a law for the God of Jacob. [This is interpreted to teach us that] if an earthly (see BT Rosh Hashana 8b) court sanctify the holiday, the Judgement is brought before God, and if they don’t, the Judgement is not brought before God. (Tosefta Rosh Hashana (Leiberman) 1:11)
So, in contrast with the image we saw before, we learn that this inspection, the whole institution of Yom haDin cannot go ahead unless we who are being judged are ready for it. The Judgement will not even come before God without the consent of the Bet Din here on Earth.
Though the Tosefta frames it on a national level – if the Sanhedrin does not set the calendar, then the Judgement is not brought before God – we can also see this in an individual light: unless each of us has accepted that this is the watershed, that this is the opportunity we have to consider who we are and who we might be – this day will have no significance for us. Even if we turn up at services and put on a good show, unless we have internalised this is the time of year to take notice of who we are and decide how to improve ourseleves, it will be meaningless.
That seems fair enough: Why remark on God’s judgement if we are not going to do anything about it!? But if it depends on us, why do we need a day on the calendar?! Is God just too busy the rest of the year? Surely we could expect God to judge us once we have prepared ourselves appropriately, whenever that might be. And we would not be without support in the tradition for this: in a Mishnaic-era comment in the Talmud, Rabbi Yosi claims that “people are judged [by God] every day”, and Rabbi Natan argues that “people are judged at every moment”. (BT Rosh Hashana 16a) So if God is ready whenever we are, as long as we remember to prepare ourselves for judgement every now and again, we may as well ditch Rosh Hashana.
Luckily, there is some further guidance in our mahzor. The other addition to the amidah that continues throughout the yamim noraim is substituting “hael hakadosh” (the Holy God) with “hamelekh hakadosh” (The holy Sovereign). This is the only addition for the amidah of the ten days of repentance, for which, if we realise that we forgot to say it, we are meant to go back to the beginning and start again. Rabbi Shmuel Lewis, Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, understands this as indicating a crucial imperative of this season. HaEl Hakadosh is, he says, the most distant epithet for God – “El” is the transcendent counterpart to “yud-hey-vav-hey” – which is typically the immanent side of God, who speaks personally to our ancestors. Kadosh, holy, has a core meaning of “set apart”. HaEl haKadosh, therefore, refers to a far-away God, on-high, who has no direct influence on our world below. In contrast to this, at this time of the year, call God “melekh”. A king or queen is one whose reign is applied, whose laws and proclamations are obeyed throughout the realm. Indeed, a monarch can only be a monarch by having loyal subjects.
Our task, then at this time of year is to confirm God’s role as Sovereign of the world – “melekh al kol haaretz” “Sovereign over all the earth”, says the kiddush ha-yom paragraph of our amidah. We have to improve ourselves at this time of year, but in doing so we must also bring the world closer to perfection – making it a place that can be acknowledged as God’s Kingdom. This theme of progressing towards a world where God is Sovereign by means of our actions is expanded upon in the lengthened third blessing of the amidah. Of particular note is the line:
ויעשו כולם אגודה אחת לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם
May everyone become one association, to do Your will with whole heart.
We need a day on the calendar for yom haDin, becasue it is not enough to work on correcting our own flaws. In order for God to be Sovereign, we must form “aguda ehat” one association and work towards a common end.
In Mishle, the book of proverbs, there is a proverb that later becomes a halakhic principle:
The king’s hadar (!) – splendour, is in the multitudinousness of people. (Proverbs 14:28)
The majesty that we associate with royalty is dependant upon, not merely individuals who give honour to the monarch, but an assembled body of people. God can only be Sovereign when we are making a coordinated communal effort to make this evident in the world.
So why are we here this evening, if there are no lengthy liturgical poems? We must be primed for improving ourselves in order for yom ha din to be a meaningful event, but by gathering here on the same day, and proclaiming the sovereignty of God, we are declaring that we will be united in our efforts to bring that improvement into the world.
This Rosh Hashana, may we all be prepared for Judgement, and work together to prepare the world so that it can be justly called God’s kingdom.