God’s Judgment of Humanity
When is humanity judged by God? The Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16a offers several opinions. Rebbe Natan, based on a verse from Job, says “every moment.” Rebbe Yehuda says, “everyone is judged on Rosh Hashanah but the decree is in its time: Pesach for grain, Shavuot for fruit, and Sukkot for water.” Rebbe Meir says, “Everyone is judged on Rosh Hashanah and their decree is sealed on Yom Kippur.” Rebbe Meir’s is the opinion we follow as a Jewish nation.
Regardless of their opinion on judgement, each of these rabbis celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. According to all opinions, Rosh Hashanah is known as the Day of Remembrance. Rosh Hashanah proclaims the sovereignty of God by remembering that we are judged by the King of the Universe. Remembrance by God, is of course a metaphor. If a person remembers something, the event actually happened. With regard to God, remembering means that He should consider us, the Jewish people, a reality, part of His eternal plan. We mention this idea in the middle blessing, Zichronot, of the Rosh Hashanah musaf prayer. Since we hold the third opinion, God judges on Rosh Hashanah, we mention this aspect of His kingship as well.
What exactly do we mean by the expression, “God judges on Rosh Hashanah?” There are two days of Rosh Hashanah. If God judges on the first day, what is happening on the second day? Furthermore the second day is rabbinic, and observed even in Israel? Can the rabbis tell God what to do? Even more, God is outside of time, so what do we mean when we say, “God is judging today?”
The best answer to this question, I think, comes from my Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Israel Chait. When we proclaim God’s kingship on Rosh Hashanah, we recognize that His is the only real kingship. We pray to be a reality in front of Him. God judges us at the most opportune time for man. When is the most opportune time for man? The time when man recognizes the kingship of God.
According to Rebbe Yehuda, on each Yom Tov man is engaged in recognizing God’s dominion over a different feature of our sustenance. Those days then are the opportune time for judgment on those aspects of life. Each holiday serves to elevate man and the nation to a higher level of recognizing God, the King. So too is the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Since man is still involved in the perfection of becoming a reality before God, the rabbis extended the sanctity of Rosh Hashanah for a second day.
Maimonides captures this concept in his Laws of Repentance. “Even though repentance and crying out is always good, during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it is even better and is accepted immediately as it says, ‘Seek Hashem while He may be found.’” (Rambam: Laws of Repentence, 2:6) Is there something magical about these 10 days? Repentance is repentance no matter when we do it. What is special about these 10 days? During these specific days, man is involved in personal perfection. People are reviewing their actions and ideas and thinking about how to improve their relationship with God. This time, then, is the most opportune time for man to be accepted by God and receive a favorable judgement.
May Hashem, King of Kings, grant all who seek Him, Jew and non-Jew, a favorable judgment on this Rosh Hashanah. May He grant the three special requests of the nation of Israel said in the musaf prayer. And may this year be for each of us a year of peace, prosperity, health and most of all growth in learning and observing our Torah.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan