The Days of awe. That is what the Jewish people calls the ten days stretching from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. They are days of awe because our lives are on the line. Our lot in all things external – health, wealth, and all the rest – is determined during this period of judgment. In the words of the Machzor (prayer-book), our lot for the coming year is "signed on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur."
On the one hand, these are days of judgment, on the other, they are days of mercy and closeness to Hashem. "Seek G-d while He is accessible, call upon Him when He is yet near" (Is. 55:6). The Talmud connects this prophetic imperative specifically with the Aseres Yamei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Return to G-d, beginning on Rosh Hashanah and climaxing on Yom Kippur. These are days when the heart is more receptive, when it is easier to draw close to our Father in Heaven, easier to beg forgiveness for our failures and betrayals.
Of course, if we do not take advantage of these days, if we go on as usual, and allow G-d to knock at our door to be drowned out by a world that "is too much with us," as Wordsworth put it, we are not merely missing an opportunity. We are missing the boat, and slighting the Captain!
When Hashem judges us on Rosh Hashanah, everything is taken into account. Every action, every misstep… what we did with the resources we were given, and what we did not. Of course, our troubles and suffering are also taken into account.
And everything is weighed. One mitzvah may outweigh even a number of sins, if it is performed despite the snares of the yetzer hora or the numbing force of habit. By the same token, there are sins that may outweigh a number of mitzvos. Maimonides sums it up by saying that only the Almighty is capable of making a reckoning of our year's performance given all the myriad factors that come into play. And Maimonides urges us to make the most of these days, since even a single mitzvah may tip the scale.
Why Rosh Hashanah before Yom Kippur?
Why is it, asked Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, that Hashem placed Rosh Hashanah before Yom Kippur in the yearly cycle? In this system, the "average person," who is neither a saint nor a confirmed sinner, receives a tentative judgment on Rosh Hashanah, which is finalized on Yom Kippur. The intervening days are put at our disposal to get the judgment "upgraded" by virtue of our actions and our resolutions regarding the future. Would it not make more sense, Rav Salanter suggested, for the Day of Judgment to follow the Day of Penitence? With a full day of purification and teshuvah behind us, we would all be in a much better position on the Day of Judgment.
To understand Rav Salanter's own answer to this provocative question, we need to appreciate a key difference between the brain and the heart, between the seat of the intellect and the seat of emotion. The brain takes in and processes information. But the distance between the brain and the heart is great. The heart is slow to open, slow to accept the conclusions drawn by the brain, slow to change.
If we need any proof, we need only consider just how much of the child remains in the heart of the typical adult. The brain may be engaged in the most sophisticated of pursuits, but the heart is too often fooling around in the mud.
In this light, we can appreciate Rav Salanter's observation that if Yom Kippur were to precede Rosh Hashanah, it would not have the desired impact on us. The human heart does not open in a day. It needs to be pried open over a considerably longer period. We start this process on Rosh Hashanah – and even before, through our Slichos (special prayer) recitation and Shofar-blowing during the month of Elul. The heart is moved by the sounding of the Shofar. As Maimonides puts it, this is nothing less than a spiritual wake-up call.
With Rosh Hashanah and the awakening of the Aseres Yamei Teshuvah behind us, we arrive at Yom Kippur finally ready to submit to Hashem, to beg forgiveness for our sins with genuine sincerity.
Understanding the Tears
Another perspective on the placement of Rosh Hashanah before Yom Kippur is afforded by the following parable:
You are walking down the street and someone approaches you for a favor. He wants to know what time it is.
No problem. You're happy to pick up your arm and extract the answer from your wristwatch. Continuing on your way, another individual approaches you, a young man carrying two heavy suitcases. He also wants a favor. He would like you to carry his suitcases for him. Naturally, you pay no attention and walk off briskly.
But who should you meet as you continue on your way? Your boss! He is just back from a business trip abroad and he too is carrying a pair of overweight suitcases. He asks you if you'd be kind enough to take the load off his hands so he can rush off to an important meeting. Your boss is also a young, healthy man, but you have no trouble responding to his request in the affirmative.
Now, Yom Kippur is the day when we beg forgiveness for the carrying the suitcases, for not carrying out the mitzvos Hashem gave us in the Torah.
But, between you and me, isn't it true that we have something of an excuse? The suitcases are heavy, after all. Of course, for people used to observing the Sabbath all of their lives, the day passes all too quickly. For people used to praying with concentration, the words of the Shmoneh Esrei prayer propel their thoughts and feelings heavenward.
But for those of us who may be relatively new to the pursuits, or for those who simply have not "gotten into it," the effort may seem considerable, even onerous at times.
If this kind of perspective accompanies us into Yom Kippur, we may well wonder about the tears falling around us in the synagogue, about the regret on people's faces. After all, we may tell ourselves, we did a bunch of mitzvos during the year, we carried the suitcases a few yards. While it's true that we did lose one of them on the way, we still made an effort…
By encountering Rosh Hashanah before Yom Kippur, then, we come to see the Day of Atonement in its true proportions. We begin to recognize on Rosh Hashanah that everything is in His hands. And it is none other than the Boss who has asked us to carry the suitcases. Thus, if we lost one or even dropped it, we have good reason to seek forgiveness.