By Yochanan Gordon
I always wondered why we celebrate Rosh Hashanah before Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah is known as the Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment, while Yom Kippur is a day of teshuvah and ultimately atonement. It always made sense to me that we’d engage in teshuvah prior to standing before G-d in judgment over the year ahead, but, ironically, that isn’t the order in which our calendar was structured.
This phenomenon would be much better understood if we reframed the whole preceding month of Elul and our relationship with G-d altogether. The sentiment that my mind conjures up when thinking of the way I was trained, from a young age, to perceive the month of Elul is one of great austerity. I remember stories of roshei yeshiva who would faint on Shabbos Mevorchim Elul when the chazzan declared when the month of Elul would fall out. I recall an anecdote that my rebbeim would retell about the fish in the ocean trembling with the onset of the month of Elul.
However, when I got a little older and I began returning to my roots, I learned a very different side to the month of Elul. The Alter Rebbe writes that in the month of Elul the King arrives plain-clothed in the field where He is accessible to all who want to greet His countenance. The King, we are taught, maintains a smiling and jovial countenance as he greets all the interested passersby who are seeking to make His acquaintance. That is all until the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, at which point the King returns to his palace where he is accessible only to the most dedicated of His subjects.
The fact that the environment from Elul to Rosh Hashanah changes so drastically—in that in Elul the King is so accessible and on Rosh Hashanah He is relatively exclusive—accentuates the question: Why we don’t engage in teshuvah prior to the onset of Rosh Hashanah? The answer lies in the nature of sovereignty. Chazal teach: “Ein Melech b’lo am.” Simply put, this means that a King requires subjects. However, while the Hebrew word “am” means nation or people, it also originated from the term “omemus,” meaning obscured or dimmed. Rashi, on a verse in Judges, defines it in terms of “coals in which the fire is not to be seen.” Applying this analogy to the word “am,” people, it is a reference to a segment of the people who seem distant from the King. However, as the Tanya explains, the objective of the creation of the world is ultimately for the influence of the King to reach those who perceive themselves as autonomous and separate from Him.
I recall coming across a teaching in Orot by R’ Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook where the tzaddik writes as follows. Just like it is impossible to create wine without the dregs, there is no Jewish nation without reshaim. Not only is it not possible to make wine without the sediments, although I am the furthest thing from a wine connoisseur, I would imagine that the presence of dregs in the wine barrel adds a unique flavor to the wine and it would be lacking without it. While the following idea perhaps is more relevant to Pesach than Rosh Hashanah, nevertheless it fits seamlessly within the idea I have been building, and that is that the word for freedom, “cherut,” is an acronym of chacham, rasha, tam, v’she’aino yodei’a lish’ol, connoting that we are only a free people with every member of our nation in tow—regardless of each individual’s spiritual standing. To the contrary, if we, in our sinful state, can come to see the King and be impacted by His presence, we have brought the very purpose of creation to fruition.
What compelled me to write this message is the notion that some people feel unworthy or even on some level uncomfortable approaching the King on Rosh Hashanah in their current state. It is important to understand that G-d sees us all for who we are and loves us as such. I’m reminded of a story of the ba’al tokei’a of the Ba’al Shem Tov who had prepared for weeks, memorizing all the special Kabbalistic intentions for the mitzvah of tekias shofar. He had written them out briefly on a piece of paper in order to help guide him in the order of the tekios. The Besht, who was slated to be the makri, had instructed someone to remove the sheet from the pocket of the ba’al tokei’a without him noticing. As tekias shofar was set to begin, the ba’al tokei’a reached for his pocket and noticed that the paper was gone. The Besht realized that he was devastated and he motioned him to carry on and just blow the sounds. When the order of the tekios was complete, he explained to his talmid that the Aibershter was seeking his simple, true-to-himself, unpretentious tekios.
This story carries an important message for us. As we inch closer to Rosh Hashanah we need to learn to be comfortable being ourselves and to realize that Hashem created us just as we are, with all of our imperfections and drawbacks, and that our mitzvos are infinitely valuable in His eyes. Regardless of whether we connect to the austerity of the Yomim Nora’im we are equally obligated to fulfill the mitzvos ha’yom with simplicity, being true to ourselves. Ultimately, we should just have in mind to renew G-d’s sovereignty over the world and that His kingship extends to even our imperfect selves and that is what makes Him so unique.
A kesivah v’chasimah tovah and a gut gebentsched yahr to one and all.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.