Rosh Hashanah is the Sweetest Day of Judgment

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Rosh Hashanah is a funny holiday. It’s not funny because of the humorous High Holidays jokes that rabbis tell. The humor of Rosh Hashanah is to be found in its inherent contradictions.

The most important aspect of Rosh Hashanah is that it is our day of judgment, when every person’s fate is determined by G-d. Who will live? Who will die? Who will prosper? Who will experience failure? The days and weeks preceding Rosh Hashanah are filled with awe and reverence. We seek to make amends to anyone we might have hurt or slighted in the past year. It’s a propitious time for introspection and focus on the task at hand, teshuva – repentance.

When the big day finally arrives, it begins with a short evening service followed by a festive dinner at home.s591346629795598172_p788_i1_w1280 At the Rosh Hashanah evening meal, it is customary to dip apples into honey. Some people serve sweet challah at the meal and dip it into honey. Symbolic foods (pomegranates, fish, fish heads, carrots, among others) are eaten during the meal. Through it all, there seems to be nary a thought of forgiveness or judgment.

The next day, a few hours are spent in prayer in synagogue. While the Rosh Hashanah prayers are a bit longer than usual, they do not express thoughts of repentance. In fact, the focus seems to be on the shofar blasts — and more shofar blasts. There are a lot of shofar blasts. But still, no crying or begging for mercy.

In the afternoon, a walk is taken to a stream or lake where the tashlich prayer is recited. In this symbolic ritual, we ask that our sins be cast off so that we may enter the new year free of sin. Sin and forgiveness are implied in the prayer, but tashlich can hardly be described as the “grunt work” of perfecting oneself or changing one’s character. Certainly our sins are not cast off just because we say tashlich. It is simply a symbolic ritual that reminds us to repent.

Which leads us to the punchline of Rosh Hashanah. How many ways can we distract ourselves from the essence of what happens on Rosh Hashanah?! Apples, honey, fun symbolic foods, shofar, tashlich…there a host of rituals that don’t help us repent, but rather take our minds off the primary focus of the day!

Since it is the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah could be a really hard day. People don’t really enjoy hard days. We already have Yom Kippur on the calendar as a designated hard day. If Rosh Hashanah were to be celebrated as two more hard days, it could actually take away from the overall High Holidays experience.

That the sages implemented rituals, traditions, and customs for Rosh Hashanah is actually fortunate. While they seem to skirt around the primary focus of the day, these small acts remind us, in a sweet or interesting way, that Rosh Hashanah is a judgment day. The rituals of Rosh Hashanah are intended to appeal to our sense of taste, our appreciation for music – even rudimentary music like the shofar blast. Rituals such as tashlich, which include a trip outdoors and powerful symbolic gestures, are all ways of arousing our spirits to repent without banging us over the head with the “REPENT OR DIE” anvil.

These special customs of Rosh Hashanah give this supreme day of religious obligation and spiritual accounting a flair of merriment so that we will be more engaged in the day. It’s the old marketing principle that uses association to lure the customers into endorsing or purchasing a product. If it looks good and feels good, it has a better chance in the marketplace. Part of what makes things feel good and look good are the favorable associations we make in our minds.

Rosh Hashanah is eased along by positive associations. We enjoy good food, the shofar evokes a deep and stirring nostalgia inside our souls, and tashlich takes us outside the synagogue. The distractions are not really distractions as much as they are bunting and balloons decorating a banquet hall. They may take the eye off the event for a moment, but overall they contribute to an atmosphere that is flavorful, fun, and festive.

Don’t look at the Rosh Hashanah traditions as separate from the Day of Judgment. Rather, they are the trappings that enhance the Day of Judgment. Enjoy the sweet food. Drink in the sounds of the shofar. Bask in the sunshine during tashlich. These are the rituals that give our holiday its special taste. Make them important. Make them meaningful. Make them a significant part of your Rosh Hashanah.

When Rosh Hashanah is regarded as a special time to which we look forward, when we value the day and when we have good feelings about Rosh Hashanah, we are far more likely to put more of our heart and soul into the Day of Judgment, and that will certainly have a positive effect on our verdict.

May we all merit a happy sweet New Year.

This article was originally published in NJOP’s Bereishith Newsletter (September 2014).