It became a joke, but many years ago, when Hillary Clinton was still thought to be a somebody, she met Russian President Vladimir Putin and gave him a present. It was a cheap plastic reset button, meant to symbolize that she and her then boss Barack Obama were going to reset America’s relationship with its old nemesis. Of course, as with much else that she and Obama attempted, nothing happened.
Rosh Hashanah is our reset button, and a whole lot more. On this day, Hakadosh Boruch Hu examines everyone and every creature and decides what type of year they will have. We have the ability to do teshuvah and reset ourselves and our actions and the way we have conducted ourselves throughout the year.
The word teshuvah has at its root “shov,” commonly understood as to return. When we do teshuvah, we return to our pre-sin state and are able to connect with Hashem because the aveiros that cause separation to be formed between us and Him are erased. “Shov” has a second meaning. It also means to leave, as in the posuk which states, “Shavtem mei’acharei Hashem” (Bamidbar 14:43).
Undertaking proper teshuvah involves both definitions. We must leave behind our improper acts and also seek to return to the way we were before we sinned. Hashem then forgives us and erases the aveirah from us, as if we had never done it (Bais Elokim, Shaar Hateshuvah, 1). Therefore, we can once again reach our pre-sin level and are able reconnect with Hashem and be blessed for the coming year.
Rosh Hashanah represents a new beginning, affording us the opportunity to clean our slate – and neshamos – and start over again. But we have to address it from both ends.
The Rambam, in discussing the process of the judgment on the Yom Hadin, writes (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:3) that “a beinoni who has an equal number of aveiros and mitzvos does not receive the final judgment on Rosh Hashanah. Rather, it is postponed until Yom Kippur. If he has done teshuvah, he is sealed for life. If not, he is sealed for death.”
Rav Itzele Peterburger asks that since a beinoni is a person who has an equal number of mitzvos and aveiros, why is his din sealed for death if he doesn’t do teshuvah? It should be sufficient if he just performs a mitzvah and thus tips the scales in his favor.
Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach explains that since Rosh Hashanah resets everything, we cannot change our cheshbon by adding mitzvos; it is too late, as the time has passed. The only way to change our fate and balance sheet is by doing teshuvah and removing the sin from our ledger.
This gives us a new understanding of the gift of teshuvah and the chiddush it represents. In Hashem’s kindness, He allows us to go back and reverse what we have done in the past, even though the ledger book has been closed on that year and a new book is open. We need to take advantage of the gift so that we can be judged for life and a good year.
The window of opportunity began in Elul, the chodesh harachamim, when Hashem is closer to us, as gleaned from the roshei teivos of the posuk (Shir Hashirim 6:3), “Ani leDodi veDodi li,” loosely translated to mean that when I bring myself closer to Hashem, He will come closer to me.
Ever since Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Har Sinai on Rosh Chodesh Elul to daven on behalf of the Bnei Yisroel after they sinned with the Eigel, and returned to earth forty days later on Yom Kippur, every year those forty days are charged with the ability to help Jews repent and become closer to Hashem. “Dirshu Hashem behimatzo, kera’uhu behiyoso karov.” Now, when Hashem is closer to us, we should seek Him out and call out to Him, for He will answer.
We stand before Him on Rosh Hashanah, blow the shofar, and proclaim, “Hayom haras olam. Today is the day on which the world was created. Hayom yaamid bamishpot kol yetzurei olamim. Today, the forces of creation are strongly evident, as You judge all Your creatures and decide what type of year they will have.”
The day of Rosh Hashanah marks a new beginning for the world and for its inhabitants.
The new beginning can be seen as a source of comfort, for it indicates that if the past year wasn’t a good one for us, the coming year can see total improvement. Thus, we stand before our Maker on Rosh Hashanah and seek to do teshuvah, returning ourselves to when things were better for us. We are not stuck in our ways. There is no bas kol that proclaims that we are losers. We can all pick ourselves up out of the rut we are stuck in and make something of ourselves. We can walk a new path if we press the reset button.
Rosh Hashanah precedes Yom Kippur because it is the day when we begin anew. The new beginning gives us the confidence to undertake teshuvah and make ourselves great again.
A man who was removed from the beauty of Torah for much of his life merited a son who was drawn to Torah and became a baal teshuvah. Although the man had never learned a word of Torah in his life, when he retired, he decided that he wanted to learn about his religion, the one his son now adhered to. His son thought that it would be a futile effort. “It’s too complicated for you,” he said. Since this was before ArtScroll, he told him that the Gemara is written in a strange language, “one that you cannot read and do not understand. Forget it, dad. It’s not for you.”
But the man was insistent, so they began to learn. Each day, they painstakingly studied, moving at a snail’s pace, one word after another, one concept and then a second concept. This went on for months. Finally, after one year of study, they completed a whole page. The man was so excited, he wanted to make a siyum. The son wasn’t so sure that a celebration was in order for only finishing one page of Gemara. Residents of the Manhattan’s Lower East Side, they agreed to ask Rav Moshe Feinstein. After all, Rav Moshe was said to have completed Shas 300 times. Who was a better expert than him as to what qualifies for a siyum?
Rav Moshe agreed with the father that finishing even one page is cause for celebration. Not only that, but he said that he would join the father and son for the siyum. The festive party was held and Rav Moshe participated. That night, the man died in his sleep. The next day, at the levayah, Rav Moshe spoke. He said, “Yeish koneh olamo b’daf echod. It is possible for a person to earn Olam Haba by studying just one page of Gemara as this man did.”
By dedicating himself to the study of Torah, this man repented for a life of darkness. He turned himself around and had a new beginning, and although his life was short, he had earned for himself a share in the World to Come.
We should never give up. We must never think that we are too far gone or that teshuvah is too difficult an undertaking for us. Every person can do teshuvah. Every person can start over and earn for themselves eternal reward.
Every little bit helps and makes a difference. Once, when Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach was hospitalized, one particular nurse gave him special attention and care. He felt obligated to her and wanted to repay her for the kindness she bestowed upon him. She was a smoker, and before he left the hospital, he sat with the woman for fifteen minutes and explained to her the dangers of smoking and its ill effects. He told her that since she took such good care of him, he felt obligated to repay her in some way, and if she would stop smoking, that would be his reward.
He later explained that the woman was not shomeres Shabbos. If he would have asked her not to smoke on Shabbos, she would not listen, but if he could convince her to stop smoking altogether, he would be preventing her from smoking on Shabbos, and with that he would have repaid her favor.
We begin with small things and they add up. We cleanse ourselves one aveirah at a time, and by the time Yom Kippur arrives, we have become completely cleansed and have begun anew. Everyone can change. We can all change who we are and what we are doing that is incorrect and improper. There is nothing that is too difficult. It is just a question of attitude and approach.
In the shofar’s plaintive wail, we hear echoes of the blasts that were sounded at Har Sinai, when Klal Yisroel was formed into the nation of Hakadosh Boruch Hu. The shofar then proclaimed a new beginning. The shofar proclaimed that the world had reached its destiny and the purpose for its formation. There was a new beginning then, and there is a new beginning every year as the shofar is sounded on Rosh Hashanah. It reminds us of the hope and promise that lay in the future for those who put everything erroneous in the past. We start again with a new lease on life and a new look at what is important and what our goals should be. No longer are we encumbered by the swirling tensions of the physical world in which we work so hard to keep up socially and financially. We appreciate the gifts Hashem has granted us as we seek to maintain the newly-cemented connection with Him throughout the year.
So, of course we are joyous on Rosh Hashanah. With a new beginning and a new focus, we celebrate the renewed relationship with our Creator, who feeds and cares for us. Absent our chato’im, our faith that the world was created by Hashem, who cares for every living thing, is reinforced, and we are satiated by the knowledge that what happens to us and the world is not by happenstance or haphazard, but rather by Divine design. We recognize that now that we are closer to Hashem, if we reach out to Him through tefillah, He will definitely answer us. Even though things seemed dark to us previously, now that the mechitzah of sin that separated us from Hashem has been removed, we see things in a different light and know that the future holds only good for us.
The Gemara states (Rosh Hashanah 18a), “Rebi Meir says that if two people are sick with the same disease, and if two people are judged by a court for the same offense under the same circumstances, if one is healed and the other isn’t, or if one is found guilty and the other is not, why is that? It is because one davened and was answered and the other davened and was not answered. [Why was one answered and not the other? Is it not true that everyone who reaches out to Hashem in tefillah is answered?] The one who was answered davened a tefillah sheleimah, while the one who wasn’t answered didn’t.” Rashi explains that the definition of “tefillah sheleimah” is that one davened with kavonah.
We see from this Gemara that anyone who davens with kavonah can expect to be answered by Hashem.
Rav Yaakov Galinsky spoke at a family simcha. He discussed the period during the Second World War when he was sent to the Siberian gulag under a twenty-five-year sentence of hard labor. When he entered the camp, the commander let him know that the front gate only worked one way. “Nobody leaves here alive,” he told his inmates with a snicker.
Rav Galinky reminisced that while he was in that awful place, he would daven to live, and that if he would die, at least he should merit a Jewish burial.
“Little did I know that I would live to get out of that place and come to Eretz Yisroel, head a network of kollelim, and father a family of dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” he said. “This is the meaning of the posuk (Tehillim 22:2) where we pray and say, ‘Rachok m’yishu’osi divrei sha’agosi – My tefillos are far removed from my salvation.’ A person prays for a morsel of bread, for a decent burial, and Hashem answers the tefillah in ways we can never fathom.”
We think we know what is good for us and we pour out our hearts to Hashem, begging that He accept our tefillos and reward us. But we are short-sighted and simple. We don’t know what is good. We don’t know what can lie ahead in our future or the good that is destined for us.
So we do teshuvah and bring ourselves closer to Hashem. We say that we have now gone through the month of Elul and are entering the Yom Hadin and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. We are analyzing our behavior from throughout the past year and attempting to do teshuvah for the times we acted improperly when dealing with other people and in following the halachos of the Torah.
We proclaim that we want to return to the way we were before we sinned, before we adopted negative middos and bad habits. Hashem, we want to return to Your embrace, firm in the knowledge that it is You who created this world and guides every part of it and everything in it, and that You await us and our tefillos so that You can grant us a blessed, happy, healthy and successful year, as only You can.