After a month of preparation, we are now at Rosh Hashanah, when Hashem judges all people. We have been given Elul to rectify that which we have done wrong so that we may be judged favorably.
At the time of creation, Hashem realized that the world would not be able to exist if it were run strictly according to din, which would exact immediate punishment when people sin. He therefore added rachamim, mercy, to din, and created the idea of teshuvah, granting a person the ability to erase sin from his ledger and absolve himself from punishment.
Teshuvah is applicable throughout the year, but Elul and Aseres Yemei Teshuvah are times of rachamim, when Hashem is closer to us, representing an opportune time for us to consider the way we behaved throughout the year and express regret for the times we erred. Teshuvah will be accepted and the sinner will be immediately welcomed back into Hashem’s embrace, as the posuk says, “Dirshu Hashem behimatzo, kera’uhu bihiyaso karov – Seek out Hashem when He is found, call out to Him when He is close.” Now is when He is found and close.
If a person sinned with improper middos, how can he know if his teshuvah is complete?
The Rama (at the end of siman 582) says that on Rosh Hashanah, people should wish each other, “Leshanah tovah tikoseiv. May you be inscribed for a good year.”
The Mogein Avrohom (ibid.) writes that people should wish each other, “Leshanah tovah tikoseiv veseichoseim,” adding to the blessing that the recipient should not only be written for a good year, but also that their good fate should be sealed. He explains that this is on account of the obligation to view others as tzaddikim, who are immediately sealed on Rosh Hashanah for a good year.
If someone is able to view his contemporaries as tzaddikim, it is an indication that he has successfully committed teshuvah and can view others favorably. Someone who wishes other people, “Leshanah tovah tikoseiv veseichoseim,” is no longer encumbered by middos ra’os and views other people in a positive light.
Humility is an indication that the process of teshuvah has been completed. The question is how we get there.
The Gemara in Maseches Taanis (30b) discusses the concept that the most joyous days for Klal Yisroel are the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. The Gemara explains that it is easy to understand the greatness of Yom Kippur, because on that day, Jews can be forgiven for their sins, and the second set of Luchos was bequeathed to Klal Yisroel. The original Luchos were broken by Moshe Rabbeinu upon his return to earth and seeing the Bnei Yisroel celebrating with the Eigel.
It would seem that the two occurrences of the day are intertwined. Not only was the re-giving of the Luchos on Yom Kippur a sign that Klal Yisroel had been forgiven for the sin of the Eigel, but the power of the Luchos is the power of the Torah. It is the Torah that raises man and brings him closer to Hashem, enabling his sins to be forgiven.
A person who dedicates his life to Torah becomes sanctified and his life takes on added meaning. Just as teshuvah allowed the dor hamidbor to recover after sinning with the Eigel, it allows the sinner in our day to return to Hashem’s embrace.
We seek to become closer to Hashem. Torah is the prime method of accomplishing that. When we study the word of Hashem, it attaches us to Him.
As we ponder the awesomeness of the day of judgment, the yom hadin, we engage in teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah to remove the barrier that separates us from Hashem.
We daven and ask Hashem to view us “im kevonim im ka’avodim,” either as children and pity us as a father pities his offspring or as slaves and recognize that our gaze is fixed upon Him until we find favor in His eyes and are judged favorably.
Thus, we recite twice daily the kappitel of L’Dovid, for it refers to our bitachon in Hashem: “ori veyishi, our light and our hope.” Even as others abandon us, seek to entrap us, and declare war on us, “bezos ani voteiach,” we maintain our faith that Hashem will assist us. During the Yomim Noraim period, as the Soton seeks to prevent us from getting closer to Hashem and disparages us before Him, we believe that He will look upon us with kindness and love.
Rosh Hashanah is the day when our fates are decided. The day is awesome and frightening. Everything that will happen in the coming year is decided on this day.
Tof Shin Pey was a tough year. Who didn’t experience difficulties in the outgoing year? There was much good, for which we are indeed grateful. We made it through the year. We have what to eat and where to live. Many other things went the way we would like. We should never take that, or anything, for granted.
But now, at the outset of the new year, we stand like poor people, begging for life and that we be spared from the tribulations that we endured throughout the year, which is thankfully ending. We seek sources of merit that will shield us from the din, from anguish and agony, and from despair.
People seek to find happiness in their lives and aren’t able to. People look for menuchas hanefesh, shidduchim, nachas, good health, and more, knowing that on Rosh Hashanah, our fates for the upcoming year are decided.
We promise to mend our ways. We say that we have examined our actions of the previous year and will do what we must to merit the gift of another year.
How do we clean our slate and earn a better year?
How does a person arrive at teshuvah?
Doing so requires conducting a serious cheshbon hanefesh. We undertake a personal scrutiny and review our conduct through the year. Then we set about correcting our character flaws and rectifying the mistakes and errors of judgments we made.
We think about the times we were lackadaisical about performing a mitzvah, and if there was an aveirah, we must remove its remnants and resolve to be more serious about the mitzvos and the Torah. We regret improper actions, words and thoughts until Hashem can proclaim that we are cleansed and will not engage again in the inappropriate conduct.
We emerge from the process changed. Teshuvah is humbling, as it reminds us of our mortality and tenuous hold on things. We are reminded of our weaknesses and how hard we must work to keep ourselves straight and decent at all times.
Teshuvah brings us back to where we were before we sinned. It sets us on the path we should have been on and provides us the energy we require to be properly and thoroughly engaged. It provides us with a greater appreciation of Hashem’s role in our life and accomplishments.
Teshuvah triggers an outpouring of sincere tefillah. With a fresh awareness of how small and helpless we are in the face of life’s frightening precariousness comes a spontaneous outpouring of tefillah. We proclaim Hashem’s supremacy over all of existence, thank Him for His daily kindnesses, and beg that we merit His continued generosity.
Middos tovos are prerequisites for teshuvah, for ga’avah prevents a person from recognizing his shortcomings as well as his dependence on Hashem. A person who is caught up with himself is not able to reach the level of understanding required to draw himself closer to his Master. He wallows in sin and self-indulgence even as he goes through the motions of transformation.
Ga’avah derails an individual from properly preparing for Rosh Hashanah and from becoming a special person.
Ga’avah prevents a person from helping others. An arrogant individual looks down upon others and views them askance, with a measure of scorn and hate. His negative middah keeps him from using his gifts to help others. He views others as somehow deficient and inferior to himself.
This is what the Rambam refers to when he writes, “Baalei teshuvah darkan lihiyos shefeilim va’anavim b’yoser” (Hilchos Teshuvah 7:8).
The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 11a) states that Rosh Hashanah is the day when Yosef was freed from the Egyptian jail, as well as the day that marked the end of crushing slavery for the Jews in Mitzrayim. Thus, in addition to being a day of judgment, Rosh Hashanah is also a day of redemption. On this day, we can all be released from enslavement to the yeitzer hora and to the web of desires. The avodas hayom and the day’s built-in redemptive power can return us to an earlier, more ennobled state.
Once a person reaches that higher level of spiritual awareness brought on by teshuvah, he realizes that he is not superior to other people, who were created just as he was, b’tzelem Elokim. He is able to better appreciate the plight of those who are in need of assistance, evoking his sympathy and compassion. As part of the spiritual growth triggered by teshuvah and tefillah, he has a growing awareness that it is not enough to care for himself and his close family. He recognizes that he can assist other people in obtaining their daily needs. His feelings of supremacy, aloofness and apathy crumble as he ponders his own inadequacies.
The baal teshuvah attains a level of contentment reserved for those who are humble and walk in the path of Hashem.
When teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah flow, a person indicates that he has reached the level of comportment necessary to prevail in the din of Rosh Hashanah. Thus, with our hearts focused on implementing the lessons embedded in these words, we proclaim, “Useshuvah usefillah utzedakah maavirin es ro’a hagezeirah.”
We endeavor to reach that lofty level and find favor in Hashem’s eyes, so that He will bless us all with a kesivah vachasimah tovah.
Everyone essentially wants to do teshuvah and return to Hashem’s embrace, but some find it difficult to overcome their habits and the yeitzer hora, which leads them astray. They feel removed from kedusha and Torah and fear that they can never rid themselves of their addictions and sins. If they would only call out, “Hashiveini! Hashem, help me. Bring me back,” then ve’ashuvah, they would be able to return. No one should ever give up on themselves, and we should never give up on anyone.
“Zeh hayom techilas ma’asecha.” Rosh Hashanah is not just the commemoration of the first day of creation, but an opportunity to experience creation anew and in the process renew our own personal circumstances.
On Rosh Hashanah, we daven for a good new year, with beginnings that will improve upon what we experienced in the passing year. We seek to merit a year of positive developments for ourselves and our families, keeping sadness and failure in the past.
We examine ourselves and, instead of being upset that we are not as good as we would have liked to be and were not able to realize all of our goals, we recognize that just because last year didn’t turn out as we would have wanted, that doesn’t mean that we are doomed to remain in a lesser state.
Hayom haras olam. Today is the day of man’s creation. Not just back when the world was created 5,781 years ago, but also today and now. Hayom yaamid bamishpot kol yetzurei olamim. Today, the forces of creation are strongly present, as Hashem judges all His creations and decides what type of year they will have. The day of Rosh Hashanah marks a new start for everyone.
Thus, the teshuvah process begins with the days of Rosh Hashanah, reminding us that we can walk a new path. Rosh Hashanah precedes Yom Kippur because it is the day when we begin anew. The realization of the new beginning provides us with the confidence that we can undertake teshuvah and make ourselves whole once again.
Rosh Hashanah is the gift that launches us onto the path culminating with Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur. It is this awareness that allows us to believe that we can change. Everything can change. We can do it over and do much better this time.
While listening to the shofar, 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 world had reached its destiny. Ahead was much hope and promise.
The shofar was also blown at Yovel. When we blow it on Rosh Hashanah, it hints at the independence of the Yovel year, the collective song of freedom chanted by so many released slaves going home to begin life anew. The earth, as well, joins in the process, as land returns to its original owners at Yovel. We are reminded that Rosh Hashanah affords us an opportunity to start over again.
Teshuvah is how we overcome past mistakes and begin anew unencumbered by past errors and bloopers. They do not have to be an albatross, chaining us down forever. Irrespective of what it was that hampered our growth and ability to prosper, succeed and advance in life as we had hoped, Rosh Hashanah allows us to put that behind us and begin anew, with fresh vigor and optimism for a bright and blessed future.
We can have a great year, even if last year wasn’t too good for us. We can be happy again, even if last year we were sad and depressed. Even if we didn’t learn shtark enough and weren’t able to shteig last year, that doesn’t mean that we should give up on ourselves.
This year, we start from scratch, leaving the weakness in the dust and doing our best to move ahead. If relationships were strained, we ask forgiveness and set about beginning again with the ability to do everything this time the way we wish we would have done it in the first place.
Just because we allowed ourselves to be held down last year doesn’t mean that this year cannot be the breakout year when we are finally able to access and utilize our abilities.
May this be the year we have always wished for. May all our hopes, dreams, wishes and ambitions be realized.
May we merit the ultimate new beginning and hearing the blasts of the great shofar announcing the arrival of Moshiach.
Leshanah tovah tikoseivu veseichoseimu.