On a day in late Elul many years ago, I was witness to a conversation that took place between several colleagues in the Kollel at which I studied. One inquired as to the wellbeing of another, who looked quite far from his best, at which the other replied: “I am anxious and agitated—I have a court case coming up in a few days!” The former (rightly) understood the “court case” to be a reference to Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, and responded: “But surely Rosh Hashanah isn’t a standard court case? Surely we stand erect, accepting the judgment with joy and even with festive meals?”
The distinction between those who are nervous about the impending judgment, and those who are not, seems to draw from their respective levels of Emunah concerning the depth of the Rosh Hashanah judgment not rather than from their religiosity vis-à-vis the obligation to celebrate the day
My initial reaction to the conversation was that the troubled individual was right. Some sources might contradict his state of mind (see Tur, Orach Chaim 581), but the sentiment is surely justified. The distinction between those who are nervous about the impending judgment, and those who are not, seems to draw from their respective levels of Emunah concerning the depth of the Rosh Hashanah judgment not rather than from their religiosity vis-à-vis the obligation to celebrate the day. Who can internalize the judgment yet remain calm, collected, and content?
On second thought, however, I think that my immediate judgment was mistaken. Rosh Hashanah is not a standard court case; it is more like a military inspection. Below, I will try to explain and elaborate on this insight.
A Fair Judgment?
In the Zichronos section of the Rosh Hashanah prayers, we mention that “creatures are determined upon it for life or for death.” Hashem judges us on Rosh Hashanah, a judgment that determines all that will befall us, all that matters. This situation raises question marks over our seemingly callous attitude to the day. Aside from our celebratory meals, which seem strange in themselves, the Zohar teaches that it is even forbidden to mention sinfulness on the day, and this principle is cited by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 584). We refrain from overt acts of repentance and expressions of regret and focus our prayers on the praise of the Judge.
Is this fair? As we experience judgment, shouldn’t we be allowed to make a plea? Is it reasonable to exercise judgment on us while obligating us to remain silent and even to celebrate the Day of Judgment? Will the Judge of all the earth not act justly?
Furthermore, it seems that Divine judgment does not even live up to halachic standards. In Beis Din there is no such thing as judging alone, as Hashem does on Rosh Hashanah. Moreover, in matters of life and death, a unanimous judgment is automatically disqualified. In Beis Din we never try two people together, while on Rosh Hashanah “there are all scanned with a single scan” (Rosh Hashanah 18b). And in matters of earthly judgment, we never pass judgment on the same day the case is heard, while on Rosh Hashanah everything happens on the same day. How should we understand these discrepancies?
As we experience judgment, shouldn’t we be allowed to make a plea? Is it reasonable to exercise judgment on us while obligating us to remain silent and even to celebrate the Day of Judgment? Will the Judge of all the earth not act justly?
The obvious reaction to these questions is that the Divine judgment is qualitatively different from that of flesh and blood—He does not need partners in judgment, does not need an extra day, and can judge all at once. Yet, a glance at the writings of Chazal reveals that this answer is unsatisfactory. Chazal hold the Divine judgment to the standards of earthly judges. They compare the two; they refer to God taking counsel from the “heavenly entourage”; and they make frequent references to the “Beis Din on high” (Beis Din Shel Ma’ala). Even in terms of Beis Din procedures, Chazal compare earthly and Divine proceedings (see, for instance, Rashi on Bereishis 1:26; see also Shabbos 89b). Why, then, is the judgment of Rosh Hashanah so markedly different?
The answer, I believe, lies in a different understanding of the judgment that takes place on Rosh Hashanah.
Rosh Hashanah as Military Inspection
The Gemara in Rosh Hashanah describes the judicial proceeding of Rosh Hashanah as follows:
On Rosh Hashanah all creatures pass before Him like benei maron. What is the meaning of benei maron? Here [in Babylonia] they interpreted it to mean: Like a flock of sheep. Irish Lakish said: Like the ascent of Beit Maron. Rav Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel said: Like the soldiers of the house of King David. Rabba bar bar Chana said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: And they are all scanned in a single scan.
The military context of this Rosh Hashanah judgment is very clear from this passage. The entire army passes before the King in single file, and he scans them all with a single scan. The analogy of a flock of sheep is also in line with the military metaphor: when Shlomo counted his soldiers, he did so using sheep.
Military inspections serve a dual purpose. On the one hand, the primary purpose is to give the king or commander-in-chief a full picture of the quantity and quality of available forces on the eve of a military campaign. A secondary purpose, on the other, is to bolster the morale of soldiers and officers, which is boosted by the very act of passing before the king. We find this idea in Chazal concerning the transfer of power from Moshe to Yehoshua. As Rashi mentions on the word nitzavim (Devarim 29:12), it was necessary to gather the people before the national leadership, to strengthen them and inspire them.
Latent in every inspection, whether in preparation for war or for any other purposes, is an element of din, of judgment. This is inherent to an inspection, whose purpose is to ensure that all is in order.
Latent in every inspection, whether in preparation for war or for any other purposes, is an element of din, of judgment. This is inherent to an inspection, whose purpose is to ensure that all is in order. In the Torah inspection on the eve of a military campaign, the officers instruct the people that anybody who is “afraid or faint of heart” should go home, so that his fellow soldiers will not also become disheartened. The purpose of the inspection is not only to reinforce the troops and strengthen the morale but also to ensure that those unfit for combat will not undermine the effort.
Moreover, the Torah informs us that making a census—another element of inspection—involves an inherent danger, which was realized in the case of King David and his count of the nation (see II Shmuel, Chap. 24). An inspection can awaken the midas ha-din, the Divine attribute of judgment; it stirs an ayin ha-ra, an eye that seeks out flaws and defects, weaknesses and shortcomings. When each person is scrutinized individually, scanned for his faults and failings, the element of judgment is inevitable. It is hard to withstand. I wish to suggest that this is by contrast with the inspection of Rosh Hashanah, which is done collectively, with “a single scan,” counted “like a flock of sheep.” This neutralizes the harshness associated with inspection and allows us to be judged with a favorable eye.
As we pass from one year to another, on Rosh Hashanah Hashem lines up His soldiers for inspection. This inspection includes several elements. One is acceptance of authority: we, the soldiers, accept upon ourselves the ultimate authority of the Commander-in-Chief. When Moshe handed over the leadership to Yehoshua, the nation accepted the new leader’s authority; on Rosh Hashanah, we reaffirm Hashem’s dominion over the world and over ourselves. This is from the perspective of those who are being counted, inspected. From the perspective of the king or the commander-in-chief, an inspection presents an opportunity to strengthen morale on the one hand, and to tighten ranks on the other. The selects those soldiers ready for war and releases those who might do more harm than good. The inspection also provides the commander an opportunity to make final adjustments and amendments, sending his troops to make a range of tweaks and improvements before battle commences. Hashem, in the case of Rosh Hashanah, provides us with ten days on which to repent and improve our ways.
On Rosh Hashanah we thus stand before Hashem not as individuals passing trial, but as a group undergoing a military inspection. We are called to stand to attention. We are forbidden from mentioning sin and iniquity. We are urged to relieve ourselves of worry and apprehension. We shout at the top of our voices: “Hashem, God of Israel, is King, and His Kingdom rules over all.”
The military inspection thus divides soldiers into three distinct “books.” Most of the soldiers, those who are battle-fit and worthy, are written in one book, the minority that must be sent home are written into another. A third book is reserved for those who need to make a range of improvements, each according to their personal situation. Three books, and a single inspection in which all creatures, pass before Hashem like soldiers—or like sheep. The opinion that interprets benei maron as sheep emphasizes the impersonal nature of the inspection. We come before Hashem as a single flock whose inspection does not pierce the inner sanctums of each individual sheep. The prosecution of Satan, whose attempts around Rosh Hashanah are so underscored by Chazal, is blocked by the very nature of the inspection.
On Rosh Hashanah we thus stand before Hashem not as individuals passing trial, but as a group undergoing a military inspection. We are called to stand to attention. We are forbidden from mentioning sin and iniquity. We are urged to relieve ourselves of worry and apprehension. We shout at the top of our voices: “Hashem, God of Israel, is King, and His Kingdom rules over all.” We do not wish to belong to those who are “afraid or faint of heart”—which Rabbi Yosi Ha-Gelili interprets to mean those who fear the consequences of sin—and are summarily sent home. It is imperative for us to be part of the campaign, to be part of Hashem’s army.
I Dwell Among My Own People
The idea elucidated above emerges from a famous teaching of the Zohar, which states that on Rosh Hashanah it is improper to make personal requests. If Rosh Hashanah is an individual trial, this does not stand to reason; when should a person make a plea for his personal judgment, if not upon standing trial at court? The explanation given by the Zohar for the principle is that “I dwell among my people” (II Melachim 4:13). The Zohar interprets the tale of the Shunammite, explaining that the question asked by the prophet, “Now what can be done for you? Would you be spoken for to the king or the commander of the army?” refers to Rosh Hashanah, on which every person approaches the King of Kings for judgment. While all creatures are “scanned with a single scan,” the prophet asked the Shunammite whether she wishes to be mentioned personally, individually, before the King. Her refusal teaches us a fundamental principle, which is noted time and again in works that discuss the judgment of Rosh Hashanah:
Rabbi Elazar said: When the world is being called into account, it is not advisable that a person should have his name mentioned on high, for the mention of his name will be a reminder of his sins and will cause him to be brought under scrutiny. This we learn from the words of the Shunammite woman. It was Rosh Hashanah, when God sits in judgment on the world, that Elisha asked her: “Would you be spoken for to the king?” meaning to the Holy One, blessed be He, for on that day He is, in a special sense, King, Holy King, King of Judgment. She answered: “I dwell among my own people,” as much as to say, “I do not wish to be remembered and to have attention drawn to me, save among my own people.” He who keeps himself in the midst of his own people does not draw attention upon himself and so escapes criticism. (Zohar 1:69b).
Elsewhere (2:44b), the Zohar mentions that at the time of judgment, it is essential to remain a part of the community, a part of the whole. Those who separate themselves from the whole are scrutinized; even if they are righteous, they are unlikely to withstand the scrutiny. This is precisely the behavior required of a military inspection. The last thing a soldier undergoing inspection wants is to be singled out for personal scrutiny; his deepest wish is to remain “among his people,” to stay in line and be scanned together with the entire brigade.
The last thing a soldier undergoing inspection wants is to be singled out for personal scrutiny; his deepest wish is to remain “among his people,” to stay in line and be scanned together with the entire brigade
Many among us wish to excel, desire to be outstanding. We wish to climb the rungs of the ladder that ascends on high, to initiate and innovate, to set an example, to lead. But on Rosh Hashanah, we need to emphasize our place “among my people.” We need to think less about our personal journey, even the spiritual one, and focus on our place as part of a larger body: family, workplace, synagogue, community, city, and nation. This is how we pass the military inspection of the day.
Rosh Hashanah is not your standard trial, in which we are judged according to our deeds and receive our requisite reward and punishment. We are judged on this day for the future and not for the past, inspected to ensure that we are ready for next year’s campaign notwithstanding our misdeeds and misdemeanors. The surrendered posture of the sinner, who regrets his wrongdoings and begs their atonement, is thus inappropriate for Rosh Hashanah. We are to stand erect, filled with enthusiasm and motivation, ready to take our place in the national mission that defines the Jewish People: “This nation I have created for Myself, My glory shall they tell” (Yeshayahu 43:21).