If Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment and Yom Kippur the Day of Atonement, why isn’t the order switched? Why not first repent and absolve yourself of your sins, and only then go to the Day of Judgment? Wouldn’t that make more sense?
Rosh Hashanah begins the period called the “Ten Days of Tshuvah” or repentance, in which there is a mitzvah of introspection and tshuvah. It ends with Yom Kippur, when we finalize our tshuvah for our wrongdoings.
We must attain a deeper understanding of tshuvah to answer your question. The Talmud makes a profound statement: “The wicked, even while alive, are really dead; the righteous, even after they die, are considered alive.” This reflects an insightful definition of “life.” Living is not defined by eating, breathing and being involved in commerce. True life is one’s connection to G-d, “Elokim Chayim,” the Source of Life. To the extent that one is strongly connected to the Source of Life, he is spiritually alive. One’s mitzvot are a connection; when performing a mitzvah and forging a connection to the Al-mighty, he or she is alive. One’s sins cause a disconnect from that Source. The Hebrew word “cheit,” usually translated as “sin,” really means “miss the mark,” disconnect. Every level of disconnect is, in a way, a lacking of life, or a type of spiritual death.
This gives us a new understanding of tshuvah. When one performs tshuvah and repents their wrongdoings, G-d cleans our slates of sin, thereby reconnecting to Him. If one had many sins and would do tshuvah, it would be, in a sense, a “revival of the dead,” back to being spiritually alive. In the daily Amidah prayer we recite a blessing for the eventual period of “revival of the dead.” The commentators say that during the period before Yom Kippur we should have tshuvah in mind when reciting this blessing!
What gives us the strength to bring ourselves back to life?
The answer is: Rosh Hashanah. This day coincides with the day of the creation of the first man and woman. The Kabbalists explain that just as Adam and Eve were created on that day, so too our souls are renewed, in a sense reborn, on Rosh Hashanah.
The Kabbalists explain that there are two key forces in our growth: isarusa deletata ve’isarusa d’le’eyla, which translates as an awakening from above and an awakening from below. This means that often we want to take our own steps and grow in our spirituality but don’t have the inner strength to do so on our own. G-d will, at times, pour down a great spiritual light upon us from above which gives us the strength, if we choose, to proceed to take those steps and climb on to a path of growth. An analogy is that one can’t walk in quicksand; someone must pull them out first.
On Rosh Hashanah, just as the first man and woman received their souls from above, our souls receive an “awakening from above.” The power of the shofar blast is a real awakening of the soul. That renewal gives us the spiritual fortitude to begin the work of renewal from below, in our own lives, through the process of tshuvah. This effort culminates in the tshuvah of Yom Kippur when we complete the process of return and renewal for the coming year.
If Yom Kippur would come first, we would not have the spiritual strength to embark upon the process of tshuvah which is the core mitzvah of that day. That is the beauty and the precision of the order of: (1) Rosh Hashanah, (2) Ten Days of Tshuvah, (3) Yom Kippur.
Wishing you and all the readers a sweet, meaningful and successful New Year with peace in Israel and throughout the world!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.