By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I am 93 years old, and since I was a teenager, have never received a satisfactory answer to this question: If Rosh Hashanah is the day of judgment and Yom Kippur the day of atonement, why isn’t the order reversed? Why not first repent and absolve yourself of your sins, and then go to the day of judgment?
I hope I can finally get an answer!
— Tillie K.
I hope you will find this satisfactory for many years to come!
Rosh Hashanah begins the period called the “Ten Days of Teshuvah” or repentance, in which there is a mitzvah of introspection and teshuvah. It ends with Yom Kippur, when we finalize our teshuvah for our wrongdoings.
We must attain a deeper understanding of teshuvah to answer your question.
The Talmud states: “The wicked, even while alive, are really dead; the righteous, even after they die, are considered alive.”
This reflects a profound definition of “life.” Life is not merely defined by one’s eating, breathing, being social and involved in commerce. Rather, life is defined by one’s connection to “Elo-him Chayim,” God, who is the source of true life.
To the extent one is connected to the source of life, he or she is spiritually “alive.” The converse is true too. One can theoretically be very energetically involved in many aspects of the world and even be quite successful by society’s standards while at the same time be spiritually dead, having no connection to the source of life.
How does one go about being connected?
Mitzvot are a connection. The Torah says numerous times that through the fulfillment of mitzvot we are “cleaving to God and therefore alive.”
Sins, on the other hand, cause disconnect. The word “cheit,” usually translated as sin, literally means to “miss the mark” or disconnect. Each wrongdoing causes another short circuit in the grid of our connection to the source of life.
This gives us a new understanding of teshuvah. Teshuvah is not simply repenting for a wrongdoing, and God cleaning our slates of that sin. It repairs the shorted circuit, reconnecting us to the Almighty.
With this we have a new insight to a seemingly strange statement by an early commentary, Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschitz (mid 18th century). In our daily Amidah service, the second blessing thanks God for the promise to one day return the Jewish dead back to eternal life, techias hameisim.
This sage comments that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when one recites that blessing, he or she should have teshuvah in mind. What is the connection? The answer is that teshuvah, by repairing the circuitry, reconnects us to the source of life and brings us back to life.
What gives us the strength to bring ourselves back to life? Rosh Hashanah! That day coincides with 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 on Rosh Hashanah.
On Rosh Hashanah our souls receive a complete recharging of our spiritual batteries, at the time of the shofar blast. This gives us the spiritual energy to begin the work of self-renewal within our own lives. We are empowered with the potential to bring ourselves “back to life” by reconnecting to the source of life.
This is done through the process of teshuvah, culminating in Yom Kippur which is the day we complete the process of renewal for the coming year.
If Yom Kippur would come first, we would not have the spiritual strength to embark upon the process of teshuvah, which is the core mitzvah of that day.
That is the beauty and the precision of the order of our High Holidays: Rosh Hashanah first, then the Ten Days of Teshuvah, followed by Yom Kippur.
Wishing you and all the readers an easy fast and 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.