Rosh HaShana is a puzzling Yom Tov for us. On the one hand, we are facing an awesome judgment; on the other hand, we celebrate the day as a joyous holiday. One can hardly imagine someone facing a life and death judgment enjoying himself on that very day. Yet, the Halacha states that we must celebrate on Rosh HaShana by feasting on meat and wine.
What is even stranger, we not only celebrate amidst the judgment, we actually invoke the judgment on ourselves. According to the Zohar, our shofar summons the Judge to the chamber to begin the Judgement. Clearly we would only do so if we viewed that judgment as beneficial to us.
A Midrash concerning Rosh HaShana makes this point. Rosh HaShana falls on the first of Tishrei, says the Midrash, because it was then that Adam Harishon was judged favorably. That first favorable judgment serves as a hopeful precedent for our own judgment.
But how was Adam judged favorably? As a consequence of his sin, he lost his immortality and death was introduced into the world. Chava was condemned to suffer the pains of childbirth, and Adam to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.
The answer, the Midrash suggests, is that the very act of judgment itself was favorable because it showed that G-d still cared about the relationship. G-d visited upon Adam the consequences of his actions in order to preserve the overall system of consequences, and to emphasize that our actions matter to G-d. What we do in life is of major importance to Him.
Recognizing that G-d’s judgment itself is a sign of our ongoing relationship does not, however, remove our anxiety about that judgment. To ignore those feelings would be insincere. Even as we rejoice in the larger context within which the judgment is taking place, we do not lose sight that we are on trial for our lives.
That uncertainty is hinted to in Nechemiah’s instructions to the exiles returning to Israel from Babylon the first Rosh HaShana after their return. They began to weep when they realized that their sins had led to the exile. In response, Nechemiah told them, ” Eat tasty meat and drink sweet wine… for joy in G-d is your strength.” The Hebrew Language has many terms for joy. The word used by Nechemiah is CHEDVA.
We find a verb of the same root in the Torah to describe Yitro’s rejoicing upon hearing of the miracles that accompanied the Children of Israel as they left Egypt, including the drowning of the Egyptians at the Sea: “And Yitro rejoiced” (Sh’mot 18:9). Yitro was a senior advisor to Pharoah in Egypt.
Later on, Yitro joined the Jewish People, as a Ger Tzedek. On one level, he rejoiced at the destruction of Egypt, for that destruction was the means by which G-d revealed Himself to the entire world. Yet he also felt sadness for the Egyptians who drowned at the Sea.
The Hebrew word CHEDVA conveys that sense of a deeper joy, with a mixture of sadness. And it is that mixture that we feel on Rosh HaShana. Indeed whenever “G-d is ‘dealing’ with us” we face the same mixture of sadness and joy. At the most immediate level, we are acutely aware of our pain. But at a deeper level, we experience satisfaction in the knowledge of G-d’s ongoing concern for us and of His desire to bond and connect with us.
Therefore one of the most frequently repeated prayers during the High Holy Days is the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. This is based on the Gemara Rosh HaShana 17b that teaches, G-d says, “Any time that Israel sins, let them perform before Me this procedure, and I shall forgive them.” Why should the mere recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy “magically” atone for our sins?
The Alshich HaKadosh states, that the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy bring about forgiveness only if we try to emulate them, and not just by reciting them repeatedly. He explains that this is the reason that the Gemara quoted above says, “let them PERFORM before Me this procedure.” The Gemara chooses its words carefully and doesn’t say, “let them recite these words, and I shall forgive them.”
Only if we try to actively emulate G-d’s Attributes of Mercy do we attain forgiveness. This is logical and not a magical incantation, because the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy describe G-d as being lenient and forgiving.
If we emulate these Attributes of G-d, then we will certainly be forgiven. Because the Talmud teaches, “Anyone who is lenient and forgiving, the Heavenly Tribunal forgives him for all his sins” (Rosh HaShana 17a). This is because G-d treats us “MEASURE FOR MEASURE”.
Once we emulate G-d’s attributes that are described in Sh’mot 34:6-7, “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger… forgiver of iniquity, transgression and sin”, and we become lenient and forgiving, we will be forgiven, since G-d treats us similarly.
Therefore, the Talmud in Rosh HaShana quoted above teaches, that we can attain forgiveness by PERFORMING and NOT just reciting the 13 Attributes of Mercy.