On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: how many will pass from the earth, and how many will be born. Who will live, and who will die. Who will die at his predestined time, and who before his time. Who by water, and who by fire…
[Tefillas Rosh Hashanah]
One of the basic prinicples of emunah is knowing that Hashem is involved in the big picture issues of life. Which nations will go to war and which will enjoy peace? Which totalitarian dictators will threaten world destruction? How much havoc will they be permitted to wreak? Which countries will prosper and which will suffer? Which political figures will suddenly pop up on the scene? Which names that yesterday were unknown will suddenly and menacingly take center stage? Which new technologies will be brought to the marketplace? Which diseases will suddenly appear? Which cures will be discovered?
All of the issues of the coming year are reviewed, assessed, and decided by Hashem.
If you visualize the planet as a multi-dimensional chessboard, Hashem sits as the Grand Master, mapping out the moves of the coming year. This pawn will go here; this one there. This knight belongs here; the bishop over there. All of the events of the coming year are weighed, measured, and determined.
In simple terms, the headlines of the New York Times are written on Rosh Hashanah. But it isn’t only the headlines of the coming year that are written; every article, every feature story, and every news scoop from the global down to the local is written down as well.
The New York Times recently reported that it employs 350 full-time reporters and hundreds of freelance contributors in fifty-three distinct news bureaus divided into local, national, and foreign territories. A single Sunday edition of the Times has more words than the entire Tanach, and reading it aloud would take over twenty hours.
Why is that? Because there are many, many issues that affect the over six and a half billion people on earth. And every one of them is planned out by Hashem on Rosh Hashanah. Hurricanes and tsunamis, earthquakes and famines, terrorist attacks and ponzi schemes. While Hashem gives man free will, it is only in regards to our choices. Each and every outcome remains in Hashem’s hands.
Looking at the world from this viewpoint leads to a sense of order and calm. There is a Master to the house. Anything that transpires has been weighed and measured. While I may not know all of the reasons, there is a plan and there is a purpose. I see Hashem running the events of the world, and I no longer fear super powers and economic collapse. Al Qaeda and Ahmadinejad, Hezbollah and Hamas—they are the puppets, and Hashem is pulling the strings. And so, I read the newspapers with almost joyful anticipation. I can’t wait to see what Hashem has in mind.
Closer to Home
From this perspective, I should feel a great sense of jubilation on Rosh Hashanah. We, the Jewish People, are servants of Hashem, and we are also His fans. We are His Chosen Nation, and He is our Master. During the course of the year, we suffer through the insolence and audacity of arrogant people who deny Hashem’s rule and control over the world. On Rosh Hashanah, we revel in the fact that Hashem sits as the true Judge, meting out the fate of mankind. As such, we should feel a tremendous sense of joy, an outpouring of emotion as we contemplate the magnificence of the Din.
This is the day that humanity’s fate is decided. My Creator sits as the Judge. He alone determines what will transpire in the coming year. I trust in His kindness and His wisdom. And so, I feel a sense of tranquility and joy. The house is in order; the Master is home.
Nevertheless, that emotion has to be tempered. While it’s grand to recognize that mankind as an entity is being judged, I, too, am a man, and I, too, am being judged. My fate for the coming year is in question. Will I live or die? Will I be healthy or sick? Will I enjoy great prosperity or not? The fate of my family, the fate of my community, and the fate of my loved ones is being decided.
Understanding Life Settings
Before a man is born, Hashem sets a life for him. He will live so many years, enjoy this level of well-being, and have this amount of success. That is his life setting. Each year, those issues are revisited.
Before I was put onto this planet, I may have been granted 120 years. The question is: am I now worthy of that? Based on who I am now, is that good for me? I might have been originally slated to enjoy great financial success, but am I now the type of person who will use my wealth wisely or not? The issues that are decided on Rosh Hashanah encompass the breadth of the human experience. Each person is judged, each is measured, and his fate is set.
So while I should feel jubilation on this day, it needs to be tempered by a sense of awe. My future is being decided. But both emotions should be there—great joy mixed with trepidation.
It Is Hard to See the Judgment
With this as a backdrop, here is an observation.
We are told over and over about the power of prayer. We know that Hashem is more merciful that any person we could ever imagine. And Chazal tell us that Hashem waits for our prayers.
If we accept that our fate for the coming year is decided on Rosh Hashanah, then we should spend the entire day in shul with tears streaming down our cheeks, imploring, beseeching, begging Hashem for mercy. While it’s true that the davening on Rosh Hashanah is more intense than usual, for most people crying and begging isn’t an apt description. The question is: why?
Part of the reason is that the judgment on Rosh Hashanah is different than any other judgment that we experience. As an example:
A Mockery of Justice
In 1994, O.J. Simpson was on trial for murder. The case drew great interest because, in a sense, the U.S. Judicial system was on trial. To anyone reading the news objectively, it was clear. The man killed his wife. The question was: could money, fame and bias sway the jury? A dream team of lawyers was called in to defend him. And after months of high acrobatics, a decision had been reached.
The day that the verdict was read, O.J. Simpson sat in court gripping the bench. His entire future was being proclaimed. Would he spend the rest of his life behind bars, or would he again be free?
The jury foreman rose to read the verdict. “We find the defendant…not guilty.”
Simpson’s face lit up. The joy, the relief, the happiness was palpable.
The Verdict Is Read
That is judgment in this world. There is a period of fact-finding, a period of deliberation, and then the decision is read for all to hear. At that point, the judge, the jury, the defendant, and all in attendance know the ruling.
We live through a similar process on Rosh Hashanah. There is a period of fact-finding and a period of deliberation before the verdict is reached. But we don’t hear the verdict. We don’t know what the decree is.
Were we given a year of life or not? Were we granted a year of health and well-being or not? The decree is set, but we don’t hear it. If we did, it would change the way we view life.
What We Don’t See
The Steipler Gaon, zt”l, was known as a man of extraordinary holiness and was accepted as one of the leaders of his generation. People would come to him from far and wide for advice or a berachah. Often, they would hear words that bordered on prophetic.
One day, a man walked into the Steipler’s small apartment in Bnei Brak. It was midafternoon, and there were already many people on line waiting. Typically, the Steipler would sit at his desk and listen to the person who had come to see him for a moment or two, his eyes largely remaining on the sefer in front of him. It was rare for the Steipler to look up. When this man walked into the apartment, not only did the Steipler look up, he stared directly at him, and in Yiddish began shouting at him, “Rasha, rasha (wicked one), get out! Get out, rasha!”
Everyone in the room was silent. All eyes turned to this man. He turned red. He turned white. Then he ran out of the apartment.
A few hours later, someone came in to see the Steipler and said in a low voice, “Rosh Yeshiva, forgive me, but that man that the Steipler called a rasha doesn’t seem to be such a rasha. When he left the Steipler’s apartment, he got into a car that had a number of other people inside. The car got into a major crash, and every other person in the car died. He was the only one that was unhurt. Obviously, he isn’t such a rasha!”
The Steipler responded, “Don’t you understand? When he walked into the room, the Angel of Death walked in with him. I didn’t have a choice. When someone humiliates his friend, it’s as if he killed him. That was the only way I could save him.”
There used to be a time when men like the Steipler could see the Angel of Death. We can’t. So it is difficult for us to relate to the issues that are decided on Rosh Hashanah.
Seeing the Din
Nevertheless, when you look around an average shul on Rosh Hashanah, you should recognize that many decrees are being put into place. There will many beautiful pronouncements. That man who lost his job and can barely pay his bills will be granted a year of great financial well-being. That older single who has not yet found her bashert will be granted to meet him this year. The couple that has not yet merited having children will now be granted a child.
There will, however, also be many decrees that aren’t so pleasant. That man will lose his business. This family will go through great travails. That woman will be stricken with a dreaded illness. And if you daven in a large enough congregation, there will also be a few people who will get an X over their heads. This will be their last year of life; they won’t make it to next Rosh Hashanah.
But we don’t see this. We walk out of shul on Rosh Hashanah, and we wish each person a good sweet year. But we don’t know. We don’t know what the decree is. We don’t know what the outcome will be.
But we understand that Hashem knows what is best. Hashem sits as the ultimate Judge, and Hashem metes out mankind’s fate.