Commentary for Yom Kippur

16 Oct

The most common metaphor found throughout the High Holiday services is that of God as a judge presiding over a court, hearing the evidence for and against us, and deciding what our sentence will be. The reason this imagery is invoked is obvious: courts have been around in some form or another since soon after the development of human society, so it is an image that is relatable to people of all generations, from the first generation of Jews down to us today and far into the future. Also, it’s probably pretty darn accurate. If we follow the courtroom metaphor, though, we run into an interesting abnormality in what first appeared to be rather a perfect picture.
Rosh Hashanah is the “Day of Judgment,” on which God judges us for our deeds and we ask God to show us mercy. It is followed by Yom Kippur, when we confess and apologize for those sins upon which God has judged us. If we want God to judge us with mercy on Rosh Hashanah, then shouldn’t we start atoning and apologizing for our sins before our day in court?    A criminal who expresses remorse before and during the trial will be seen as a lot more sincere in his or her repentance- and thus more likely to be shown leniency- than one who starts to show remorse only after being sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Let’s face it: going into the High Holidays, we all have a pretty good idea of what we have done wrong over the past year, and in case we didn’t or we forgot something, we start to say Slichot- including the Vidu’i (“confession”) a week beforehand. Going into Rosh Hashanah, we should all know just about where we stand.
On Rosh Hashanah we come before God praying for mercy, and we are given a suspended sentence. As we read in the U’netaneh Tokef during the Musaf service of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, “On Rosh Hashanah it will be written” “how many will pass and how many will be created; who will live and who will die… who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.” These are all written in the future tense.
Between those two passages, though, is one more phrase: “and on the fast of Yom Kippur it will be inscribed.” After the second passage, the paragraph then finishes off with a final message: “But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the severity of the decree.” When we read this paragraph on Rosh Hashanah, it serves as our final wake-up call.
The Kotzker Rebbe said, “One who is on the bottom of a ladder and climbing up is far higher than one on the top of the ladder who is on his way down.” On Yom Kippur we return to be judged by God once again, having received our sentence on Rosh Hashanah and having had one week to act upon that information. On Yom Kippur we do not merely come before God asking for atonement before our judgment is sealed, but we come to God with sincerity in our hearts and minds hoping to be able to prove that we deserve that atonement. On Rosh Hashanah we find out where we stand. On Yom Kippur, we show God that we want to go up the ladder and not down.

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