Erev Rosh HaShana 5771 Doing Things Backward?

Doing Things Backward?
Last year, as we were sitting down to eat lunch after the Rosh Hashanah services, a question arose that I thought would be interesting to look at today. That question was, “Why do we celebrate Rosh Hashanna first, and then observe Yom Kippur?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to observe the Day of Atonement first, follow it with the ten days of repentance, and THEN celebrate the New Year?  Let us, in other words, begin with Yom Kippur, BEGIN with the cleansing of our souls, BEGIN with asking G-d to forgive our sins, BEGIN with reconciliation with our fellow human beings, BEGIN with a clean slate.  First we should deal with last year’s business through looking back and taking account of the past. Don’t we say, “out with the old and in with the new?” After we are finished with the old, we can celebrate the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, with its apples and honey, its new fall clothing, its family gatherings and its festive meals, its SHOFAR to proclaim the beginning of the New.  We seem to be celebrating the NEW, with OLD business still hanging over our heads!  Not only, it seems, is Hebrew written right to left, backward, as it were, but at least in this case our holidays are backward too!  

Why do we celebrate Rosh Hashanah first, and Yom Kippur later?  Let us examine two possibilities. The first possible reason is found in the very theme of Rosh Hashanah.  The central theme of Rosh Hashanah is G-d’s sovereignty in the world.  We proclaim on Rosh Hashanah that G-d is ruler over all and that G-d created all – Hayom Harat Olam – we sing, “Today is the birthday of the world”.  The shofar is sounded to proclaim G-d’s dominion over all creation.  We must ask ourselves on this Day of Awe – how are we to respond in our everyday life to the proclamation that we have just made — that G-d is King!  What implications does that knowledge have for us?  Martin Buber writes, “A people which seriously calls G-d alone its Sovereign must become a true people; a community where all members are ruled by honesty without compulsion, kindness without hypocrisy, and the brotherliness of those who are passionately devoted to their divine leader…..When Isaiah speaks of justice, he is not thinking of institutions but of you and me, because without you and me, the most glorious institution becomes a lie.”  In other words, acknowledging G-d as our Creator, and our divine leader gives us a vision of our dignity as human beings.  Contemplating our close relationship with G-d gives us the confidence that we have it within ourselves to fulfill the responsibility to live up to the highest ideals of our religion.  These ideals include honesty, kindness, and brotherhood, in the words of Buber; to do justice, love goodness and to walk humbly with your G-d in the immortal words of the prophet Micah.   Rosh Hashanah becomes a day when we recognize who we can be – a day when we recognize the majestic possibilities within ourselves as creatures created in the image of G-d.  Rosh Hashanah urges us to be all that we can be. According to the psalms, G-d created each of us with the potential to be little lower than the angels. Most of us have had, at some points in our lives, a formal assessment of our work performance.  One sits down with ones supervisor or ones boss, or board representative, and what is discussed first? — Your strengths, your value to the work community, the ways in which you enhance your company or institution.  Only then do they talk about the areas that are more difficult for you to hear – the areas in which you need to improve, areas of limitations, of further growth.  Knowing that you are valued and that you have done good things makes it easier to accept the more critical parts of the evaluation.  Well, the High Holidays are structured much like that performance evaluation, for much the same reason. Just like the part of the performance evaluation that speaks to your value and accomplishments, Rosh Hashanah is a reminder of the best, most noble aspects of ourselves.  If we could put a banner over the entrance of our sanctuary to reflect how we ought to feel on Rosh Hashanah, we might choose this verse from Shakespeare, “What a piece of work is a man!/how noble in reason/how infinite in faculty/ in form and moving how express and admirable/in action how like an angel/in apprehension, how like a god!  Rosh Hashannah is a reminder of our infinite value as a human being in the eyes of G-d.  On Yom Kippur, however, we look at ourselves as who we really are.  A more sobering banner would be appropriate on Yom Kippur, perhaps a verse from Psalm 94, “God knows human designs, that they are mere breath.” On Yom Kippur we examine our flaws, our limitations, our failures, our vanities. Rosh Hashanah builds up our self esteem, as it were, so that we can have the psychological fortitude to look at our faults.  If Yom Kippur preceded Rosh Hashanah we would be devastated by the process of looking closely at ourselves.  So, wisely, the Yamim Noraim are structured to offer us a glimpse of who we might be before asking us to contemplate our flaws and our need to improve ourselves. The second reason that Rosh Hashanah is placed before Yom Kippur might be related to the very nature of change itself. Nobody ever said that change was easy.  In fact, it can be rather challenging and frustrating. How frustrating?  Picture the following: A teacher, with great difficulty, is attempting to put winter boots on a kindergartner.  Finally getting his boots on, the child says, “They are on the wrong feet.”  And sure enough, they are.  After struggling to get them off and on the correct feet, the child then says, “They’re not my boots.”  The teacher again struggles to remove them and asks the child, “Whose boots are they?”  The child replies:  “They are my brother’s.  My mother made me wear them.”  The third time, after succeeding to put them on the correct feet, the teacher then asks, “Where are your mittens,” and the child replies:  “In my boots.” That’s how frustrating changing is! We often enter the New Year with the best intentions in the world to change.  We resolve to give up smoking or lose weight because of the long term health risks.  We promise to be attentive to our spouse because our lack of attention is undermining our relationship.  We are going to study harder because if we do not we may not get into the graduate program we want.  This is the year we are going to stop procrastinating and get things done in a timely manner.                 No matter what motivates us to change, however, we are all experts in finding excuses to remain the same.  Often we feel that circumstances that arise in our lives get in the way of change.  I would have given up smoking but now is not the time to be dealing with the headaches and irritability of nicotine withdrawal.  I would like to spend more time with my family, but I have more responsibilities at work. I would like to study more but the school basketball team made the Final Four this year and I had to attend the games.  I would stop procrastinating if I did not have so many other things on my plate. I’ll do it next year! Heartfelt commitments made on the Yamim Noraim are not easy for us to realize because of changes in situations and circumstances.    This brings us to the second possible answer as to why Rosh Hashanah precedes Yom Kippur.  Consider the structure of the Penitential season.  The 30 days before Rosh Hashanah are supposed to be days of introspection, of reflection, of Teshuva.   These 30 days are in fact preparation for Yom Kippur, when we stand before G-d and are judged.  These thirty days are days in which we take a moral inventory of our actions the previous year.  They are thematically connected to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Yet, these thirty days do not lead to Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment, the day when we stand before the heavenly court for the final decree on our fate.  The 30 days lead instead to Rosh Hashanah, the New Year celebration, with its emphasis not on G-d’s sovereignty.  It is a change of subject!   It is an interruption!  Only after Rosh Hashanah do we return to the themes of Yom Kippur, with its emphasis on repentance, forgiveness, and judgment.  It is as if the very structure of the liturgical year is telling us, “You can count on the fact that there is going to be something NEW thrown in during the process of change.”  Something new and unexpected that will throw us for a loop, test our resolve.  Our commitment to change is going to have to withstand the test of changing circumstances and novel challenges in our lives.    We can count on it!  We can plan on it!  Yet we must have the resolve and the commitment to change even though the world will put obstacles in our path.  Even though there will be temptations that will beckon us to abandon our attempts to make our lives, better, healthier, more secure.  And so Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur are in the right order after all!  In Rosh Hashanah, with its theme of G-d as Creator and Ruler over all, we implicitly acknowledge our exalted place in the scheme of things. We are forced to recognize that as G-d’s creatures and subjects, we were born to carry out G-d’s work here on earth, that within each of us, there is a divine light which wants to shine, if we will only allow it.  Let us keep that knowledge of our true nature in mind, let us hold on to the glory and honor that it is to be human, as we examine our shortcomings in the next ten days that culminate in Yom Kippur.  On Yom Kippur, we stand before the One True Judge, confident of our worthiness, sincere in our penitence, and certain of G-d’s mercy, G-d’s compassion, and G-d’s forgiveness.