Good Advice for Being Judged Favorably: “The Joy of Hashem is Your Strength”
by Rabbi David Hanania Pinto Shlita
We find something extraordinary concerning Rosh Hashanah: It is the day of a great and awe-inspiring judgment, a day when the Creator decides the fate of all the world’s inhabitants, in general and specifically, to punish or acquit. As we say in the poem U’Netaneh Tokef, composed by Rabbi Amnon of Mayence: “Let us proclaim the mighty holiness of this day, for it is awe-inspiring and fearsome. Thereon Your Kingship is exalted. … You open the Book of Remembrance and it reads itself; every man’s signature is in it. … As a shepherd examines his flock, making his sheep pass under his staff, likewise You make every living soul pass before You, and You count, reckon, and are mindful of them. You grant the fixed portion for the needs of all Your creatures, and inscribe the verdict of their judgment.” On this day, the Holy One, blessed be He, sits upon His royal throne, the Throne of Justice, judging all the world’s inhabitants. He decides the length of their lives and what will happen in the coming year – “who will live and who will die, who will live out his allotted time and who will depart before his time, who [will perish] by water and who by fire, who by the sword and who by wild beast, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by pestilence….”
In other words, everything that happens to a person during the months of the year is decreed on this day of judgment, on Rosh Hashanah, for better or for worse.
Despite all this, we have been commanded to rejoice on this day. Indeed, the verse calls it “a day of your gladness” (Bamidbar 10:10). We also find an explicit account of what Ezra and Nehemiah told the Children of Israel on Rosh Hashanah: “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet beverages, and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, for today is sacred to our L-rd. Do not be sad, for the joy of Hashem is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).
This truly requires an explanation. How can G-d command us to rejoice on this day? Is rejoicing not diametrically opposed to the spirit of the day? How can we go about and “eat rich foods and drink sweet beverages,” deriving pleasure from eating and drinking as if we were not being judged on this day and did not need to tremble out of fear?
Has anyone ever seen a person whose fate depends on a forthcoming verdict, and yet instead of weeping and pleading for mercy, he sits down to a royal meal of meat and wine, a festive meal? How could that be possible?
To understand this, we must first examine the basis of Judaism, which consists of faith and trust in Hashem. The Rishonim (men such as Rabbi Saadia Gaon, the Rambam, the Ramban, the Kuzari, Chovot HaLevavot, etc.) have spoken at great length on this subject. It is not without reason that the Chazon Ish entitled his Mussar book Emunah U’Bitachon (“Faith and Trust”), for these are the foundations of Judaism.
These principles are so fundamental that a Jew who does not believe that the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world, and who does not trust in G-d, is simply lacking something at his very core, for these principles comprise the complete man. One who lives without faith in Hashem and who fails to trust in the Creator of the world, such a person’s mitzvot and Torah learning are worthless. This is because these principles are the foundation of every Jew. This means that there is none but Him, that He is the Master of all, and that He was, He is, and He will always be.
Since faith and trust are so fundamental and deeply engrained in us throughout the year, how much more so at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to which the Sages have applied the verse: “Call upon Him while He is near” (Isaiah 55:6). In fact a person can choose to ignore, as it were, the Creator’s providence throughout the year, for he may get bogged down and drown in his daily routine without worrying about reversing direction. However during the days of Tishri, which are among the kindnesses that the Holy One, blessed be He, has bestowed upon His creations – days which by their essence lead to “faith and trust” – Hashem draws closer to us. Indeed, “the king is in the field,” as our holy books explain. In such a case, how much more are we obligated to increase our faith and trust in Hashem!
These days constitute a true lifeline. If we grab hold of them with all our might, they can save us from a harsh judgment. However if we fail to grab hold of this lifeline of faith and trust, when will we do so? And if not now, when?
This is especially true given that we have already received the promise that “one who places his trust in Hashem will be surrounded by chesed.” In other words, even if someone does not merit chesed by the strict measure of justice, if he trusts in Hashem, then Hashem will treat him with mercy, going beyond the bounds of strict justice by giving as He has promised. That being the case, a good way of escaping the judgment would be to trust in the Holy One, blessed be He!
We can now begin to understand the mitzvah to rejoice on this day. It consists of demonstrating our certainty that, because of the Creator’s compassion, we will be found innocent on the day of judgment, for just as a father has compassion on his children, we are certain that the Creator will have compassion on us. As a result, the situation is similar to that of a person who must be judged in court, though he knows that he will be declared innocent. He will therefore not be afraid of the verdict or tremble out of fear. Instead, he will eat with joy, for the verdict will only serve to declare his innocence to the entire world.
However if he experiences the slightest degree of fear, it means that he is not certain of the verdict. Thus not only must we rejoice – “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet beverages, and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, for today is sacred to our L-rd” – we have also been commanded: “Do not be sad, for the joy of Hashem is your strength.” Joy is the power through which we will be declared innocent. It is joy that demonstrates our complete trust in the Creator of the world, and it is through faith that we are “surrounded by chesed.” However if we become sad instead of trusting in Hashem, this is a mistake, for it demonstrates that we lack the incredible virtue of trust.
We may therefore say that if we tremble and fear for our lives on that day, not only will we be lacking joy, we will also be lacking trust. This will show everyone that we do not trust in the compassion of the Creator.
Naturally, we must underline the fact that the judgment is incisive and frightening. Nobody can consider themselves innocent, for who could make such a claim before the King of kings? As King David said: “Do not enter into strict judgment with Your servant, for no living being can be vindicated before You” (Tehillim 143:2) and “My flesh trembles from dread of You, and I fear Your judgments” (ibid. 119:120). Now if King David – G-d’s anointed one, the beloved singer of Israel, who said of himself, “My heart shudders within me” (Tehillim 55:5) – so feared the judgment, then what can we say, we who are so insignificant? If fire has descended upon the cedars, what can the weeds do? It is clear that there is reason for fear! Before the terrifying day arrives, the great men of Israel weep day and night during the month of Elul as they repent of their deeds. All this is among a person’s duties before Rosh Hashanah, to do complete teshuvah, to improve his conduct by worrying and regretting his misdeeds, and to confess them and commit himself to future improvements, as Rabbeinu Yona explains at length in his book Sha’arei Teshuvah. However on Rosh Hashanah, when the time for judgment has arrived, we can do nothing more because we have already done all that we could through repentance and improving our deeds. At that point we must trust in Hashem, and because of this trust we will rejoice in being declared innocent, “for the joy of Hashem is your strength.”