Expressing Joy on the Day of Judgment
In his book Kovetz Sichos, the great tzaddik Rabbi Nosson Wachtfogel Zatzal states that every holiday deals with a particular subject. On Passover we celebrate the exodus from Egypt, on Shavuot we commemorate the giving of the Torah, on Sukkot we observe the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah, and on Rosh Hashanah we experience fear and apprehension at the magnitude of the judgment. In fact in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer we recite, “The angels quake with fear and trembling…for not even they are innocent in Your eyes!” The day of judgment is an awe-inspiring day, one that we have good reason to fear. Nevertheless, we read in Nehemiah’s proclamation: “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet beverages, and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, for today [Rosh Hashanah] is sacred to our G-d. Do not be sad. The enjoyment of the L-RD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). It is clear from the words of Nehemiah that Rosh Hashanah is a day of joy and celebration. We therefore need to explain how this could be in keeping with the fear of the judgment, which is among the duties of the day.
Let’s see how we can explain it. It may be compared to a person who committed an offense against a great king. The person constantly strives to meet the king in order to ask for his forgiveness, since he can no longer tolerate the pain of having disobeyed him. As for the king, he has absolutely no desire to meet with him, and therefore he completely ignores him. Thus the person’s sorrow grows each time he sees the king, especially since he realizes that the king is still supporting him and enabling him to live expense free. Furthermore, his offense has still not been forgiven. However were the king to suddenly summon him, it is obvious he would be extremely happy. He would celebrate the fact that his monarch had finally called him to appear before him to give an accounting, for he finds it very difficult to live as a ward of the state. True, he would fear the outcome of the king’s judgment, yet he would console himself with the thought that although he offended the king and irritated him by his actions, the king has still not punished him. In fact he still continues to ensure his sustenance! This is why, by preparing himself in terms of how to speak to the king and what supplications to offer him, there is still a good chance he may be acquitted.
The meaning of this parable is clear. Although we have often irritated the Creator of the world by our deeds and are therefore quite far from Him, He still does not hide Himself from us, the Jewish people. He acts mercifully with us and enables the Jewish people to live by the merit of their ancestors, for we have sinned so greatly that even our prayers no longer bear fruit in Heaven. When He finally summons us in judgment, we must remember and understand what Nehemiah said: “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet beverages, and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, for today is sacred to our G-d. Do not be sad. The enjoyment of the L-RD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).
It is true that in one respect Rosh Hashanah is a terrible day of judgment, for who knows what our verdict will be? It is therefore appropriate for us to tremble at the magnitude of the judgment. However it is also appropriate for us to rejoice on this day. Why should we rejoice? It is because in the final analysis, we have remained alive all year long, thank G-d, and Hashem has shown us His goodness, even if it was hidden. Hence on this day, when He wants to meet us in judgment, it is a sign that He has no desire to reject us. Who knows, perhaps He will show us favor on this day! That is why we should rejoice, which is not inconsistent with the fear of the day.
We must bear in mind, however, that a ferocious war unfolds against our accusers on Rosh Hashanah, accusers that were created by our sins. We have reason to fear that on this holy day we might lose hope of being able to prepare ourselves for the judgment. This may happen because we know that we have nothing to stem their accusations and defeat them, for their case is solid and they are a thousand times stronger than us. This is especially true since they are justified in saying that we deliberately transgressed many mitzvot, that we have been negligent in studying Torah, and so on. The fact that we cannot counter these allegations fills us with great fear.
However it is precisely for this reason that we must rejoice on this day. In this way we will stymie all our accusers, for they will not understand what is happening to us, nor why we are rejoicing instead of weeping and worrying over our fate. In fact almost nobody takes our side, and even the Patriarchs are a little disappointed in our conduct throughout the year. Therefore all the angels of destruction and everything created by our sins are shocked at our joy. Thus it is written: “When you go out to battle” (Deuteronomy 20:1) – to defend yourself on the day of judgment, which is Rosh Hashanah – “and see horses and chariots…you shall not fear them.” In other words, do not fear any of your accusers on this day, even if their very existence proves that you have sinned. Continue to confound them by your joy, for the more you persevere in your joyful service of Hashem, the more your accusers will be confounded. When the shofar is sounded, it above all else has the power to confound your accusers, and little by little they will be destroyed. All this will occur when the Satan sees that the Children of Israel are sometimes seated and sometimes standing during the sounding of the shofar, unable to understand what this all means. That is, if the sounding of the shofar has the goal of breaking our hearts, why do we remain seated, and if it does not have the goal of breaking our hearts, why do we stand? The answer is that when the Jewish people repent and all the angels created by their sins disappear, the Satan has no further reason to accuse them. This is truly an act of kindness on Hashem’s part.
As a result, whoever has a head on his shoulders will understand the meaning of all this. He will fear the judgment on one hand, while on the other hand he will rejoice over the fact that Hashem loves demonstrating kindness and doing good for us at all times, especially when our accusers are standing at the ready to accuse us. If we serve G-d in joy and with love, we will merit a year that is both good and blessed, and we will be inscribed and immediately sealed for a good year. Amen, may it be so!