Parshas Nitzavim - Vayeilech (5769)
The Midrash makes the following interesting observation about the seemingly strange way we Jews act on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment:
“When people stand before judgment, and are about to be tried in court, they are usually solemn and nervous. They don't eat very much, nor do they preoccupy themselves with their clothing, as their concern for their fate doesn't let them think about anything else. Not so the Jewish people on Rosh Hashanah. Although it is the Day of Judgment when all of us are standing in front of G-d as He decides our fate for the coming year, we wear our finest garments and celebrate the holiday with joyous, festive meals, secure in the knowledge that an all-merciful G-d will judge us favorably.”
The question still remains, though: Although it is undeniable that we Jews love food and holidays so much – there’s nothing like a good brisket at a Rosh Hashanah meal - how can we be so confident that in spite of all that we might have done wrong during the past year, G-d will judge us favorably and inscribe our names in the "book of life" for a year of health, prosperity and happiness – without our being even slightly nervous about our fate?
Many commentaries have questioned the order of the holidays in the High Holiday season. Wouldn't it have made more sense to first have Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), so that through fasting and repentance we could atone for all our sins, and only then to stand in judgment before G-d on Rosh Hashanah (the Day of Judgment) with a clean slate?
I think the answer to all these questions can be found in one of the special prayers that we insert in the Silent Prayer during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We ask G-d: “Zochreinu L'chaim ... remember us for life, O King Who wants us to have life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake O Living G-d". What the prayer indicates is that we are asking G-d for life and health and prosperity on Rosh Hashanah, not for own self-serving needs, but rather "for Your sake, O Living G-d" - to be able to use these gifts of health and prosperity for spiritual purposes and to make the world around us a better place.
It is for this reason that Rosh Hashanah precedes Yom Kippur. By first experiencing Rosh Hashanah, when we focus on G-d's sovereignty over the world and how He guides and orchestrates everything that happens here on earth with Divine Providence, we can better appreciate our true mission and purpose and place in His Plan as well. So that when Yom Kippur comes around, we then can beseech G-d to atone for our sins for His sake, so to speak, in order to use our G-d-given gifts to fulfill His plan for us and to bring more G-dliness into the world.
This then is the secret of the Jewish people's confidence and faith in G-d's benevolent judgment. We aren't asking for a good year merely for our own pleasure. We are asking for the ability to take that gift of life that He gives us and to "do the right thing" with it. "Please, G-d, help me stay healthy so that I can be there for the people who need me". "Please, G-d, make this a prosperous year for me so that I can have more free time to study Torah and to grow spiritually". You get the picture.
This coming Rosh Hashanah, if we can try to focus a bit more on what G-d wants from us even as pray to G-d for all the things that we want from Him, we can be fully confident that G-d will respond favorably, and we can celebrate our festive holiday meals with true joy.