A Soul-Searching Exploration for the Day of Judgement
Rosh Hashanah is our yearly review before our Creator. We, and all citizens of planet Earth are invited to come one by one and confront the real, raw reality of who we’ve become as human beings while traveling 90 million miles around the sun.
That’s a whole lot to consider.
How can we begin to wrap our heads around the changes we’ve made?
We’re used to thinking about our decisions as having consequences that extend well beyond ourselves, and of course, they do. However, the most direct consequences of our decisions are undoubtedly their impact on our own personalities — on our mindsets, our neural pathways, on the depth and breadth of the information we possess, our awareness or lack thereof, our habits, and even our physical muscle memory. Our decisions, first and foremost, change us.
Every good decision we’ve made over the course of the last 354 days1 has become incorporated into our heightened moral and spiritual sensitivities, making us more attuned to the wants and aversions of others, truth and falsehood, and integrity and hypocrisy. A decision in which we heeded our conscience certainly enriched and occasionally reinvigorated our relationship with it, building networks of intuition that consciously and unconsciously helped us make better decisions down the line. When we do what’s right, we also move the needle of our identity. Forget for a moment what other people think of us, we think of ourselves differently when we do what’s difficult over what’s easy — when we do what we know deep down we should do, and when we hold back from doing what we know we shouldn’t do. We carry ourselves differently as a result, and through this, we find the strength to carry others when they could use our help. Lastly, by reawakening our inner identity as fundamentally good people, we open our hearts to feel that our existence in the universe matters — no matter how big the cosmos may be, or how much stuff is happening on this planet of ours. When we live up to our inner sense of who we know we can be, we feel that our lives possess true value. This burning ember of significance can eventually be fanned into the flames of confident awareness and ultimately an integrated sense of being loved by the One Who put us here to face and overcome the challenges that He sends our way.
Every bad decision we’ve made over the last year has had the opposite effect. If we repeatedly violated our conscience, we’ve most certainly dulled our conscience. Over time, we mute critical sensitivities that may have once been keenly honed. This erodes our innermost identity as fundamentally good people. Cognitive dissonance makes it uncomfortable to think about doing good when we feel no good, and almost inevitably it becomes less and less likely that we’ll think about the One Who put us here. Alas, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one.
Did we take more steps forward than backwards? We’d like to say yes, but it’s hard to tell. Is it a point system? Do we just add up positives and subtract negatives? It can’t be. But then how could this be measured? On Rosh Hashana, we turn to the only One Who could assess such a profound, inscrutable reality. Even without thinking about reward and punishment and all that stuff — just the assessment — the judgement itself — on our worth as people — is absolutely terrifying.
We, of course, inaugurate this existential trial of our essential humanity by dipping challah and later a slice of apple in honey and pray for a sweet year.
Isn’t it a bit too late for this? I mean, we’re on trial for who we’ve become. There’s no escaping this. We are our own smoking gun. What’s done is done. Who we are is who we are. Praying for a sweet year at this point is sweet and cute and all, but it seems to be whimsically in vain at best. A total chutzpah at worst.
What does this old custom mean? To be honest with you, I’ve never really thought about it myself, but like everything in Judaism, if we want it to endure and mean something to our kids and our kids’ kids, we need it to mean something to us.
Here we go:
Put simply: life is about pain and pleasure. We avoid pain, and we pursue pleasure.
It was true when we were kids and it remains true as we grow up.2 Jerry Seinfeld used to have a great bit about the singular focus of children on amassing and consuming candy. Do we really think we’ve just retired our total obsession with pleasure? Or maybe we demoted it to a night and weekend diversion?
Of course not.
Think about it.
If you’ve made it this far into this article it is only because you’ve enjoyed reading it up until now. Or perhaps you got bored a couple paragraphs ago but are one of those people who feels pain if you start something and don’t finish it. If you’re this kind of person, the pain of not finishing the article feels like it would be far worse than tolerating a total lack of pleasure in reading a few more paragraphs. Ultimately, it’s all about pleasure.
If this is the case, though, what constitutes maturity? If we just graduate from kids’ candy to adults’ candy, from cheap thrills to expensive thrills, the process of life seems totally inane.
The answer is that maturity is not about ceasing to get pleasure, but rather deepening where we get pleasure from.
Ultimately the test of a person is what he or she enjoys.3 Do they get more pleasure from fleeting pleasures that tickle their nerve endings or from long-lasting fulfillment that warms their soul? Do they get more pleasure from receiving pleasure themselves or more pleasure from giving pleasure to others?
If this is true, our analysis above about all of our good and bad decisions also boils down to what we enjoy. If we’ve cultivated the joy of making good decisions, and the enjoyment in the values they represent, we will make more good decisions. If we haven’t, we won’t. It’s just that simple.
On this eve of Rosh Hashana, as we lick our lips and approach that bowl of honey, we should ask ourselves what we really enjoy most in life, have our spiritual tastebuds matured, and if perhaps we’re missing out on a whole world of pleasure that comes with maturity this year can bring.
But there’s a deeper point.
That we’re all looking for pleasure is a fact.
The One Who created the universe set it up this way.
Pleasure isn’t an accident. The whole design of life is built around it.
When we dip our challah and apple into the honey, we are truly dipping the whole day, the whole year and our entire life into it as well. Our souls came into this world in order to learn how to live a life “saturated with pleasure.”6 Being aware of this, appreciating it, and being grateful for it actually increases our enjoyment of life. When we know that the One Who put us here, put us here for our good, we know that even our challenges and our mistakes are for our good, and like the athlete who relishes the pain in their muscles during practice, we too can turn everything that stands in our way into joy and enjoyment. With this meditation we head into judgement.
Shana Tova uMetuka.
Have a Good and Sweet Year of positive, enjoyable change.
The Jewish year is primarily lunar, consisting of 12 months of 29 or 30 days each, making the average year 354 days. In order to keep the holidays from slipping into different seasons than they’re meant to be, notably Passover in the Spring, our tradition mandates that we add a “leap month” every 2 to 3 years to catch up to the solar year, which is approximately 365 days. If this was more information than you bargained for when you decided to check out this footnote, forgive me. Hopefully, however, it’s food for thought.
This principle is found in the writings of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, who formulated it by describing the sense of pleasure and pain as the “I” of the human being. This principle is echoed and developed by his student’s student’s student Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe. See Yemei Ratzon p. 242. See this fascinating article which recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal about how pleasure and pain are two sides of one coin.
This concept is in play in the following quote in the Talmud: “What’s ‘good’ for bad people, is bad for 'good people.’ ” (Yevamot 103a-b)
According to Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (“Ramchal”), as stated in the opening of chapter 1 of the Mesilas Yesharim, this is the normative opinion of the Sages of the Talmud:
והנה מה שהורונו חכמינו זכרונם לברכה הוא, שהאדם לא נברא אלא להתענג על ה׳ ולהנות מזיו שכינתו שזהו התענוג האמיתי והעידון הגדול מכל העידונים שיכולים להמצא.
Behold, what our Sages, of blessed memory, have taught us is that man was created solely to delight in God and to derive pleasure in the radiance of the Shechinah (Divine Presence). For this is the true delight and the greatest pleasure that can possibly exist.
It is the understanding of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slobodka (in “The Tastes of Berachos,” Ohr Hatzafun) that the Ramchal is referring here to delight and pleasure “even in this world.” This understanding is echoed and elaborated upon by his son-in-law, Rav Isaac Sher in Leket Sichos Mussar II, pp. 374–375, and by Rav Shlomo Wolbe in Alei Shur II, p. 567, and in Igros U’Kesavim #158.
We are called “a nation saturated in enjoyment — עם מדושני עונג” in the blessing that follows the evening amidah on Friday nights.