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Although rabbinic tradition has created a strong connection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there are major points of distinction between the two. On Rosh Hashanah we proclaim God King and acknowledge that we are responsible for our actions. Yet despite the day’s solemnity, the overall tone is positive and celebratory. The affirmative connotations of God’s remembering and visiting outweigh the seriousness of judgment. The Rabbis deliberately decreed that the biblical verses to be recited in the three special prayers on kingship, remembrance, and shofarot should contain only positive ideas, and nothing indicating punishment. However, as we move toward Yom Kippur, even though we retain our basic optimism that the verdict will be positive (hence the wearing of white garb rather than black), the atmosphere darkens and turns somber. We begin to concentrate on the problem of sin, on the flawed nature of human beings, and on the removal of sin and guilt through repentance, forgiveness, and atonement.
The Yamim Nora’im [Days of Awe] respond to this need to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. At one point during the confession of the Yom Kippur Ne’ilah [closing] service, we articulate these questions in a way that seems to indicate a pessimistic, negative valuation of human beings and human life:
“What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What is our virtue? What is our salvation? What is our strength? What is our accomplishment? What shall we say before You, O Lord our God and God of our ancestors? Are not all the mighty as nothing before You, men of renown as if they did not exist? The wise as if they lacked knowledge, the discerning as if they had no wisdom, for most of their deeds are valueless and the days of their lives a mere nothing before You. Man’s superiority to the beast is nonexistent, for all is futile.”
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