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This article is excerpted from Entering the High Holy Days. It is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society of America.
The ancient Rabbis base their description of Rosh Hashanah on an analogy drawn from Roman military life. Just as a Roman commander reviews the troops who pass before him, so “on Rosh Hashanah all human being pass before [God] as troops, as it is said [in Psalms 33:15], ‘He who fashions the heart of them all, who discerns all their doings'” (M. Rosh Hashanah 1.2). Seeing how they conduct themselves, the commander, like God, decrees each person’s fate.
The liturgy of the day draws upon a second analogy: a great trial. On this day, the world is judged. The payytanim, the liturgical poets (such as the writer of the prayer Unetanah tokef), expand upon this theme. The poets describe the great day of judgment when all‑-even the heavenly creatures–are judged by God. There are many other references to this idea, such as the piyyut Le’el orekh din (God who sits in judgment), with its repeated emphasis on the word din, judgment, as well as the expression “the King of judgment” inserted into the main prayers of Rosh Hashanah.
The idea that we, as human beings, are on trial before God is a frightening one. Franz Kafka took this concept to an extreme in his novel The Trial. His hero K., the helpless victim, does not even know what his crime is. Just before he is killed, he puzzles, “Where was the judge whom he had never seen? Where was the High Court, to which he had never penetrated? He raised his hands and spread out all his fingers.” For us, on the contrary, Rosh Hashanah is no trial before a cruel or unknown judge on arbitrary charges, but a summing up of our deeds, an acknowledgment of responsibility for our actions.
The Days of Awe are a magnificent opportunity for us to review the past year, our deeds, misdeeds, and missed opportunities. God can and does judge us daily, but we seldom take the time to think about our actions in more than a superficial fashion. Judaism has a term for true self contemplation: heshbon hanefesh-‑taking an account of one’s soul. Without this act, there is no possibility for change, and change is a central concept of the Days of Awe.
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