This time of the year makes people very nervous. “God is judging us,” they whisper back and forth to one another as they crowd into the synagogue. For some, it’s a building they frequent daily, almost as familiar as their own home. For others, its walls are alien and its seats foreign, a building into which they step only when duty demands. It’s a nerve-wracking time. As we intone the ominous words of Unitaneh Tokef, we feel that our very lives hang in the balance. We shuffle in year after year, hoping that this won’t be the year that we are sealed for death, destined to leave this world.
This vision of Rosh HaShanah was not that of Maimonides. Instead Maimonides’ version offers substantially more hope and peace of mind, whilst simultaneously conferring upon us enormous responsibility, year round. In his opinion, he writes quite clearly, Rosh HaShanah was, indeed, a day of judgement – just not as we imagined. Instead of deciding our fate in this world – a mere triviality when considered against the weight of all existence – it is our fate in the world to come which is decided. We are judged on a whole life basis – not necessarily on individual actions, but rather on our trajectories, our bearing – where are we headed?
Many people can perform miṣvot their entire lives, and they will be nothing more than a series of individual actions, unconnected to a particular path. Others, whilst they may perform fewer deeds, are connected to a path, to reality, the very nature of existence. On Rosh HaShanah, God judges us on our path. What are we striving towards? What is our ultimate goal? Do we see our lives as a whole life, as an emergent entity, a sum greater than the whole of our parts? Or do we see ourselves as all there is, solipsistically existing, serving the God we want to serve, rather than the one who actually exists?
On Rosh HaShanah, we are weighed on the paths of our lives, on the arc which we have chosen for ourselves. The responsibility this confers upon us is tremendous. We have to dedicate ourselves, every moment, every action, to the One God. However, this also means that, much like our parents do, God will provide us raḥamim – mercy, room to grow and learn from our mistakes – provided that we understand that these misdeeds are but bumps on the road to a better self.
This Rosh HaShanah, let’s not only take a look at our individual actions. Let us delve deep into our very soul, auditing its destination. Am I headed towards the right things?
The same action, in two different contexts, can mean totally different things. In one setting, a miṣva is the ultimate tool to connect with Eternity; in another, God tells us “When you come to appear before Me, who requested this of you, to trample My courts?” (Yishayahu 1:12). There is no one who is more on our side, who is less interested in catching us out, than God, our Creator! He is interested in helping us and supporting our journey to Him – as long as it is to Him.