The Personal and the Public – The Dual Judgment of Rosh Hashanah

We are all judged not once but twice. Two days of Rosh Hashanah – two very different judgments. We are judged once as an individual and the other as part of the collective. One is a reckoning of our private mission while the other is of our public role. One is of a personal nature, the other of a communal one. One is about תִּקּוּן עַצְמִי, bettering ourselves, and the other is about תִּקּוּן עוֹלָם, making the world a better place. We may fare exceptionally well in one but fail miserably in the other. These judgments together represent our dual mission and the essence of what G-d wants from every one of us.

A Remarkable Zohar

We have gotten way ahead of ourselves; skipped many stages. Let us return to the source of this transformational idea at the heart of Jewish life in general and Rosh Hashanah in particular. The Zohar, the great book of Jewish mysticism, comments that the reason there are two days of Rosh Hashanah is indeed because there are two very different types of judgment:[1] the judgment on the first day is called Dina Kashia – a harsh judgment, and on the second day, Dina Rafia – a weaker judgment. The first has the harshness of an exact strict judgment and the second is somehow blended with that of mercy.

An Unusual Festival 

It is worth pointing out that this mystical insight of the Zohar is based on a halachic anomaly – an unusual fact about Rosh Hashanah. This festival is the only one that is observed for two days both in Israel and the Diaspora. Originally it was only a one-day festival as explicitly mentioned in the Torah. However, at some point during the Second Temple period, our Sages extended it to a two-day festival, even in Eretz Yisrael. Being the only festival celebrated on Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of a new month, many difficulties arose as to the process of sanctifying the New Moon, then fully reliant on its sighting by witnesses who testified before the Beit Din HaGadol, the rabbinic court in Jerusalem. It was not always clear which was the first day of the new month. In order to overcome these technical difficulties around doubtful lunar sightings at the beginning of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah became a two-day festival throughout the Jewish world. Based on this practical halachic rationale, the Zohar offers a deeper spiritual reason for this unusual change in the calendar, which goes to the core of our mission as Jews and sets the spiritual tone for the new year.

I was first exposed to the above commentary over two decades ago while studying in yeshiva. We were joined one Elul by a Chassidic Rebbe from the Spinka court. His words that day struck a deep chord with me. He mentioned that the Zohar based its idea on the fact that there are two almost identical verses in the book of Job about a day of judgment: “And it was on that day when the sons of G-d came to present themselves before G-d and the Satan was also amongst them.”[2] The sons of G-d is referring to the ministering angels on high. Both the Targum Yonatan and Rashi point out that this day is referring specifically to Rosh Hashanah. After all, this is the primary day the ministering angels gather before G-d. It is the time of judgment when the angelic forces both prosecute and defend our actions and motives in the Heavenly Court. Based on these two verses, the Zohar sees a premise for two distinct types of judgment.

A Beautiful Explanation

The Rebbe went on to give a beautiful interpretation for the need for two separate days of judgment: every Jew lives concurrently on two plains – both as an individual and as a member of the community – the Jewish people.[3] Having two roles means that a Jew has two specific missions, each one requiring a specific focus and a separate judgment. We need to give a dual reckoning of how we have lived our lives as individuals and also how we have contributed to the Jewish people and the broader community.

On the first day, we are judged as a פְּרָט, an individual, and on the second day as part of the כְּלָל – the collective. On day one our personal life is under scrutiny. How hard have we worked to better ourselves; to improve our character traits, actions and motives. Even if we were the only person alive, we have an obligation to aspire to be the best we can be. Are we a better person and Jew this year that we were the year before? Even if we most certainly are, it is not enough. No man is an island and no-one can get away with living in splendid isolation, oblivious to those around them. For that there is a second day of reckoning. We may also be a child, a spouse, a parent, and are certainly part of a family, a community, a people and a world around us. What difference have we made to them? Has our role over the last year in each and every one of these spheres of connection made them that much better for us having been present?

The first day is harsh judgment, דִּינָא קַשְׁיָא, since we stand completely alone as individuals. The second day is a lighter judgment – a דִּינָא רָפְיָא – since we are never alone when we are part of the כְּלָל and contributing to its success. The merit of the community comes into play when we ensure that our individual destiny is inextricably linked with the destiny of the community – Klal Yisrael.

To fulfill our mission and pass the dual judgment, we must succeed at both. We dare not forget either mission. We may be judged in one way as an individual, but fare very differently with regard to our judgment as part of the Jewish people. We must be careful not to lose ourselves in either role to the exclusion of the other. A person must not focus exclusively on personal spiritual growth, as important as this is, but also always see how he or she can contribute to the destiny of our people and to the greater good. Alternatively, making a difference to the lives of others at the expense of our personal growth is counterproductive. We have to have it both ways. The dual judgment of Rosh Hashanah beckons us to aspire to be a complete Jew. To aspire always to both heal ourselves and to heal the fractured world we live in. To concurrently prioritize both the course of our personal spiritual lives and also the course of the lives of all those around us.

Returning to One Day

Perhaps this is the reason why the two-day Rosh Hashanah observance continued during the exile of the Jewish people from our Holy City and Land. Even once the calendar was fixed and no longer dependent on the sighting of witnesses, it would be a two-day holiday, and even in Israel too. At this time, the sense of Jewish peoplehood was being eroded and we found ourselves scattered to all corners of the globe. Judaism could have very easily become individually focused, since we had been stripped of our national homeland and the collective spiritual focus of the Beit Hamikdash. Jews could have forgotten about the enormous responsibility toward one another – the power of the קְהִלָּה – the community.

If we live as complete Jews, both individually and communally, perhaps we will no longer need two separate days. We will hopefully merit to be able to return soon to the original Biblical imperative of a one-day Rosh Hashanah: one day which incorporates both individual and communal togetherness, with the One People serving the One G-d in the One Land.

[1] Zohar, Parashat Pinchas, 231.
[2] Job 1:6 and very similarly again in 2:1.
[3] I subsequently saw a very similar idea mentioned by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler in Michtav MiEliyahu Volume 2, in his discourse about Rosh Hashanah.

This article appears in the Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur edition of HaMizrachi, published by World Mizrachi in Jerusalem and distributed around the world

About the Author
Rabbi Doron Perez is the Chief Executive of the Mizrachi World Movement, a global Religious Zionist movement based in Jerusalem with many active branches around the world. He is an organizational leader, sought after international speaker and author.
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