Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur


by Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz
Why Rosh Hashanah can effect the entire year
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"Everything goes after the beginning."

This statement of chazal contains hidden depth. The moment of conception of anything which comes into existence must contain all the elements of the future of that thing. Just as all the genes of a human being are laid down at conception and thereafter all the physical features which manifest in the child as it develops are results of those genes, so too all phenomena in the world are a reflection of the elements contained, infinitely compressed, in their beginnings.

The moment of transition from non-existence to existence is the most potent, containing all. Thereafter, as the child develops, a critical phase follows, but not as critical as the first instant, and so on, each phase a revelation of the coding of the previous. The closer to the beginning, the more critical. Small effects at the genetic level will be much more far-reaching than larger effects during embryonic development, and effects at embryonic level more far-reaching than effects at the adult level. Therefore, the moment which demands greatest care, greatest intensity, greatest purity, is the very first.

Time is also a creation. The Jewish year is an organic entity. Its conception takes place on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. For this reason we are so extremely careful about trying to live correctly on Rosh Hashana and the subsequent days. The way one begins the year will determine how the rest of the year reveals itself. If one can form the genes of the year correctly, the fetus will develop correctly and the child and adult will be wholesome.

Mistakes in this phase will be very hard to correct later. Efforts made in the first ten days may prevent major "surgery" being necessary later. Each moment of Rosh Hashana should be utilized with exquisite care, only positive personality traits should be manifest, great control over anger and other negative traits should be exercised. Many have the custom not to sleep during the day of Rosh Hashana, at least not until midday -- they want to lay down the genes of the year in consciousness and spiritual effort, not oblivion.

What should be the major focus of the day? Can one really correct all ones' personality faults in one day, or even ten? The answer lies in a description of chazals' of the human being. There is a description of a righteous person as a tree planted in good soil whose branches overhang bad soil. The meaning is that the root is good, the person is essentially good, but no-one is perfect and the branches overhanging bad ground represent the person's shortcomings. However, some pruning will reveal roots entirely good. The pruning may take the form of suffering in this world -- in the next world, the dimension of truth, the person will be revealed as wholly positive.

A negative individual is described as a tree planted in bad soil where branches overhang good ground. The root and essence are bad, but even the worst individual has positive actions and qualities. However, some pruning will reveal the essence as bad. The pruning may take the form of great happiness and reward in this world, leaving a clarified existence of negativity in the next.

This idea helps one to understand a difficult section in the Rambam. The Rambam states that on Rosh Hashana the righteous are sealed for life immediately, the evil are sealed for the opposite immediately, and those who are intermediate, neither righteous nor evil, hang in the balance until Yom Kippur. The Rambam says that these are people whose mitzvos exactly equal their aveiros. (Not necessarily in number, quality counts.)

The strange part of this discussion is that the Rambam goes on to say that most people are in this third category, that is exactly balanced between good and bad. Is it really possible that most people are exactly balanced in terms of their positive and negative actions?

The explanation, however, is that what is meant here is not an exact technical balancing of actions, what is meant is that most people are trees planted midway between good and bad soil -- available for good and positive actions when the opportunity arises, when inspiration occurs, but unfortunately, available for selfishness and negativity when tempted. Most people have never made a conscious policy decision about what they are here for. Where is your tree planted? Its default position straddles the line. What is required at the moment of conception of consciousness, at the moment of conception of time, is a decision about who I am in essence, not about which technical actions need work -- that will come later.

Rosh Hashana is a time for moving the core, making sure the tree is moved entirely into positive territory, the pruning is the second stage. Consciously choosing a positive direction, setting a spiritual goal and beginning movement in its direction is what Rosh Hashana must teach.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Rabbi Tatz studied medicine at the University of the Wittwatersand and completed military service in the South African Army as a medical officer. He studied for 7 years at Ohr Somayach in Israel while practicing medicine in Jerusalem. He was one of the most sought-after lecturers in South Africa where he attracted hundreds weekly to his public lectures at Ohr Somayach in Johannesburg. After teaching at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem for a number of years, he is presently a senior lecturer at Ohr Somayach’s Jewish Learning Exchange in London. An accomplished writer, Rabbi Tatz is the author of the highly acclaimed volumes Anatomy of a Search and Living Inspired and more.

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