Rav Hutner, at whose Pesach seder a guest spilled want, staining a Haggadah. “A Haggadah without wine stains is like a Rosh Hashanah machzor without tears”.
RH is a day on which tears are appropriate; tears of contrition, tears of petition. It is, after all, a day of judgment, in which our very lives hang in the balance.
This aspect of RH, as a day of fear and trembling, is most vividly described in the unesane tokef:
Unesaneh tokef kedushas hayom - and we will tell of the fierce sanctity of the day
ki hu nora ve’ayom - for it is awesome and terrible.
Umalachim yeichafeizun vechil urada yochezon - and angels scurry, and fear and trembling grips them.
mi yichye umi yamus - who will live and who will die,
mi bekitzo umi lo bekitzo - who in his time, and who before his time,
mi yeashir umi yeani - who will become rich and who will become poor
mi yishafel umi yarum - who will be brought down, and who will be raised high.
Yet RH wears another aspect; it is a festival, on which we wear Yom Tov clothes and eat a festive meal; a day when we dip the apple in the honey and wish each other a sweet new year. And this aspect of RH is also described by Chazal, in the Yerushalmi:
“Benohag shebeolam, ordinarily a person being judged in court would wear somber clothing, and a somber expression, fearful of what the verdict will be. But no so Israel - on RH they wear holiday clothing and rejoice, for they are certain that G-d will perform a miracle for them, betuchim sheyaase lahem nes.”
So we find RH described in paradoxical terms; indeed, we experience RH in paradoxical ways. On the one hand, a day of tears, of fearful apprehension; and on the other hand, a day of rejoicing, a Yom Tov.
How can we come to grips with this paradox?
The explanation, I believe, is as follows:
The word for holiday, in hebrew, is chag; it is related to the word chug, a circle (as in: hayoshev al chug shamayim). And that is appropriate because each holiday in the jewish calendar brings us back, full circle, to the same station in time. So that on Pesach we come back to the time of the Exodus, and reenact our escape from Egypt at the seder; and on Shavuos we come back to the revelation at Sinai, and stay away all night in anticipation of the seder.
And on Rosh Hashanah we come back to the moment of creation; zeh hayom techilas maasecha. And each Rosh Hashanah G-d, as it were, recreates the world, and considers each of his creatures, determining whether or not to should continue to exist, and on what terms. And that is the judgment, the din, of RH.
So that on RH we are called upon to justify - to stake a claim - to our very existence.
Now we can do this in one of two ways. First, we can say to G-d that since we have been such faithful servants of His this past year, we deserve a favorable judgment. In the terminology of Chazal we can stake our claim on the midas hadin; staking our claim on strict justice.
I don’t need to tell you that this is an iffy proposition.
But there is another way that we can stake a claim to existence; we can say to G-d that he should continue to sustain us because we are necessary for His purpose; that we have a role to play in the unfolding process of redemption that is the history of the world, and whose end-point is the time that we describe in our Rosh Hashanah prays, when vetimloch atah hashem levadechah al kol maasecha.
Now this is not a claim that we can make as individuals. No one person can say that he is indispensable to G-d’s plan. But it is a claim that the Jewish people can make as a whole; for the Torah has taught us that the Jewish people are G-d’s instrument in history. Ki lo yitosh hashem es amo ba’avur shemo hagadol, G-d will never abandon His people, for the sake of His great name, which he has eternally linked with theirs.
And that is the source of the confidence that the Yerushalmi describes; our confidence that G-d will continue to sustain the Jewish people, because - in some mysterious way - we are necessary to Him.
And here also lies the answer to the paradox of Rosh Hashanah. Because on RH we face judgment both as individuals, and as a people. And as individuals, we cannot know what the verdict will be. No one can know what the year to come will bring; nor can we say with any confidence that we deserve or are entitled to a favorable verdict. And therefore RH should be a day, indeed, of fear and trembling.
But as a people we have faith that we are part of G-d’s plan and that He will never entirely abandon us. And from that point of view it is a Yom Tov, a day of rejoicing.
Now there is an important corollary to this. Because it follows that - as R’ Yisroel Salanter used to say - if we want to be judged favorably in shamayim what we need to do is to make ourselves indispensable to the community. Because by making ourselves indispensable to the community we weave ourselves into the fabric of the Jewish People, of whom the community is the basic unit. And to the extent that we make ourselves part of the whole people - in our thoughts, in our actions, and in our prayers - to that extent we will be judged on RH as part of the entire people, and will be able to share in the confidence of the Jewish People, who rejoice on RH, betuchim sheyaase lahem nes, and we will merit a kesiva ve’chasimah tova.