People often assume that Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are about the same thing. On the one hand, this makes sense to a degree. The days are referred to collectively as the Yomim Noraim or High Holy Days. They are united by the Ten Days of Repentance between them. They share many recognizable melodies. The Shofar is blown on both holidays. Indeed, there’s an entire sociological category of people who only attend synagogue services on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Yet to assume that they are the same is to fundamentally misunderstand both.
In his recent book Out of the Box, Rabbi Yair Halevy of Yeshivat Torah V’Avodah – Chovat HaTalmidim in Jerusalem notes that the fundamental difference between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur can be discerned by honing in on the major difference between the prayers we say on each day. One of the main differences is that our prayers on Rosh Hashanah do not speak about our sins while the Yom Kippur services are heavily focused on them. Therefore, Rav Yair writes that “on a simple level, the message of Rosh Hashanah is that before you look backward, you have to look forward.” Rosh Hashanah’s prayers are not about focusing on past sins and resolving to be better in the future. They are focused, rather, on “creating an understanding of Hashem being our King and deciding that during the next year we want to believe in Hashem and His endless light.”
Does this make sense, though? Rosh Hashanah is the very first day of the Jewish year, the anniversary of the creation of the world itself! Isn’t that the ideal time to look back at what came before? To celebrate our successes and recognize our failures? No. Rav Yair emphasizes that Rosh Hashanah is a day meant to focus on “what it means to have a relationship with Hashem and what it really means for Hashem to be part of our lives and part of our world. Only after we look forward can we think about all the mistakes we made during the past year.”
Rosh Hashanah, then, is a way for us to look to the future and orient ourselves towards achieving our ultimate goals, both spiritual and material. Only after we’ve spotted our North Star and know which way to continue walking can we afford the time to look back and retrace our steps. Indeed, if we focus first on where we want to go, then when we do confront our past mistakes, it is from a “much more positive and productive place.”
As such, it’s important for us each to keep in mind that “sometimes the only way to enable change is to remember that Rosh Hashanah comes before Yom Kippur” – that it’s as important to look towards the future as it is to look back on the past.
May we all be able to come out of the High Holidays this year not only with an understanding of where we’ve been, but also of where we want to go – physically, psychologically, and spiritually.
Rabbi Steven Gotlib and the JET Team