Hillel Krief: Rosh Hashana vs. Yom Kippur

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Hillel Krief grew up in Highland Park, but after spending two years at Yeshivat Har Etzion, he joined tzahal, the Israeli military. He will return to learn at Yeshivat Har Etzion in two months.

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the most terrifying and significant days in the Jewish Calendar. Often, in all the mental chaos of יום הדין judgment day one can lose sight of the exact goal of each day. When we are screaming out to G-d on these days, how is the theme of our prayers going to enable us to accomplish this goal? If one is able to identify the goal of this vital period of time and to and to keep that goal in mind in one’s prayers, thoughts, and emotion, it will enhance both the focus and meaning of one’s high holiday experience, and more importantly, their judgement. Identifying and solving these confusions is what I am going to accomplish in this article.

Firstly, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are two distinct days. On one, we celebrate a holiday, and on the other, we cry out in distress. Hence, there must be a fundamental difference between the two days. The interesting thing is that the difference between these days does not manifest itself in their goal, rather in their focus. Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and the period of repentance in-between the two, share the same goal of רחמים and לפני ה’ תטהרו, of meriting G-d’s mercy and cleansing ourselves using this merit. The difference however is in the unique focus each day possess in order for us to accomplish our goal by the end of the time period.

Rosh Hashana is a time to focus on G-d, and Yom Kippur is a time to focus on ourselves⁠—both with the same goal of רחמים and לפני ה’ תטהרו. On Rosh Hashana we are celebrating the creation of the World, and G-d’s kingship over us as a nation. Whereas on, יום כיפור, where it is more directly “us” focused, we ask him to forgive us not because of who He is, but because of what we are to Him: His nation.

Specifically, during Rosh Hashana we are celebrating the creation of the world and man, which came with G-d’s kingship. “אין מלך בלא עם” – “there is no king without a people.” When subjects proclaim, “Long live the king!” they do not simply express an acknowledgment to the king that He is the King, as that is the same thing as telling the wall that it is a wall. The declaration of “Long live the King” yields two results⁠—the nation accepts the yoke of kingship and because of that the kings’ royal status is enhanced.

The declaration does not just attest to the kingship, it effects it. The statement is not just descriptive, but constitutive. When a nation declares the royalty of the king, they are in effect creating the king’s kingship, for if a nation does not acknowledge his kingship, by definition he is not a king.

Rosh Hashana, the birthday of man, must also be the birthday of G-d’s Kingship, since we know, “there is no king without a people.” Based on what we have said thus far, Rosh Hashana is not just a commemoration to G-d’s kingship. Rather it constitutes an actual act or coronation to G-d that we repeat on a yearly basis. In a sense, on Rosh Hashana we place a crown on G-d’s head.

You might ask, how can a lowly creature coronate something as unfathomable and awesome and G-d? The answer is rather simple. Rav Ezra Bick says “The concept of kingship is rooted in the subject’s submission of their will to the rulers will. Through our active acceptance of His rule, we create the kingship of G-d.”

This is why the focus of Rosh Hashanah is to proclaim G-d’s מלכות and to celebrate G-d.

You might wonder, how is proclaiming G-d’s kingship aid us in our agony of being judged? By choosing to focus on G-d during our יום הדין, Judgement Day, the scariest and most important day of the year, we are proclaiming acts of heroism and selflessness to show Him how much we appreciate His kingship over ourselves, instead of focusing on ourselves. Proclaiming G-d’s kingship is one way of asking G-d for רחמים. When we come together as a tzibur, a community, and proclaim His kingship, we give G-d a reason to forgive us. If He doesn’t, He won’t have an עם, and once we continue to proclaim His name and bring His shechina down while doing so, He will want to keep us around.

Yom Kippur on the other hand, is us coming as His nation and focusing on the greatness of ourselves as a nation and of who we are to Him, rather than who He is to us. On Rosh Hashana, G-d is our king whose kingship we proclaim. On Yom Kippur, we are G-d’s nation who asks for forgiveness based on that fact itself.

At the end of the day, from Rosh Hashana, to עשרת ימי תשובה, (the Ten Days of Repentance) all-the-way through Yom Kippur, we are coming to G-d with the goal of attaining his mercy and cleansing ourselves. It’s just that the ways in which we do it differ from one another.

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