God of Judgment, God of Compassion: A Reading of the Rosh Hashanah Service

By Reich, Eli | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

God of Judgment, God of Compassion: A Reading of the Rosh Hashanah Service


Reich, Eli, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


The liturgy for Rosh Hashanah declares, "today the world is born," but this celebratory statement is immediately qualified: "Today all creatures everywhere stand in judgment."(1) My exploration of the structure, themes and dynamics of the Rosh Hashanah Service attempts to clarify this tension between birth and judgment, which informs the juxtaposition of the Torah and Haftarah Readings, as well as the Rabbinic conceptualization exemplified in the Midrash. By reading these different parts of the Service as a whole, which possesses a coherence derived from the rabbinic shaping of the multiple voices found in the myths, prayers, commentaries, and rituals, we can retrieve the Rabbinic understanding of Rosh Hashanah that deals with this tension. The Holiday of Rosh Hashanah as we celebrate it was given decisive cultural and conceptual formation by the Rabbinic Sages in the early centuries of the common era. Taking the liturgy, Torah portion, and the Haftarah as one structure of signification makes it possible to read and interpret the Festival Service as a single cultural text.

Following the journey of the praying community we will begin with creation, pass through judgment, and conclude with repentance and redemption. According to the Midrash "the creation of the world was begun on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Elul. On Rosh Hashanah, on the first day of the month of Tishre . . . the lives of mortals are scrutinized to determine who is to have life and who is to have death." The Midrash grounds this divine practice of annual judgment of humanity in the primordial history and judgment of the first human being:

In the first hour of the Day, he came into existence as a thought in God's mind;

In the second hour, God consulted the ministering angels [as to whether He should create him];

In the third hour, God gathered up the dust from which He was to make him;

In the fourth, God kneaded the dust;

In the fifth, God joined the parts;

In the sixth, God stood Adam up as a thing yet incomplete;

In the seventh, God put the breath of life into him;

In the eighth, God brought him into the Garden of Eden;

In the ninth, God gave a command;

In the tenth, he transgressed the command given him;

In the eleventh, he was brought to judgment;

In the twelfth, he went forth from the Holy One's presence a free man.

The Holy One said to him: Let the fact that you go free be a sign for your children. Even as you came into My presence for judgment on this day and went free, so will your children come into My presence on this day and go free.(2)

The Rabbis linked this theme of forgiveness to creation, when they imagine God telling every human being: "Since you came into My presence for judgment this day and go forth free, I regard you as though you had been made this very day-as though on this day I had created you as a newly made creature."(3) In this model of the Day, judgment, repentance, and forgiveness recreate us. We can start the new year as if the first day of the year is also the first day of our life.

Rosh Hashanah is thus part of the moral constitution of the world. Without judgment and the possibility of spiritual regeneration, the world would be incomplete. In the language of the Midrash: "When God initially began to outline the world, it wouldn't hold, until He created Repentance, Teshuvah."(4)

Genesis 22

I turn now to the Torah portion, since the Torah is the foundational document of the Rabbinic symbolic order. The narrative we read from Genesis 22 tells of God's demand of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and God's last-minute staying of his knife-gripping hand. God informs Abraham that his response to the demand has made clear the soundness of his choice as a founding father of a nation divinely blessed and a source of blessing for others. But how did the story get into such a fix? In order to answer this question, we have to backtrack a little, as the narrative itself indicates in the beginning of the tale: "After these things. …

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