Days of Judgment and Atonement
One of the main topics of this week’s Torah portion is a description of the holidays that constitute the cycle of the Jewish year. In regard to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Abarbanel raises a number of questions that provide a unique insight into G-d’s relationship with all the nations of the world and with Israel in particular. First of all, why is Rosh Hashana, the first day of the month of Tishrei, singled out as the “Day of Judgment” for the entire world? G-d is not like a secular judge who, after gathering all the facts and witnesses, needs to set aside a particular day for judgment. Secondly, if Rosh Hashana is a day of judgment for all of Mankind, why is Yom Kippur, the “Day of Repentance and Atonement”, designated only for the Jewish People? Likewise, it is clear from numerous sources that repentance is necessary and accepted throughout the year, not just on the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. This is actually a Talmudic dispute, with one side stating that we are judged for the year on Rosh Hashana, with the judgment being sealed on Yom Kippur, while the other side states that we are judged every day of the year. Finally, there is a famous statement in the Talmud that G-d opens, so to speak, three books on Rosh Hashana. The righteous are inscribed for life, the wicked are inscribed for death, and those in-between have their judgment suspended until Yom Kippur in order to give them time to repent. The most common interpretation of this statement is that the righteous are defined as those whose mitzvot outnumber their transgressions, the wicked are defined as those whose transgressions outnumber their mitzvot, while those in-between are exactly balanced between the two. Abarbanel finds this interpretation extremely difficult to accept as it would be almost impossible to have exactly an equal number of mitzvot and transgressions, which means that Yom Kippur would only be relevant to an infinitesimal percentage of the people.
Abarbanel explains that in order to understand the meaning of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we have to be aware of the influences of the stellar configurations of the Zodiac. Rosh Hashana occurs during the influence of the sign of Libra, or the scales of justice (Ma’aznayim in Hebrew). The various natural forces and influences that G-d created are represented by the twelve signs of the Zodiac. This natural order determines the fate of all of the nations of the world, with one notable exception: Israel. On Rosh Hashana the nations of the world are judged according to this Divinely-ordained natural order. Israel, however, is judged differently. It is not subject to this order, but rather to the specific will of G-d Himself. By performing the mitzvot, which were given exclusively to the Jewish People, we are removing ourselves from that broader influence and placing ourselves under G-d’s direct protection. We are given the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to make that distinction a reality by looking deeply into ourselves and repenting with utmost sincerity. Since the goal of Yom Kippur is to bring us to this unique state of Divine protection, it is relevant only to the Jewish People but not to the other nations of the world, which are subject to a different form of Divine influence that is symbolized by the signs of the Zodiac.
Based on this understanding, the Talmudic dispute can be easily resolved. Judging Israel on Rosh Hashana and sealing that judgment on Yom Kippur refers to our general responsibility to free ourselves from being solely subject to the stellar influences. This is dramatically symbolized by the sound of the shofar with its numerous symbolic meanings. These include awakening us to the reality of our unique direct Divine protection, calling us to appoint G-d as our King, awakening us to repent and defeat our evil tendencies and reminding us of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the eventual ingathering of our exiles and the resurrection of the dead. The other side of the Talmudic argument, the concept of daily judgment and repentance, refers to our relationship with G-d and responsibilities on a daily basis, after having accepted the uniqueness of G-d’s relationship with the Jewish People.
Finally, Abarbanel explains that the three types of individuals referred to are those that are completely righteous, those that are completely wicked and those that are somewhere in-between. Obviously, this last group comprises the overwhelming majority of Mankind. In reference to the Jewish People the first two categories of individuals are completely removed from the natural forces and are subjected to G-d’s immediate Divine intervention, one to their benefit, and one to their detriment. G-d then gives the last group the opportunity of Yom Kippur.