Is Rosh Hashanah a serious day or not?

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Mimi David , Special For The Jewish Light

Rosh Hashanah can seem confusing. On one hand, we know it is the Day of Judgment, a day on which the future of every human being and really of the entire world is discerned.  

On the other hand, it is a day of celebration. We wear our nicest clothes, we have festive meals with many special foods, and we spend time with family and friends. 

Mimi David is Director of Women’s Education at Aish St. Louis and she has been a longtime teacher at Esther Miller Bais Yaakov of St. Louis.

That can seem confusing. Is Rosh Hashanah a serious day or not? Is it a day to spend in contemplation of our past choices and our future, or is it a day of celebration and festivity?

Our sages explain that we often have the wrong approach to the seriousness of Rosh Hashanah and to the concept of judgment. While it is true that Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgment, there is another thing we must factor into that equation, and that is the concept of teshuva. 

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Teshuvah means repentance, but more literally means return. It is an incredible blessing and gift given to us by G-d.  

It is the gift to be able to correct our mistakes, to become a better person by not making the same poor choices we made in the past. The Torah tells us that when a person does complete teshuvah and really moves away from a mistake that she made in the past, that mistake actually gets erased from the book of her life. It is as if she never messed up.  

This concept, this reality that was built into the world, is a tremendous gift. It means that every person can always repair herself. No mistake is forever; we each have the power within us to start fresh and wipe away the things we are not so proud of.  This is a gift.  

Imagine a world without teshuvah. How horribly permanent all our actions would be! Also, this gift of teshuvah is granted to us every single year. In fact, the Hebrew word for “year” is shana, and shana comes from the root shinui, meaning change. Every New Year brings with it the blessing of teshuvah, the possibility of change, granting us the potential for renewal and greater closeness with the Almighty again.

As much as Rosh Hashanah may seem serious, full of scary grown-up stuff like judgment, in truth it is a day of celebration.  It is a chag, a joyous holiday, one on which no mourning is allowed, we wear new clothes and we eat delicious food. Rosh Hashanah is a holiday that celebrates the gift of teshuvah, acknowledging through festivities how grateful we are for the ability to change.  

This in turn affects the way judgment on Rosh Hashanah really plays out. Yes we are judged, but we are judged by a G-d of mercy, who loves every step of teshuvah that we take. We are not judged by a strict, evil ruler who has no patience for human frailties; quite the opposite is true.  

We are being evaluated by a G-d who gave us the blessing of teshuvah, of the ability to wipe away our mistakes. This is a G-d who understands perfectly well our humanness, as He was the one who designed us.  

Therefore, we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah, confident and secure in the knowledge that a good, merciful G-d will surely pardon us for our errors and grant us a good year.

May 5783 be filled with blessing and goodness for all.