Question:

I read with interest your response to the lady who didn’t like Rosh Hashanah. I hope she likes it more now. However, your response was disingenuous. Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment. Traditionally, it is not a day of rejoicing, but of accounting. Jews of past generations went to the synagogue trembling on this day.

It’s nice to add icing to the cake—if it’s a cake. In this instance, I suggest you save your icing for Sukkot and Simchat Torah.

Response:

Here are the words of the authoritative halachic compendium Tur (Orach Chaim 581), describing a Jew’s preparation for the Day of Judgment:

Normally, a person who knows he is to be judged dons black clothing, lets his beard grow unkempt and doesn’t cut his nails. He does so because he is overcome with anxiety over not knowing the outcome of his judgment. Yet before Rosh Hashanah, we don’t do so. We don white clothing, trim our hair and cut our nails. On Rosh Hashanah we eat, drink and are happy, for we know that the Almighty will perform miracles with us . . .

Yes, it is true that Rosh Hashanah is a very serious day. But is it meant to be frightening? Certainly, that kind of relationship with G‑d, with Torah and with Rosh Hashanah is not what G‑d ever meant, not what Torah ever said, and certainly not what Rosh Hashanah is supposed to be. This sort of relationship is a place to which we descended, but not where we originated. It reached its depths with the bruised and beaten Jews of Eastern Europe after the horrors of the Cossack revolt and the great disappointment of Shabbetai Zvi. Their despair was reflected in the fire-and-brimstone sermons of the preachers of their time, whose themes were weeping, worrying, self-mortification and despondency. They made even the precious, holy Shabbat a day of tears and mourning. For a prime example, read the excerpts cited by Roman Foxbrunner beginning at the bottom of the page linked here:.

If you lived in Eastern Europe in those times, yes, Rosh Hashanah was not a pleasant day. It was a day when you were hauled into court, and just imagine, there sits the King of kings of kings upon His multi-storied throne, His ice-cold eyes piercing down at you, the wretched creature who cannot even open her mouth out of panic and fright. Every crime, negligence and blunder of your life is written in a book in the most incriminating terms, and He’s clutching that book tight in His hands. You’re in trouble.

It was at this time that the Baal Shem Tov appeared and began to take an entirely different approach. Instead of cursing Jews and threatening them with hell, he emphasized their wonderful qualities, encouraged them and strengthened their hearts. He told them stories that illustrated how dear each one was to their beloved Father Above, who holds the hand of each and every one and smiles with fatherly satisfaction over their beautiful deeds. He replaced the carrot and stick with a turbo-engine. How? Simply by fanning the flames of love he believed to lie deeply entrenched within the heart of every Jew. That love, he taught, is our birthright and our power.

Today, there is scarcely a part of the Jewish world that is not influenced in some way by the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings, some more profoundly than others. But perhaps not all have learned to apply those ideas to the Day of Judgment. In contemporary context, this amounts to a crisis. Add to the ignorance and misconceptions the pain of standing up, sitting down, standing up, sitting down by orders of the rabbi while everyone mumbles words of which no one knows the meaning, and you have your answer to why 80% of Jews stay away from services on the most important day of the Jewish calendar.

As a remedy, the students of the Baal Shem Tov, most particularly Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, revealed to us many of the secrets of this awesome day—a day on which the entirety of the cosmos is renewed from the ground up, as it was on the very first day of Creation. We need to see beyond the external story—that we are being judged. We need to see the inside story—that we take part in the most essential drama of the universe, the renewal of its very existence. And most crucially, we need to see that the most important element of this drama is to renew our intimate relationship with the Creator Himself.