[If you are interested in my three shiurim on Rav Kook's Orot haTeshuvah, they are now on-line here, here and here. Note that the source sheets have quick translations of the cited lines from Orot, but the sheets also contain a link to the Hebrew edition of Orot haTeshuvah, available on-line here.]
Why do I need Rosh haShanah, when Yom Kippur is coming? Why bother sweating through Elul, Selichos and a Day of Judgment when I know that HaShem’s mercy is just one week distant, the product of a simple viduy, a single day’s fasting and a heartfelt neilah?
An answer may lie in the perplexing story of Dovid haMelech and Batsheva.
We know the basic details – Batsheva’s husband Uriah serves in Dovid’s army. Dovid becomes enamored of her and has her brought to the palace. She conceives, Dovid tells her husband Uriah to return home, Uriah refuses, Dovid sends Uriah to the front lines, Uriah is killed. Dovid declares חטאתי, I’ve sinned, and does teshuvah. Batsheva becomes Dovid’s wife, and mother of Shlomo haMelech.
We are also familiar with the declaration of R’ Yonasan, that Dovid did not sin. R’ Yonasan asserts that anyone who says Dovid sinned is mistaken, and the gemara clarifies that this doesn’t mean Dovid really sinned but it’s a mistake to say so – rather, it means that there was no sin. Uriah and Batsheva were divorced, and so on.
The problem is that R’ Yonasan’s predecessor, Rabban Shimon bar Yochai, declared that by doing as he did with Batsheva, Dovid taught future generations that teshuvah is possible, that one who has sinned can return to Gd. Tosafot even says that this is why Tanach records חטאם וקבלת תשובתם - he uses the term חטא to describe Dovid’s actions! What, didn’t Rabban Shimon bar Yochai and Tosafot get the memo? Dovid didn’t sin in the first place!
The explanation seems to be that this is, in fact, a machlokes between R’ Yonasan and Rabban Shimon bar Yochai about how to understand a single sentence in Shemuel Alef. The navi says, “ויהי דוד לכל דרכיו משכיל וד' עמו, Dovid displayed insight in his actions, and HaShem was with him.” R’ Yonasan looks at this pasuk and asks, אפשר חטא בא לידו ושכינה עמו? Can it be that Dovid sinned, and yet HaShem was with him?! Can’t be! Rather, we must conclude that Dovid did not sin with Batsheva. As R’ Yonasan sees it, HaShem would never have associated with Dovid, had he sinned with Batsheva. Teshuvah notwithstanding, one who would commit such an aveirah could never be linked with HaShem.
Rabban Shimon bar Yochai disagrees – Dovid taught us precisely this point, that one can return to HaShem, and HaShem will accept him back. Having sinned does not mean we will be held forever at a distance.
Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur play out the same opposition regarding what it takes to draw close to Gd.
Rosh haShanah is יום הדין, the Day of Judgment, כי חק לישראל הוא, a day of חק, of stone-sculpted law, unchanging and unforgiving. Rosh haShanah is Moshe declaring, יקוב הדין את ההר, Let the law pierce the mountain! Rosh haShanah is Yonah declaring that mercy is an insult to the law! We don’t even bother with viduy and Ashamnu on Rosh haShanah, and we make only the barest mention of teshuvah. Instead, on Rosh haShanah we pass before HaShem כבני מרון, one by one, to face a trial in which there is no clemency. Within the Rosh haShanah vision, there is no room in the perimeter of Divinity for a person who has sinned and strayed, fallen short, missed the mark, whatever term we wish to place upon a display of human frailty. אם עונות תשמור י—ה ד' מי יעמוד, Rosh haShanah says that none deserve to survive for their sins. As far as Rosh haShanah is concerned, אפשר חטא בא לידו ושכינה עמו? It is impossible to believe that Dovid haMelech would have become king, patriarch of the eternal Jewish monarchy, progenitor and namesake of Mashiach, poet laureate of the Jewish nation, if he had sinned with Batsheva. Impossible.
And then Yom Kippur paints a competing vision, in which the Jew who has sinned is promised לפני ד' תטהרו, you shall be purified before HaShem. מה מקוה מטהר את הטמאים אף הקב"ה מטהר את ישראל, Just as the mikvah purifies the impure, so HaShem will purify us. Yom Kippur is the Divine response to Yonah, “How could I not have mercy?” Yom Kippur is a day of ובקשתם משם את ד' אלקיך ומצאת, of seeking HaShem and finding HaShem, of fasting and of korban and of apology, even after all of our sins. Yom Kippur is a day of using the anxiety generated by our sins to fuel our return to Gd, a day when, as Rav Kook said, עיקר יסוד השלימות שלו היא העריגה והחפץ הקבוע אל השלמות, that perfection is not in our deeds but in our desires, not in our perfect records but in our perfect longing for return. In the Yom Kippur vision, as Rabban Shimon bar Yochai contended, Dovid may well have crossed the line of legality – but he returned, and HaShem accepted him back, because HaShem will associate with us so long as we return.
We don’t pasken between R’ Yonasan and Rabban Shimon bar Yochai, with their conflicting versions of Dovid’s actions and of HaShem’s pledged affinity for him and for his line. And we don’t pasken between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, with their conflicting expectations for keeping Divine company. Both claim our loyalty, and hold unique space in the halachic and hashkafic landscape.
In day to day life, our natural tendency is to style ourselves as Yom Kippur Jews, expecting that we will make mistakes and then repent. But, to address our initial question of why we mark Rosh haShanah’s judgment if we will be forgiven on Yom Kippur, we very much need a Rosh haShanah, a day to set the bar high and demand of ourselves that we hit the mark the first time, that we stretch beyond our preconceived limitations to reach for perfection, a day to motivate ourselves with a vision that moves and inspires us to greatness.
There will be plenty of time for Yom Kippur and its message of ex post facto redemption tonight, and during the next week. For now, though, for Shofar, for Musaf, for the remainder of the day, we ask of ourselves, we demand of ourselves, nothing less than perfection.
Like the gemara in Shabbos prescribes for Dovid, like Rosh haShanah commands for us, we set personal standards for the coming weeks and months, resolving that this year we will learn more Torah, that this year we will speak more appropriately, that this year we will focus more on davening than on conversing with our neighbors, that this year we will speak out for what is right rather than settle for what is popular.
The payoff of this Rosh haShanah drive for perfection is not only for ourselves and our own righteousness, but for our children, our nieces and nephews, and our grandchildren.
If we leapfrog Rosh haShanah’s intensity in pursuit of Yom Kippur’s forgiveness, then we teach our children to leapfrog their assignments and responsibilities as well, relying on whatever mercy they can beg from teachers and parents. Better to teach our children to demand much of themselves, to let their reach exceed their grasp as Robert Browning advised - and to teach that by our own example.
Daniel Burnham, an architect who designed, among other things, New York’s Flatiron Building and Washington DC’s Union Station, offered wise advice along these lines, urging us to demand much of ourselves. He advised, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. ”
1. This is more dvar torah than Derashah; I see the freedom to deliver a more simple dvar torah as a benefit of being out of the shul rabbinate.
2. The germ of this idea came from a friend who asked why the gemara in Shabbos is so bent on determining that Dovid did not sin, when the story of his teshuvah and its acceptance is so powerful.
3. The gemara that exonerates Dovid is Shabbat 56b. The gemara that indicates Dovid was modeling teshuvah for us is Avodah Zarah 4b-5a, and Tosafos there uses the term חטא explicitly. The problematic pasuk indicating Dovid's righteousness is Shemuel I 18:14, Moshe's declaration of יקוב הדין את ההר is Sanhedrin 6b, and the Rav Kook quote is from Orot haTeshuvah 5:6.
4. Thanks, Russell, for finding the origin of the Daniel Burnham quote here.