The Trembling of the Angels1
“Hug your judge” is not a slogan you are going to hear much. Judges are not
the first we associate with warmth, affection and closeness. Yet Rosh
Hashanah asks us to relate to Hashem as Judge , more so than any other
time of the year. Paradoxically, it also calls upon us to take advantage of
Hashem’s closeness to us – more so than any other time of the year!
Rosh Hashanah seems rife with contradictory moods and mixed metaphors.
What demeanor is appropriate on a day of such awesome consequence? With our
lives hanging in the balance, we would expect to be somber, petulant – and
dejected about the sorry state of our spiritual portfolios. Unlike other
holidays, we refrain from reciting Hallel. How could we, asks the gemara,
when the Books of life and death are open before the Judge? Yet, we are
instructed to treat it as a Yom Tov. Tehilim refers to it as a chag.
We laud it in our davening as a day given to us with love. We wear our
holiday finery, a practice not lost on the Yerushalmi, which contrasts
this practice with the conservative and somber clothes that people generally
wear in the courtroom when their lives hang in the balance.
Rosh Hashanah’s established role as the day of Divine accounting and
judgment disappears precisely where you would expect it to show itself. In
our davening, we do not (unlike Yom Kippur) look back at our behavior of the
previous year. We do not stand in contrition and remorse (again, unlike Yom
Kippur), offering tearful pleas for forgiveness. Most importantly,
throughout the long and beautiful Rosh Hashanah davening, this
all-too-obvious theme of Divine judgment is given only passing mention by an
oblique reference here and there. Why do we not put this idea front and center?
The tension between themes is an ancient one. When the small community in
Yerushalayim wept and mourned on Rosh Hashanah in contrition for their sins,
Nechemiah objected. He ordered them to enjoy good food and drink, and
to make sure that others would be able to share it. He tells them not to be
mourn and cry. Why should he not have been delighted that the people were
so genuinely disturbed about their misconduct? Is this not what Rosh
Hashanah is for?
Even the judgment aspects of Rosh Hashanah puzzle us. Who has not been
moved by the haunting words of Unesaneh Tokef, with its chilling evocation
of the awesomeness of Divine din? Why, even the angels tremble anticipating it!
Angels? Trembling? What ever for? Do angels have free will? Do they get
it wrong, like we do? Is there a Book of Life for angels?
The mystery starts with Chumash itself. The Torah points to the themes of
the different Yomim Tovim: cherus/freedom on Pesach, simcha on Sukkos,
kapparah and taharah on Yom Kippur. A few are left out. Why isn’t the
Torah more up front about Shavuos being the time of kabbalas HaTorah?
Chazal tell us what Shmini Atzeres is about, but why is the text of the
Torah virtually silent about its theme? The Torah describes Rosh Hashanah
simply as a day of teruah, of sounding the shofar. It tells us what we do on
the day, but not what the day is.
If we look for the essence of Rosh Hashanah in the judgment theme, we are
looking in the wrong place. Judgment is the consequence, not the core idea.
Rosh Hashanah, rather, marks the annual renewal of the world. It is the
anniversary of the Creation of Man, the purpose and culmination of all of
Creation. On this day, explains the Ari, all things return to their
pre-history. The world is licensed one year at a time. At the end of a
yearly period, it must be created anew.
Shabbos has a similar function. The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh, teaches us that
Hashem places just enough of whatever it takes for the world to last for six
days. Existence passes to the next week only through what He invests in it
The Ari z”l taught that Rosh Hashanah works similarly. The unit of time
that we call a year has real substance in the eyes of the Ribbono shel Olam.
When it comes to an end, all things return to where they came from. They
are put back into effect, back into what we experience as existence, only
through the vehicle of Rosh Hashanah. “This day is the beginning of your
creation, a remembrance of the first day.”
This is the true central theme of Rosh Hashanah, a nature so profound that
the Torah did not wish to frame it in words – just as it does not explicitly
describe the role of other days of greatest kedushah, like Shavuos and
Shmini Atzeres. All other aspects of Rosh Hashanah flow directly from this
theme, and are subservient to it.
The annual renewal begins with an accounting of all things. It measures the
performance of each and every element of the world, measuring how it fits
into Hashem’s Grand Scheme for the unfolding of human history. Elements
that are not performing, or are no longer needed, simply disappear into the
abyss of the past. They are not recreated. The world’s lease on life
expires; a new one is granted only to those receiving passing marks in the
This has nothing to do with free will. It applies to absolutely everyone
and everything, Jew and non-Jew, animate and inanimate.
It even applies to the angels.
As powerful a concept that this is, it is only half the picture. Our
tradition tells us that whatever it is that this world is supposed to
accomplish, Klal Yisroel is the vehicle to make it happen. The equation
becomes frighteningly simple. No Klal Yisroel (chas v’shalom), no world.
If there is a renewal of the world each Rosh Hashanah, it follows that there
is a necessary and parallel renewal of the bris between Hashem and us, a
reinvention of the covenant between us. “You all stand this day before
Hashem…that you should be entered into a bris with Hashem your G-d.”
The plain meaning of the text refers to the words of reproach and
encouragement that Moshe gave to the Jews of the wilderness at the end of
his life. The sefarim ha-kedoshim see an allusion in the words “this day”
to a continuing event: to Rosh Hashanah each year, and our standing before
Hashem in a new covenant. The ability of Klal Yisrael to implement Hashem’s
design, to carry His wishes closer to completion, is the essence of
“crowning” Him as the regnant Power on earth. Each year on Rosh Hashanah,
we renew His coronation by renewing the covenant between us.
This covenant is the reestablishment not only of the fact of the
relationship between us, but of the quality of that relationship. Without
one special quality, we simply cannot do our job. This all-important
quality is the breaking of all barriers between a Jew and his Heavenly
Father. There are, ultimately, no veils, no curtains, no walls between the
heart and soul of a Jew who seeks closeness with his Creator, and the object
of his yearning.
Sanhedrin 64A illustrates the point, by contrasting two kinds of connection.
Many Jews fell to the wiles of the Midianite women, and became “attached/
nitzmadim” to Baal-Peor. The survivors, not long afterwards, are praised by
Moshe as also being attached – properly so, this time, to Hashem. The word
that the Torah uses there, however, is not nitzmadim but devekim. The
Gemara sees common ground in the word nitzmadim and tzamid, a woman’s
bracelet. Rashi explains: A bracelet is attached, but free to move in
place, from side to side. Davekim, clinging, connotes a stronger attachment
We’ve been there before. At Har Sinai, we attached ourselves to Him so
perfectly that our souls fled our bodies. This is part of what Rabbenu
Saadya meant when he included Sinai as one of the ten items that sounding
the shofar on Rosh Hashanah reminds us of. Each year, some spark of the
devekus we felt at Sinai is available to us on Rosh Hashanah, as we renew
the bris between Hashem and us. It, too, as well as the Divine judgment, is
an outgrowth of the main theme of Rosh Hashanah: the renewal of the world,
and the renewal of the special relationship between Hashem and His people.
Part of this renewal is providing us with the spiritual wherewithal to
continue serving Him adequately. Thus, at least for those who understand and
accept the mission, it is a time of forgiveness!
(The sense of devekus does not dissipate after Rosh Hashanah. It grows,
reaching a climax on Yom Kippur. On that day, the is so strong, that it is
the attachment itself to Hashem that eradicates our sins. No sin - all sin
is imperfection - can exist within Hashem. When we are united with Hashem,
our sins are left with no place to go!)
There is no contradiction between seeing Hashem as Judge, and yet feeling
confident in His mechilah. If we pass muster in the key area of our
commitment to His service, the details of our past mistakes can and will be
dealt with painlessly.
This event is cause enough to treat Rosh Hashanah as a holiday. This is why
the machzor returns again and again to the theme of proclaiming Hashem’s
Kingship, and slips in only a few mostly oblique references to the
strictness of His judgment. Our job on Rosh Hashanah is to recommit
ourselves to the mission of His service. The rest is commentary.
Not so easy, you say? The explanation is elegant and compelling, but can we
meaningfully access this possibility of devekus? Do we really get there?
Listen to the advice of the Zohar. In gratitude for her hospitality,
Elisha asked the Shunamite woman, “What can be done for you? Would you like
to speak to the king, or to the general?” She demurred. I don’t really
have any issues with people in high places like them. “I dwell among my
people.” The Zohar tells us that this dialogue occurred on Rosh Hashanah,
and addressed what weighs on most people’s minds.
“Today is the day of judgment,” said Elisha. “Would you like me to take up
your case with the Ribbono Shel Olam? I can try to put in a good word!”
“Thanks, but not really,” she answered. “I will take my chances from within
the Jewish people as a whole. I do not wish to be singled out.”
She was correct, says the Zohar. Our best position is to situate ourselves
well within the Jewish people. Hashem’s rachamim towards Klal Yisrael in
its entirety never wavers.
After each round of shofar-sounding we ask Hashem’s compassion, “either as
children, or as servants.” This is really what Rosh Hashanah is all about.
Will we be judged to be mere servants, or will Hashem see us as His
children, as united and connected as family members?
The practical consequence of this Zohar is clear. Closeness to Hashem is
within range on Rosh Hashanah. If we do not feel it innately, we ought to
accentuate the parts of our avodah that require the many, rather than the
individual in the privacy of his own thoughts and deeds. We need to pitch
in with the tzibur, to join in on serving Hashem as a part of the larger
group. In this way, we open ourselves up to the embrace of the Heavenly
Father. As we feel that closeness, we can sign on to the new covenant that
is formalized on that day, and in the process sign ourselves into the Sefer
1) The passage from the Zohar recited before the sounding of the shofar
stresses Hashem’s love for justice, and the need to remind the world that
there is Judgment as well as a Judge. Chazal (Rosh Hashanah 18A), on the
other hand speak of the Ten Days of Repentance as the time that He is
closest and most accessible
2) Rosh Hashanah 32B
3) Tehilim 81:4
4) Rosh Hashanah 1:3
5) Nechemiah 8:10-11
7) Devarim 29:9,11
8) Part 2, 44B
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org