There is a widely discussed question of why Rosh HaShanah precedes Yom HaKippur. Logically, it would seem to make more sense-and certainly be to our advantage-for the day of Mercy, when we are forgiven for our sins to precede the day in which we are judged for those sins.
Rav Shimon Schwab (1908-1995) answers this question. To appreciate the
answer, we must first analyze the second chapter of Yehoshua (which we read
as the Haftorah for Parshas Shlach). The first city that was conquered by
Yehoshua after entering the land of Israel was Jericho. Yehoshua sent out
spies to reconnoiter the land. The spies stayed in the home of Rachav the
Zonah. There are commentaries who identify Rachav as an innkeeper, basing
the word Zonah on he word Mazon (food). However, as the Gemarah implies, the
simple reading of the pasukim [verses] is that Rachav was a woman of ill
repute-the normal meaning of the word Zonah comes from the word Zenus—(sexual immorality).
Rachav provided the spies with the information that they wanted to hear. “I
know that Hashem has given you the Land, and that your terror has fallen
upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the Land have melted because of
The Talmud asks [Zevachim 116a], “How did Rachav know that the whole country
was in mortal fear of the Jews?” The Gemara is making an inference from
Rachav’s statement that “neither did there remain any more spirit in any
man”. Rachav was testifying to the loss of spirit and initiative based on
personal professional knowledge. She had served as a harlot since she was
ten years old. This was her profession throughout the forty years when the
Jews were wandering in the wilderness. During this period, there was not a
prince or ruler in the area who did not come by and use her services.
At this point of time, at the age of fifty, Rachav repented and actually
converted to Judaism. She confessed to G-d that during her years of sin, she
made use of three devices to secretly bring customers into and out of her
residence: The rope, the window, and the wall. Therefore, she now used these
same three items to help the spies escape from her dwelling and from being
noticed by the Canaanites, thereby saving their lives. She asked that she be
forgiven for her inappropriate use of these devices by virtue of the fact
that she now risked her life and used them for a laudatory reason. This is
the simple reading of the Gemara in Zevachim.
Rabbi Schwab is not satisfied with this interpretation. Rav Schwab asks,
what does it mean that she used the rope, the window, and the wall for
people to sin? She ran a house of ill repute for forty years. Everyone must
have known exactly what was going on in that house. There was no reason to
have a secret entrance by way of the window and rope. After 40 years, who
were these princes and kings trying to fool? What were they trying to hide
by climbing up the wall and entering through the window? Everyone knew
Rachav the harlot and the nature of her business.
Rav Schwab interprets the Gemara differently. The Gemara is teaching us one
of the secrets of Repentance. What finally inspired Rachav to repent? Rachav
was inspired to repent through the realization that after 40 years in
business, there were still people who were embarrassed to walk into her
front door! There were still people who would be so ashamed that they would
only enter by way of the rope, the wall, and the window. The fact was that
after all these years, there were still people who had a modicum of dignity
and embarrassment. They possessed some latent degree of sensitivity and
morality that at least prevented them from committing this sin in a blatant
fashion. Despite the fact that the times and the society were immersed in
immorality, there were still individuals who at least had a sense of guilt,
some remnant intuition of possessing a “Tzelem Elokim” [Divine Image].
Teshuvah can only begin under such circumstances.
Teshuvah can only begin if I do not give up on myself. If I believe that I
am totally worthless, then I cannot begin to think about repentance.
However, when I realize that somewhere deep down inside, there is still the
dignity of man, there is still something holy, then I can use that feeling
and begin the trek down the road to repentance. This is what Rachav meant
when she referred to the rope, the window, and the wall.
The Mishneh states “Don’t be wicked in your own eyes” [Avot 2:13] This is
why Rosh HaShanah must precede Yom Kippur. In order for a person to begin
the process of Teshuvah, he must first realize that he is somebody of value.
He must take note: I am a son of Israel. I have a King in Heaven. I am a
servant of the King. Yes, I may not have been a very good servant, but at
least I can say that I am His servant.
The realization that there is a King and that I am His servant, and therefore that I have self worth, is a prerequisite for the process of Repentance. If we would start the Ten Days of Repentance merely with confession-merely with a recitation of all the sins that we committed, we would overwhelm ourselves with our worthlessness, and we would not be in a position to repent.
On Rosh HaShanah, we never say the words “Al Chet” (upon the sins…) or
“Ashamnu” (we are guilty). Leave the sins out of it, for the meanwhile. On
this day, a person must think about who he is, his vast potential, and his
goal in life. From such a perspective, repentance may flow forward.
The Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) suggests a beautiful Chassidishe insight on
this past week’s portion: “If your dispersed shall be at the ends of Heaven,
from there the L-rd your G-d will gather you and take you.” [Devorim 30:4]
The Baal Shem Tov comments that we would have expected the pasuk [verse] to
read “If your dispersed shall be at the ends of the Earth.” However, the
pasuk says “…at the ends of the Heaven”. The Baal Shem Tov teaches the
same lesson that we mentioned above: The only time that a person can be
gathered back to G-d, is if “Heavenliness” is still present within the
person. If a person feels that he still has a Heavenly attachment – despite
the fact that he may have sullied himself with the pleasures of the earth-then from there G-d can gather him back.
Rachav was a harlot for 40 years, but she eventually married Yehoshua bin
Nun, the greatest man of his generation. It all began with her contemplation
of the wall, the rope, and the window – with her recognition that man – for
all of his shortcomings – still possesses holiness. That must be the
beginning of the path to Teshuvah.
Rabbeinu Saadia Gaon gives ten different reasons for blowing the Shofar.
One is in order to recall the gathering of the Jews at Mt. Sinai to receive
the Torah, where “the sound of the Shofar was very great.” [Exodus 19:16]
Also, we remind ourselves of the future, when the call of the great shofar
will bring an end to our exile.
The Ohr Gedalyahu, Rav Gedalia Schorr zt”l, points out that in the Talmud,
Tractate Rosh HaShanah, many of the laws concerning blowing of the Shofar
are derived from the laws of blowing the Shofar at the Jubilee Year. In the
50th year, all land returned to the family that originally inherited it,
and slaves went free. So we see that the call of the Shofar is connected to
the Shofar blast of the Jubilee, which signified freedom, like the great
shofar at the end of exile will proclaim our freedom. Here as well, on Rosh
HaShanah, the Shofar is calling for freedom-freedom from the evil
G-d freed us from slavery and brought us to Mt. Sinai, where He gave us the
tools to be truly free of the worst master of all. It is easy for a person
to fall prey to laziness, temptation, depression, all derived from the same
source. There is nothing the evil inclination wants more than for a person
to be too tired to care, too upset by his or her perceived inadequacy to
imagine that G-d wants or cares for his or her repentance. Yet G-d gave us
the tools to free ourselves.
Rambam writes in his Laws of Repentance, 3:4: “Although the blowing of
the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a decree of the Torah [a law issued without
an accompanying reason], there is a hint [of meaning] within it, as if it
were saying, ‘awake, sleeping ones, from your slumber, and those napping
arise from your naps, examine your actions and return sincerely to G-d, and
remember your Creator.’”
The Shofar cries out: wake up! You are free! You can set aside all that
came before, and break the chains-break the patterns of misbehavior and
self-destruction which have dogged your path.
This, says Rav Schorr, is the message of the Shofar-to awaken a person
to this freedom, to the promise which awaits every one of us. We have the
opportunity-let’s grasp it. Let us truly hear the clarion call!