Joy on Rosh Hashanah

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

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Awe and Joy on the Day of Judgment

Rosh HaShanah is the Yom HaDin (the day of judgment). Is there any heart that does not tremble from it? Just as a person is afraid when he stands in court, so is Rosh HaShanah a time of trepidation, where we stand before the King of all kings. There is a natural fear that all people have of the judgment of Rosh HaShanah, each person on his own level.

But on the other hand, Rosh HaShanah is also described as a joyous time. It is written, “Eat from the fattest foods and drink sweet beverages…and do not be sad, for the joy of Hashem is their splendor.”[1]There is a mitzvah to eat, drink, and be joyous, on Rosh HaShanah. Some opinions even forbid fasting on Rosh HaShanah, because it is a time of joy.

What is the joy that takes place on Rosh HaShanah? The fear of Rosh HaShanah we are all familiar with. We know it is the time where people are judged, where life and death is decided; naturally there is a fear on this day. But it is hard to understand why Rosh HaShanah is also a joyous time. What is this happiness all about?

Joy: When Sin Is Removed

It is well-known that the Arizal said that he mainly reached his high levels of comprehension through simcha (joy). Let us think into this.

The simple-known reason of the Arizal’s success is because he intensely desired the Torah and he was aware of its value. It is certainly true that he valued the Torah very much, and that he appreciated holiness. The Arizal found joy in the Torah, before he became the Arizal. Now that we have his writings, it became easier for us to find joy in the Torah, but the Arizal found joy in the Torah way before he composed his writings, through his exertion in Torah and in doing the mitzvos. The joy he had from Torah and mitzvos enabled him to reach all of his great revelations.

This is the simple understanding of how the Arizal found his great joy. There is also a deeper reason, though.

It is written, “G-d created man upright, but they seek many calculations.”[2] Originally, man was yoshor (upright), and after Adam’s sin, man fell from the state of yoshor into the state of seeking “many calculations”: all kinds of rationalizations that lead to sin.

Why does man become sad? The word for “sadness” in Hebrew is “etzev”, from the word atzavim, “images”, a term for idol worship. Had Adam HaRishon never sinned, no one else who came after him would have been enabled to sin; there would be no sins in the world. There would be no idol worship in the world; every sin is a degree of idol worship. If we would live in a world in which there is no sin, there would be no sadness.

Sadness happens because the soul deep down is in pain that it has sinned. It is pained that it has become distanced from her Creator. (This is at the root of the matter. When we analyze the branch of the matter, it is because the body enables sadness, for the body is created from the element of earth, which is the root of sadness).

When a person is found living with Hashem, there is “Splendor and joy in His place.”[3] There is no place for sadness in Hashem’s abode. “One cannot come to the king in sackcloth” – this is not just because it is a dishonor to the king to come in sackcloth, but because the palace of the king is a place of joy, and sackcloth is a connotation of pain and sadness, the antithesis of joy.

A person can only be sad when he becomes distanced from the Creator. When a person sins, this causes “timtum halev” (blockage of the heart); there is distance between man and his Creator, and then there is sadness.

It seems to a person that he is sad because he has financial issues, or because he has a problem when it comes to raising his children or a problem with shidduchim. But the deep reason of why sadness appears is because of a person’s sins. The sins create a distance between the person and Hashem. A person’s sins might make their appearance in the form of problems with children or with shidduchim, but those things are just the garments that are covering over the real issue. Those problems are not the root of the sadness.

The true joy that a person can know of in his life is: to reach a situation in which he is cleansed from sin. This is when one purifies himself from sins, through doing true teshuvah. The Rambam says that the teshuvah must be on the level in which Hashem testifies on the person that he would never commit the sin again.[4] When one does genuine teshuvah, he becomes happy.

Of Motzei Yom Kippur, it is said, “Go eat your bread happily…for G-d is already satisfied with your deeds.” When one’s sins have become erased, he can then go eat his bread happily. The joy is not simply because his sins have been forgiven; that is also a reason to rejoice, but the depth of the joy is because it is sin that causes sadness, and now that the sins have been removed, there is no place for sadness in the person. When sins are removed, a person naturally finds himself happy, for the soul is connected to the Creator, and this is a natural joy of the soul, where it delights in its very bond with the Almighty.

The Arizal was thus joyous when he learned Torah, because he purified himself from any sins, so that he would be able to learn Torah with proper fervor and awe; together with his exertion in learning. This brought him to joy, and from this joy, he reached awesome levels of comprehension.

Joy comes from returning to our pure state, where we are cleansed from sin. When a person tries to get his happiness from external factors, it can only be temporary happiness, and it is minimal. True joy is only when a person removes from himself the reason that is responsible for all sadness in the soul – sin.

The Joy on Rosh HaShanah – Passing Before The King

This also helps us understand the joy that is present on Rosh HaShanah. Although Rosh HaShanah is the Yom HaDin, it is also a day of simcha (joy). The reason to be happy on Rosh HaShanah is because it is the day where “All in the world pass before Him, like sheep of a flock.” It is one day of the year where each person is granted a ‘ticket’ to enter before Him.

Throughout the rest of the year, only tzaddikim have access to Hashem’s palace that is opened to them. (They feel Hashem simply at all times. This is the meaning of the 36 tzaddikim who greet the Shechinah each day – to receive the Shechinah is to palpably sense Hashem). A regular person cannot enter into that ‘place’ during the rest of the year. But there is one day a year where all people are given the right to enter before the King of the world: Rosh HaShanah. On this day, there is no one who cannot come before the King of all Kings. When one merits to be with the King of all Kings and to be close to Him, he is filled with joy.

The joy on Rosh HaShanah is thus not to be happy over the fact that it is Yom HaDin (although from a deeper perspective, there is also a concept of having joy in the concept of the Yom HaDin; but we won’t discuss this). The Yom HaDin evokes fear, not joy. Which part of Rosh HaShanah evokes joy? The fact that it is a day of great closeness with Hashem. When a person is close to Hashem – there is “Splendor and joy in His place.”

Thus, the reason to be joyous on Rosh HaShanah is, because a person is passing before the King of the world.

Preparing For Rosh HaShanah With Both Fear and Joy

If a person never thinks on Rosh HaShanah that it is the day where we are guaranteed to pass in such close proximity before Hashem, he is missing the joy of this day. One must therefore prepare before Rosh HaShanah, on two different levels. Firstly, one must reflect on how it is the yom hadin, where all people will be judged for every single action; the more a person has purified his heart, the more he will have a sense of fear. Secondly, one must realize that it is the day where we declare Hashem as king – and all people are granted the right to enter before Him.

Hashem is scrutinizing each person on Rosh HaShanah, and there is no one who goes unnoticed. The simple understanding of this is that it refers to the judgment. But the deeper meaning of it is that Hashem counts each person lovingly, like a father who loves to see his children, like a king who enjoys seeing his people. There is a desire from Hashem, so to speak, to see each of His children, and that is why each person is scrutinized before Him.

There is no day where we are so guaranteed to feel close to Hashem as on Rosh HaShanah! If a person only prepared for Rosh HaShanah with a sense of dread of the Yom HaDin, but he is not aware of the joy of this day, he might merit a good judgment, but he will be missing the point of this day: the fact that Hashem is more fully revealed, in the minds and hearts, of all of us.

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