Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

We are now in the 10 days between the holy days of Rosh Hashana and the holy of holies, Yom Kippur. These are the first ten days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, usually corresponding to sometime in the month of September.

The concept of these days as a special unit of time in the Jewish year dates at least to the third century BCE. Rabbi Yohanan, who lived in the Land of Israel during that period, describes his conception of divine judgment and inscription in this season: Three books are opened in heaven on Rosh Hashanah. One book is for the completely wicked, one for the completely righteous and one for those in between. The completely righteous are immediately written in the book of life, while the wicked ones go straight to the book of death. Those in between have their fate suspended until Yom Kippur. If they do well, they will be written in the book of life. If not, then they are sealed in the book of death” (B. Rosh Hashanah l6b).


The Ten Days of teshuva are seen as an opportunity for change. And since the extremes of complete righteousness and complete wickedness are few and far between, Rosh Hashanah functions, for the majority of people, as the opening of a trial that extends until Yom Kippur. It is an unusual trial. Most trials are intended to determine responsibility for past deeds. This one, however, has an added dimension: determining what can be done about future deeds. The Ten Days of teshuva are crucial to the outcome of the trial, since our verdict is determined both by our attitude toward our misdeeds and by our attempts to fix them by changing ourselves.

The famous section in the morning service of Rosh Hashanah is the prayer of the Unetanah Tokef. This prayer reminds us that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there is an opportunity to change our decree through three actions: repentance, prayer and charity. The requirements for repentance include a change of mind, a feeling of regret, and a determination to change, along with an effort to repair the effects of one’s misdeed.

The efficacy of repentance and prayer were the subject of a debate between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, two early third‑century sages from the Land of Israel. Rabbi Judah teaches that “repentance cancels half the punishment for sin while prayer cancels all the punishment,” while Rabbi Joshua takes the opposite viewpoint. Another early Talmud sage, Rabbi Hanana bar Yitzhak, recounted a legend of a meeting between Adam and Cain. Adam said to Cain, “What happened regarding your punishment?” Cain replied, “I repented and my sin was forgiven.” When Adam heard this he banged his head and said, “So great is the power of repentance and I did not know about it!”

Another important rabbinic tale about repentance concerns the famous Elisha ben Abuya (of the first to second century CE), who was urged by his pupil, Rabbi Meir, to repent. He replied that he could not. When asked why that was so, he explained that he had once ridden by the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur and had heard a voice proclaim, “Return, O rebellious children, I will heal your afflictions [Jer. 3:22], except for Elisha ben Abuya, who knew My power and rebelled against Me” (J. Hagigah 2.1, 77b). This was Elisha’s greatest test, since repentance is always open to everyone. In spite of what he heard he should have tried any way.

We go through out our lives always thinking of how to behave and what we should do. We are concerned with how we are looked upon by our peers and our superiors. We always want to be accepted in whichever circles we belong. In society if we do wrong we deserve punishment with no mercy. One might commit a certain crime such as stealing, and the law is clear and dry. In a regular court of law there are no emotions of regret, prayer or charity. Just imagine you made some mistake on the road and the police caught you, and you pray or give some coins to a poor man. Do you think the police will say, Oh you can go. I see you have changed your ways? This sort of thing doesn’t happen down here. However up in the heavenly courts, that is exactly what goes on. G-d is merciful and loves his children more than we can understand. He isn’t interested in punishing just because we did wrong. More than pure justice, G-d looks for our repentance, our humbleness, our regret and our desire to do good in the future.

How quickly our mental state of mind changes in a matter of seconds if we were to be pulled over by a police officer. As soon as the cop is standing by our side we begin to beg, pray and plead, anything just to soften the blow. That transformation from haughtiness or pride or any mood we might have been in just seconds before all changes when we suddenly feel we must fight for our lives. What the almighty is looking for is not for the punishment and to show how strong and powerful he is, rather G-d waits for those moments of transformation when we become humble and want to change and do good. It is true that we change our behavior because we don’t want to be punished. However, if at first we change our behavior so as not to be punished, later this act will condition us to want to change not just because of the fear of what will be, but rather because we see how merciful our Father is and we choose to be close to him and make him proud that his children are behaving because they love him and not just because they don’t want a ticket.

Let us pray that all of Hashem’s children be written in the book of life love and happiness. Leshana tova techatevu vetechatemu.


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