In one of Moses’ last speeches to Israel, he declares that “You are standing today, all of you, before your God.” The Bat Ayin on Deuteronomy 29:9 explains that when Moses is saying “today” he is referring to Rosh Hashana, the start of the Jewish calendar year.
The Bat Ayin then quotes a midrash from Vayikra Rabah 30:7 that states that God forgives the nation of Israel in three different stages. He forgives a third of our sins on the eve of Rosh Hashana, He forgives a second-third of our sins during the Ten Days of Repentance (from Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur), and He forgives the third-third of our sins on Hoshana Rabbah (the penultimate day of Sukkot).
The Bat Ayin wonders as to the timing and significance of Rosh Hashana eve, the Ten Days of Repentance (which includes the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) and Hoshana Rabbah. He explains that each stage of forgiveness is for different types of sin. The first stage is for the sin of illicit relations. The second stage is for sins of theft. The third stage is for gossiping.
He elaborates that God first forgives the sin of illicit relations because He wants the world to start the new year with a clean slate in that department. There is something fundamental about the sin of illicit relations that otherwise prevents repentance in all other matters, both for the individual, but also for the world at large. That’s why it’s forgiven on the eve of Rosh Hashana.
During the Ten Days of Repentance, God forgives for the sin of theft, which is understood to be widespread. It is not only an absolution for bank robbers. It is for all types of theft, big and small. Whether it’s theft of money, theft of items, theft of time. It includes misappropriating someone’s investment of time, effort, resources, trust, confidence. How many times have we failed a friend or loved one? How many times did we “steal” their trust? How many times did we say we’d do something and didn’t do it – always for legitimate reasons, but we nonetheless proved that it wasn’t important enough for us. That too is a theft and is the main forgiveness God grants through the period of the High Holidays.
The final forgiveness is given on Hoshana Rabbah. The Kabbalists explain that it is the day when whatever decrees were written and signed during the High Holiday are finally sealed and delivered for the year, so to speak. And it is reserved for the most pervasive, perhaps the most rampant sin of all. Gossip. And God forgives us of this and of all these sins with just one simple condition (besides seeking forgiveness directly from the injured party where possible). Remorse. We must regret and feel remorse for these failings of character and make a serious, concerted effort to reduce if not outright remove these defects from our interpersonal relationships.
May we appreciate and take advantage of the fresh start and opportunities of a New Year.
Shabbat Shalom and Ktiva Ve’chatima Tova