The Rambam famously wrote in Hilchos Teshuvah (3:4) that, “Although the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a decree from Hashem, there is a remez – secret – behind its blowing. That is that the sound of the shofar is to remind us to wake up from our slumber and inspect our actions, do teshuvah, and remember our Creator. And those who have forgotten the truth and wasted their time should look into their souls and inspect their way of life. They should leave the wrong path that they find themselves on.”
It is evident from this Rambam that he believes that on Rosh Hashanah one should do teshuvah, as he says that the shofar is to awaken us to do teshuvah. Indeed it would seem appropriate for one to do teshuvah on Rosh Hashanah, as it is part of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.
However, the Rambam says in the second perek of Hilchos Teshuvah that the mitzvah of teshuvah is comprised of four components: vidui (confession), charatah (regret), azivah (stopping oneself from sinning again), and to make a kabbalah (resolution). The Rambam also says that one must verbalize his confessions in order for them to be valid.
The Acharonim were bothered by the following question: Why don’t we find the teshuvah process to be a part of the Rosh Hashanah davening as we do on Yom Kippur? There are no customs to do the teshuvah process on Rosh Hashanah. So, if the shofar is to remind us to do teshuvah, and Rosh Hashanah is seemingly an appropriate day to do teshuvah, why don’t we perform any of the teshuvah processes on Rosh Hashanah?
Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, zt”l, explains that the teshuvah of Rosh Hashanah is different from that of Yom Kippur and that of the mitzvah of teshuvah in general. The mitzvah of teshuvah indeed requires the above-mentioned four-step process, and that is what we do on Yom Kippur as well. This form of teshuvah atones for and wipes clean one’s sins. However, on Rosh Hashanah we do not do teshuvah on individual sins; rather, as the Rambam said earlier, the teshuvah that we perform on Rosh Hashanah is to awaken us from our sleep, remember our Creator, look into our souls, stop wasting our time with nothingness, and leave the wrong path and return to the right path. The teshuvah of Rosh Hashanah is not intended to remove any individual sins; instead it is to changes one’s life’s path, outlook, and direction.
Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, and it is the first step in the teshuvah process of the 10-day period. The days following Rosh Hashanah are focused on the mitzvah of teshuvah for individual sins – culminating with Yom Kippur.
Rav Yisrael Salanter asked a famous question. He asked that the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah are seemingly out of order. The more logical sequence should have been to first have seven days of teshuvah, then a day of forgiveness, and then have the judgment .Why do we have a yom hadin – judgment day – at the onset of the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah? Rav Yisrael answered that Hashem understands the mentality of human beings, and as such He knows that if we do not begin the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah with a shock we would not do teshuvah. Therefore, Hashem began the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah with “shock treatment” or the yom hadin, which enables us to then begin doing teshuvah during the remainder of the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah.
In a similar note based on the Rambam mentioned above, we can explain that the reason that the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah begin with Rosh Hashanah is because the avoda of Rosh Hashanah is what prepares us to do teshuvah on our individual sins. The first step is for us to realize that we are on the wrong path. We must first experience Rosh Hashanah and the shofar blowing to wake us out of our slumber, and realize that there are things in our lives that we must change.
May we all merit a favorable judgment this year, inscribing us in the book of life, amen.