I have a custom of making the same joke on the birthday of close friends. I wish them a happy “arbitrary day marking another solar revolution.” They know I’m kidding, and that I do wish them well on their birthday. But there is some grain of truth buried in the jest — why is it important for us to celebrate a day because we happen to occupy the same location relative to the sun as the day you were born?
Similarly, we could train this criticism on one of the holiest days of the Jewish year — Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. What, dare I ask, is so important about having a new year? It’s certainly not just about marking the passage of time. You might say, well isn’t it the day on which we are judged for the entire year? At which point I would ask another question: why does God, an all-powerful and all-knowing Deity, need to judge us on one day? Let’s make it a sliding scale, in real-time, like a stock market ticker that tracks whether you’re up or down that day!
To put it simply: why do we need to be judged on one day alone?
Let’s begin with what the answer cannot be. One cannot say that it would simply be too difficult to track everyone all the time. Better that we give everyone a “final exam” on one day and year’s grades are based on that. No, that’s far too naive, to suggest that God does not possess the mental computational skills to process everyone’s progress at every moment of the day.
So if it is not for God’s sake that an entire year’s worth of evaluation takes place over the span of two days; rather it is for our benefit. And although it may cause a bit of extra pressure during those two intense days for us to be on our best behaviour, it is highly advantageous for several reasons, two of which we will illustrate right now.
Imagine for a moment that you are asked to evaluate your work performance every single hour of your job. Have you been doing better or worse than the previous hour? It would quickly become very tedious overwhelming and would tell you nothing of your improvement over time. Now imagine that you are being asked to review your entire work performance from the time you were 13 until well into your 50s. A bit too much to chew off, no?
There is a reason why we have annual reviews at our jobs and in school. Despite its arbitrariness, a year gives you a good sense of what you’ve done, how much you’ve accomplished, and in what direction you can head the next year. It gives us a satisfying pause, the ability to say, “that was last year, we can start fresh next year.” So too Rosh Hashanah allows us to get a bigger picture of how we’ve lived up to our moral potential with enough of a wide lens to make generalisations, but with enough high resolution that we can make specific conclusions. In other words, Rosh Hashanah allows us to evaluate a reasonable amount of our past, and plan a manageable span of our future.
While the first reason benefits us practically, the second reason benefits us with respect to the judgment itself. If we were to receive a real-time, minute by minute judgment throughout the entire year, it would be brutal. No blemish would go unnoticed, and every single minor tick would count against you. True, it may be a more accurate assessment, but perhaps what God is going for is not accuracy. Perhaps what we say throughout the year, that God is Merciful and Compassionate, is a better reflection of His judgment.
If we have two days of the year to dress in our finest and present ourselves in our best light, then the judgment we receive is less about who we are, and more about who we could be. It’s hard to be a human being and God knows that. What he cares more about is if we understand our potential as much as He does. Under those conditions, God tells us that if we know who we could be, then we deserve another year to try to live up to it.
As we approach this most awesome of days, let us remember that this is not some arbitrary day marking another solar revolution. It is also not a tax audit or a final exam. It is a day granted to us, with generous compassion, to help us become aware of our own progress, and to prove to ourselves and to God that we are capable of using this year to become the people we know we can be.