Just as the merits and iniquities of a person are weighted at the time of his death, so each and every year each and every person’s sins are weighed against his merits on the festival of Rosh HaShanah. One who is found to be righteous is sealed for life and one who is found to be wicked is sealed for death. Those of an intermediate status are placed in suspension until Yom HaKipurim. If he repents, he is sealed for life and if not, he is sealed for death. (Maimonides Laws of Repentance 3:3)
1. Maimonides’ understanding of the significance of the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur
Maimonides’ Mishne Torah is one of the earliest codifications of Torah law. The work covers the breadth of halachah, providing the basic laws relevant to each of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot. However, the work is not only notable for its thoroughness. It is also very carefully organized. In his organizational theme, Maimonides often opts for an order that expresses the conceptual relationship between components over an order that would facilitate ease of use as a reference work. For example, each of the festivals is discussed. Purim and Chanukah are grouped together with Purim placed first and Chanukah following. This is the opposite of the order in which these celebrations occur on the calendar. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt’l explains that Maimonides groups these two celebrations together because both were established by the Sages. He places Purim before Chanukah because Purim was first established and served for the precedent for the creation of Chanukah.
Both of the excerpts above are from Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance. The first excerpt explains that the period beginning with Rosh HaShanah and continuing through Yom Kippur is designated by the Torah as a time for repentance. Hashem is “near” and easily reached during these days. Maimonides does not – at this point – provide any indication why these days have been selected and singled-out for this designation. However, in the second excerpt – from the next chapter, Maimonides returns to his discussion of these special days and explains that we each stand in judgment before Hashem during this period. Maimonides’ order is counter-intuitive. One would have expected him to first explain that we are each evaluated and judged during the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and then to explain that because we are each being judged, it behooves us to repent during this period. What is Maimonides’ message in choosing his enigmatic order over the more straight-forward presentation?
Maimonides does not provide a response to this question. However, one conclusion can be drawn. The selection of these days for designation as a time devoted to repentance is not a function merely of their status as a time of judgment. In other words, these days are selected as a time for repentance for some reason other than their role as the period of judgment. What is this reason?
The intent of the Divine law is to lead people towards achieving the true success which is spiritual success and eternity. It makes known to them the paths they should tread upon to achieve it. It makes known to them the true good so that they will endeavor to achieve it and it makes known to them the true evil so that they will guard themselves from it. It accustoms them to abandon the imaginary forms of success so that they should not long for them and should not feel sorrow over their abandonment. It also sets forth the ways of justice so that society will be organized in an appropriate and effective manner and so that poor social organization will not detract them from achieving the true success and will not divert them from striving to achieve this success and the ultimate goal of humanity which is the objective of the Divine law. In this manner the Divine law is superior to the secular law. (Rabbaynu Yosef Albo, Sefer HaIkkarim, 1:7)
2. The difference between secular law and the Torah
In his Sefer HaIkkarim, Rabbaynu Yosef Albo discusses at length the differences between the Torah and a secular system of law. A system of secular law is designed primarily to ensure peace and cooperation among the members of the society it governs. The laws of the Torah also are designed to fulfill this objective. The Torah includes an extensive system of law that regulates commerce and interpersonal relationships and conduct. However, the Torah system has a second objective not included in a secular system of law. The Torah is designed to instill within those it governs basic, truths, virtues, and values.
This second objective is expressed in the Torah in two manners. First, the Torah reveals these truths, virtues, and values. For example, it teaches us that there is one G-d and that Hashem is a unity. It teaches us the value of charity and the virtue of humility. Second, “it makes known to them the paths they should tread upon to achieve” or secure commitment to these truths, virtues, and values. In other words, the Torah does not merely reveal and teach these truths, virtues, and values. It instills them within its followers. This second element is a significant addition to the first. Every parent and teacher appreciates the importance of this second element and the difficulty in devising a strategy for its accomplishment. It is far easier to merely communicate a truth than to inspire a student or child to embrace that truth. Albo is observing that the Torah includes not only a description of fundamental truths, virtues, and values. In includes also a strategy for instilling them within the hearts of its followers. Many of the mitzvot of the Torah are devoted to this process of cultivation and nurturing. These mitzvot create a path designed to lead to our embrace of the Torah’s truths. However, in order to understand the Torah’s strategy for instilling these truths, it is necessary to understand the Torah’s unique perspective on the human cognitive process.
And the nation saw that Moshe was delayed in descending from the mountain. And the nations gathered around Aharon and said to him: Make for us a god that will go before us. Because this man Moshe that brought us up from the Land of Egypt – we do not know what has become of him. (Sefer Shemot 32:1)
3. The strange account of the incident of the Egel
One of the strangest portions of the Torah is its description of the sin of the Egel – the Golden Calf. The nation came to Sinai and heard the commandments of the Decalogue. Moshe left the people and ascended the mountain to receive the Tablets and the Torah. He remained on the mountain for forty days and nights. The people became alarmed that Moshe had not returned and concluded that he had not survived his sojourn on the mountain. They appealed to Aharon to make for them an idol to replace Moshe. Ultimately, their request was fulfilled; the idol was fashioned, and the people adopted its worship. Two aspects of the narrative are remarkable. First, this nation, a short time before, had heard the voice of Hashem declare that they should have no other gods. How is it possible that it abandoned this commandment and adopted the worship of a primitive idol? Second, why does the Torah not offer any explanation for the nation’s rapid and startling demise? Perhaps, this second question is more disquieting than the first. By not offering any explanation for the people’s sudden abandonment of the very commandment that had just been delivered to them through a phenomenal act of revelation, the Torah implies that this behavior requires no explanation or that it is self-explanatory! Yet to us, the behavior of the people seems bizarre and beyond any explanation.
And Moshe went forth with the nation from the camp towards G-d. And they stood at the foot of the mountain. (Sefer Devarim 19:17)
The passage teaches that the Holy One Blessed be He uprooted the mountain from its place and He held it over them like a huge vessel. He said to them: if you accept the Torah, good. If not, there will be your burial place. (Tractate Shabbat 88a)
4. Acceptance of the Torah was the culmination of the nation’s mission
The above passage describes the nation approaching the Sinai. The passage states that the nation stood at the foot of the mountain. However, a more literal rendering of the passage is that the nation stood at the underside of the mountain. Based upon this more literal interpretation, the Talmud explains that Hashem uprooted the mountain, suspended it above the nation, and compelled them to accept the Torah. This interpretation is difficult to understand because it contradicts an important detail of the narrative in the Torah. The Torah tells us that the nation freely accepted upon themselves the Torah with the statement: All that Hashem says we will do and observe (Sefer Shemot 24:7).
The apparent message of the Talmud is two-fold. One element of the message is that the nation had experienced Hashem’s providence because of its role in a Divine plan. Hashem had selected the nation to receive His Torah. He had redeemed them from Egypt and brought them to Sinai for this purpose. The nation’s very existence was conceived and preserved in anticipation of this moment. If the nation will accept the Torah, then its existence will have meaning. However, if the nation will decline to accept the Torah, then its existence will no longer have meaning or significance.
5. The Torah’s perspective on the limits of human cognition
There is a second element in the Talmud’s message. The nation was compelled to accept the Torah. This does not mean that the people were deprived of their freewill. However, they had experienced redemption from Egypt, the parting of the Reed Sea, and traveled through the wilderness. Now, they stood in the presence of Hashem before Sinai. The combined impact and influence of this series of astounding events was so powerful, their acceptance of the Torah was inevitable. In other words, the evidence of Hashem’s omnipotence and presence was overwhelming and the proper path was completely clear.
However, it was the overwhelming impression created by this unique series of experiences that compelled the nation to accept the idea of a single omnipotent and ever-present Creator. Although this generation had been reared in a pagan culture and was steeped in idolatrous practices, the people were able to reject their pagan beliefs and practices because of the combined overwhelming impact of all they had recently experienced. These experiences opened their minds and at the moment they stood before Sinai, the people were able to perceive and embrace a truth that was the antithesis of their former beliefs.
However, this intellectual and emotional breakthrough did not represent a thorough reworking of the people’s personalities and behaviors. Instead, it was a momentary parting of the clouds of ignorance and primitivism that allowed a profound truth to shine through. But these clouds had not yet been banished from the sky. They yet threatened to return and to obscure the truth. With Moshe’s ascent to the mountain and his failure to return, these clouds returned. No longer, could the people see the truth that was clear forty days earlier. In their panic and anxiety, old learned behaviors and attitudes reasserted themselves. The nation responded according to patterns that were familiar and reassuring. The sought an idol to replace the unreliable Moshe.
The narrative of the Egel teaches us a fundamental lesson. Often our ability to perceive and embrace the truth is a consequence of the context in which we find ourselves. We often perceive a truth only because at the moment it is revealed we are open to it. At another time, in a different situation, or in a different mood, we might completely misinterpret the very same evidence. The Torah does not explain the nation’s re-descent into idolatry because no explanation is required. It is their profound – but transient – grasp of truth that requires an explanation. It is explained by the experiences that preceded it. However, the obscuring of this truth requires no explanation other than an understanding of the limits of human cognition.
You grant knowledge to humanity. Grant us from you knowledge, insight, and understanding. (Weekday Amidah)
6. Praying for knowledge
Every weekday in the Amidah prayer, we petition Hashem to provide us with knowledge. On the surface, this is a very strange petition. Most of the other petitions in the Amidah relate to needs that we clearly cannot satisfy without the help of Hashem. We ask Hashem to heal us, to redeem us, to forgive our failings. These are not ends we can secure without Him. However, the acquisition of knowledge, insight, and understanding seem to be within the human purview. If we wish to acquire knowledge, then let us study. If it is insight or understanding we seek, then we must reflect, consider, and analyze. In what manner do we expect Hashem to assist us in this quest? For what are we petitioning?
This petition is another expression of the Torah’s perspective on the limits of the human cognitive process. We believe that we are empowered with the ability to secure knowledge and understanding. We need merely to apply our powerful intellects and the secrets of the Torah, life, or nature will reveal themselves to our probing scrutiny. The Torah’s perspective is that our intellectual prowess is only one aspect of the cognitive process. Our ability to discover and grasp the truth – regardless of our intelligence – is determined by the context in which we find ourselves. If we are in the proper situation, we have been exposed to the appropriate hints, have encountered the facts in the proper sequence, are in the requisite frame of mind, and we are free of any blinding bias, then we may discover the truth. However, without all of these factors properly aligned, the truth may just as easily elude us. Our petition to Hashem represents an acknowledgment of the limits of human cognitive ability and recognition of our dependence on Him for even our grasp of basic reality.
Do not think, my son, to criticize my words and say: Why did Hashem the Blessed One command us to perform all of these (commandments) that are commemorative of that miracle? Would not the matter be implanted upon our consciousness and not forgotten by our descendants with a single commemorative (commandment)?
Know that it is not from wisdom that you criticize me on this matter. Immature thinking influences you to speak thus…. (Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 16)
7. Mitzvot as a cognitive aid
Sefer HaChinuch was composed by a Sage as an educational text for his son. In the above excerpt, the author confronts a question that he anticipates his son will pose. According to Sefer HaChinuch, multiple mitzvot share the same objective. These commandments are designed to remind us of our redemption from Egypt. One can easily identify some of the commandments that share this objective. We are required to read a paragraph of the Torah twice every day that reminds us of our redemption. We mention our redemption in the Kiddush for Shabbat and festivals. We celebrate Pesach with its many mitzvot devoted to this same theme. Sefer HaChinuch anticipates that its reader will wonder why so many commandments are required to communicate a single idea.
Sefer HaChinuch responds that this question reflects a naive perspective on human nature. As explained by Albo, the Torah’s objective is not to merely communicate truths. Its objective is to encourage our embrace and assimilation of these truths. These multiple mitzvot are not required to communicate the message that we were redeemed. However, they are essential to the process of assimilation of this idea into our worldview and perspective.
Sefer HaChinuch continues and explains that we prefer to believe that our actions are a product of our thoughts – that we act in response to our thoughts. However, the opposite is also true. Our thoughts are formed by our actions. Our actions influence our thoughts and perceptions. If we develop a habit of giving charity – tzedakah – in a proper manner, then we acquire compassion for the less fortunate. If we pray daily, then we become more aware of Hashem’s presence. If we constantly remind ourselves of our redemption, then this redemption becomes more than an episode in the history of our ancestors. It becomes part of our personal reality and worldview.
Seek Hashem when He is to be found. Call unto Him when He is close. Let the wicked person abandon his path and every person the iniquity of his thoughts. And let him return to Hashem and He will have mercy upon him and to our G-d for He is abundant in his forgiveness. (Yishayahu 55:6-7)
8. The ten days as an expression of Hashem’s compassion
The prophet urges that we seek Hashem when He is to be found. Of course, Hashem is omniscient. His knowledge of our thoughts and actions is constant. Nonetheless, our Sages understand this passage as a reference to the ten days from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur. Maimonides quotes this passage as supporting his assertion that these days have special designation as a time for repentance. In what sense is Hashem closer to us during these days?
Repentance is a fundamental process in human development. We error, sin, stray, but we have the capacity to repent and to restore our relationship with Hashem. However, the desire to return to Hashem is an expression of an awareness of His presence. Repentance is an imperative that emerges from a clear cognition of Hashem’s closeness. This cognition should be as constant as Hashem’s relationship with us. This relationship never falters neither should our awareness of Hashem. However, the Torah recognizes that this is not the nature of human cognition. Human cognition is fickle and fragile. Our awareness of Hashem must be complete, powerful, and intense if it is to compel us to repent. Potent, repetitive messages are required to part the clouds of our mundane perspective and allow the truth of Hashem’s presence to penetrate. These ten days provide those messages. The blast of the shofar, the moving liturgy, the solemnity of the Yom Kippur fast are a strong wind that – at least for a time – clear one’s consciousness of clouds and allow the truth to penetrate in its full dazzling brilliance. And although Hashem has not changed, to us, He indeed does seem closer and more accessible.
Perhaps this is Maimonides’ message. The special status of these days as a time for repentance is not a consequence merely of judgment taking place. This status is an expression of Hashem’s compassion and kindness. For these ten days, He creates the special context that we need in order to recognize, feel, and embrace His presence. It is through this cognitive breakthrough that we experience the urge to draw closer to Him and to repent.
 This message emerges whether the Talmud’s comments are interpreted literally or as a figure.