Have you ever wondered, why is it that Rosh Hashana precedes Yom Kippur? It would make so much more sense if Yom Kippuer came first. After all Rosh Hashana is the day of judgement. We and everyone we know receive their fate for the year on this day.
Yom Kippur is the day for saying sorry and gaining atonement. It would make sense that we seek forgiveness and set our life in order prior to the judgement.
Yom Kippur and our self correction should come, by all logic, before we have to face trial!
You may have your own way to understand the sequence of experiences. I, for today, want to answer the question through an insight into the Torah portion of this week, that of Valelech.
The parsha, though most known for being the shortest reading of the Torah, is provocative and compelling. The drama of Moshe's life is at its climax. For weeks and weeks we read Moshe's admonishments. He warned the nation he loved and lead with such incredible devotion and patience of the danger before them. He urged and pleaded with them that they continue to adhere to the mitzvotHe implored them to love and fear the G-d who had been so good to them. Here, in Vayelech, Moshe is told by G-d that his time is up. He must ascend the Mountain of Nebo and die as did Aharon his brother before him.
God told Moshe two things in this final communion. First he told Moshe, as they say in Yiddish, "vet gornish helfen", "it won't do any good". In the Torah's words, "And Hashem said to Moshe "You will lie with your fathers and this nation will rise up and stray after the gods of the peoples of the land....and they will forsake me and violate the covenant I made with them."" It's hardly the news Moshe would have wanted to hear.
Then G-d, presents Moshe with the final responisbility of his life. Moshe is commanded an unusual mitzvah. " And now write down this song and teach it to The Chidren of Israel..." What song is Hashem referring to? Rashis tells us it is the song of Haazeenu, found in the reading of next week.
And why? Why write the song? Why teach the song? The Torah is explicit. G-d says that I know this nation will sin. They will be thrown out of the land because of their sins. And in the foreign land, under all that adversity, they will wonder why is all this happening to them. G-d told Moshe that when that day comes the answer will be elusive. G-d says " I will hide my face on that day because of all the evil that you have done..."
And yet even in the time when so much is hidden and so much is lost, the Nation will have this song. "And this song will be for you a witness for it will not be forgotten from the children." G-d told Moshe that this song that you will write will be part of the national legacy. It will remain long after the faithfullness is gone. The song, known and repeated, will remind us of our destiny. When all else is forgotten we will still recall the song. And by means of the song we will find our call and identity anew and be restored to our true selves and to our lost land.
I can remember sitting with the elderly in nursing homes, men and women who could not even tell you their names. Yet they could sing the Shabbat melodies of their youth. Songs we remember. Even when all else is lost the melody lives on. That is why in days gone bye all learning, including the Mishna, was passed over in song, that it be remembered.
And so we return to our question about the placement of the High Holidays. Why is Rosh Hashana, the day of judgement observed before Yom Kippur, the day we seek atonment? Why indeed?
The answer the parsha is teaching us is that in the place where most of us live our lives we don't even know who we are. How can we know the address to where we need return. Our mediocrity, fueled by the galut, is so pervasive we don't realize we are compromised. We have lost our identity. We have forgotten our destiny. What sense can be made out of teshuva, repentence and return if we do not have a sense of what we are meant for and what we are missing.
And then comes the shofar of Rosh Hashana, the sound, the song, that which is non-linear, the melody that breaks through the haze of mediocrity. We hear the melody of Sinai even when the words and the experience is all but forgotten. We feel the sacrifice of all those who went before us from Avraham and Yitzchak at the Akaida, when the ram was slaughtered, symbolized by the shofar, to those who perished in the Shoa and in the defence of the Jewish State. Their sacrifice is no longer history but alive and compelling. In the notes of the Shofar and in its visual image we connect to the buried within. We hear inner calling to commitment, excellence and sacrifice..
It is only after Rosh Hashana, after we were stirred through the song to awarenesses forgotten and after we reclaimed in the shofar's image and sound our private role and national agenda that we can come to Yom Kippur mindful of our journey home. We may pause on the road. No matter how tempting, we must never stop. We must not accept anything less than the fulfillment of the prophetic vision for us as the end of the road.
Our fathers and mothers past, our G-d and Creator, our very selves now awake to the call, will not let us rest until we have reclaimed the spiritual greatness that belongs to each of us and to our People.
Yes, now we remember. Quick, lets reach for the excellence that is our calling.
Now, before we again slip back into the haze that is the banalilty of life. Now let us become the chidren in whom our G-d delights!
G'mar Chateema Tova