We all know that Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment, when man’s fate is decided for the coming year. It would follow, then, that Hashem had decided this past High Holidays all that would transpire over this year. But it’s not that simple. Let’s study a Mishnah together on the topic of Divine judgment (Rosh Hashanah 1:2):
בארבעה פרקים העולם נידון: בפסח על התבואה בעצרת על פירות האילן בראש השנה כל באי העולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון שנאמר (תהלים ל”ג) היוצר יחד לבם המבין אל כל מעשיהם ובחג נידונין על המים
The world is judged at four intervals during the year: On Pesach, judgment is made for grain. On Shavuot, judgment is made for tree produce. On Rosh Hashanah, all mankind passes before Him single file… On Sukkot, judgment is made for water.
The Mishnah acknowledges that agricultural success depends upon Divine judgment, and that the judgment for seasonal farming – water during rainy season, crops during harvest season, etc. –takes place immediately before that particular season begins. The beginnings of the rainy season, the grain harvest season, and the tree fruit harvest season are Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot, respectively.
Global Judgment and Individual Judgment
But what about Rosh Hashanah? As many of the commentaries observe, if man is judged for the totality of his wellbeing on Rosh Hashanah, including his livelihood, would not that judgment also include how much water and harvest he’ll receive from his farms for the coming year? So what actually happens during those other intervals – hasn’t everything already been decide on Rosh Hashanah?!
This is a complex theological topic that cannot be treated properly in a short d’var Torah. But for our purposes, we cite R’ Yom Tov Lipman Heller (16th cent.), the author of the Tosafos Yom Tov commentary to the Mishnah. Rav Heller distinguishes between individual judgment and global judgment. Regarding global events, such as rainfall levels to the world, fruitful crops to whole regions, and so forth, God decides before each seasonal event how and in what measure that event will take place. These Divine decisions affect entire populations. But how the individual will be affected by those global decisions does not take place until Rosh Hashnah.
On Rosh Hashanah, all mankind pass before Him in single file, and each individual’s fate as an individual is determined. For example, it may have been predetermined on Pesach that the farmland in a particular region would yield a million tons of wheat. But to what degree the individual Farmer John will be the beneficiary of that blessed yield is determined on Rosh Hashanah.
Curses Before The New Years
This insight allows us to understand another cryptic Talmudic passage (from TB Megillah 31b): When the prophet Ezra instituted weekly Torah readings, he made sure that we would read the curses in Parshat Ki Tavo before Rosh Hashanah. He did so “כדי שתכלה השנה וקללותיה” – so that the curses would be behind us before starting the New Year, and we can start the New Year with a clean slate. He also instituted that the reading of the curses in Parshat Bechukotai would always fall out before Shavuot, “so that we could have the curses behind us before the New Year of Shavuot begins.” What does that mean – since when is Shavuot a New Year? The Talmud answers that Shavuot is also a day of judgment in that on Shavuot, God passes judgment on how the trees will produce their harvests.
I believe the deeper meaning of this passage is based on the above. One of the differences between the curses that appear in Leviticus and the curses in Deuteronomy is that the curses in Leviticus address the Jewish people in the plural: “לפניכם”, “לכם”, “אתכם”, etc., whereas the curses in Devarim address each Jew as an individual: “עליך”, “לך”, “אתה”, etc. This is in recognition that we wish to put an end to the curses that befall an individual before Rosh Hashanah, and so the Torah speaks to the individual’s curses. By contrast, before Shavuot, which represents global judgment, we wish to address the curses affecting the nation as a whole, and therefore the Torah speaks to the plurality of the Jewish nation. We put those global curses behind us before Shavuot arrives.
Shavuot & Global Judgment?
But why did Ezra choose Shavuot as the symbol of global judgment? What about Pesach, when the world is judged for wheat, and Sukkot, when the world is judged for water? Here, too, we need to penetrate deeper into the symbolism of this Talmudic passage. Shavuot isn’t just the beginning of the tree harvest season. It’s also the time when Bnei Israel accepted the Torah. As the Talmud states (TB Shabbos 88a), the fate of the world hung in the balance when the Jews came to Mt. Sinai. If they had not accepted the Torah, God was prepared to destroy the world and return it to “chaos and void.” The most global of all judgements, therefore, takes place every Shavuot, when God looks to the Jewish people to see if we’re prepared to accept the Torah once again. And every year since those 3300 years ago, we’ve kept the world running by our annual reacceptance of the Torah.
In having us read the curses before Shavuot, Ezra was signaling that the global decisions affecting the entire world are triggered to some degree or another by the Jewish people’s commitment to their God and to His mitzvoth, which is what we do every year when we reaccept the Torah. If we wish to put the curses of the past year behind us, we’ll need to reaccept the Torah fully, so that the “chaos and void” of last year does not carry over into the future. Instead, our commitment to serve Hashem faithfully will bring peace and tranquility to this chaotic world. Shavuot thus represents a new year of sorts, and provides us an opportunity for new beginnings and second chances.
Let’s take advantage of the role we play for the world. Let’s reaccept the Torah, and use its teachings to make the world a better place. We can do this metaphysically as we’ve mentioned, by affecting God’s choices to reinvigorate the world with His blessings for creation. But we can also do this on a very simple level any time we make a Kiddush Hashem as we interact with our fellow human beings and share good examples of our humanity that are informed by the Torah. May the world be healed and recreated as a result, bringing us to the ultimate redemption, bb”a.