Why does Rosh Hashanah precede Yom Kippur? You would think that if our sins were instantly forgiven on Yom Kippur, we would be in a better position on Rosh Hashanah to be inscribed for a new year of life, health and happiness.
Yom Kippur ends the 40-day period of spiritual reflection and moral inventory that began on the first day of the month of Elul. Like Moses climbing the mountain for a second time, we encounter the debris left behind and reflect on our biggest moral failures of the previous year (for Moses and Israel, it was the Golden Calf).
Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Awakening, the day that Adam became aware of the world about him. For us, it is the penultimate day of repentance or teshuvah. Our minds are alerted by the shofar’s calls. We are called to act.
On the 40th day, Moses begged God for forgiveness; Yom Kippur becomes the ultimate day we wipe the slate clean. The process of teshuvah is more than just regretting one’s sinful act. According to the Rambam, for it to be effective, a decisive personality overhaul is required so that this person is not the same person who committed the sin. It is only logical that Person B should not be punished for a sin committed by Person A.
That may explain why the punishment, as exercised by humans, can be rescinded, but that does not undo the act. Only God can accomplish that: “I will have wiped away your willful sins like a thick mist and your transgressions like a cloud” (Isaiah 44:22). When a mist has cleared, not a trace of it remains.
Yom Kippur is a day of Purification. “For on this day, atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you” (Leviticus 16:30). Imagine a car wash. We vacuum out the carpeting and clean the interior fully. Then we wait to get on the track that leads through a tunnel. During the 10 days of repentance, we give ourselves a full scrubbing and allow the rinse cycle to bring through our shine for Yom Kippur Day. Our fasting represents an end to the process of purification. We have entered a contemplative space where only angels tread. We have no bodily needs or desires. They are left behind, as we rest in God’s presence, our Creator and Maker, and take comfort in the gift of another year. Ultimately, the 40-day journey has not exhausted us; we don’t feel put down or defeated after scraping the scum of the old year. We celebrate our humanity, for we are God’s children. Yom Kippur is truly the rebirth of the New Year!
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman is the rabbi of New Light Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.