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Home » Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah: Humility

Submitted by on September 20, 2014 – 11:19 pmNo Comment | 2,620 views

Shabbat of Penance

The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are Aseret Yemei Teshuva, the ten days of penance and the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of return. This year, the two days of Rosh Hashana lead directly into the Shabbat of return.

Comes the question. After forty-eight hours of prayer and judgment on Rosh Hashanah, have we not yet fully repented before G-d? How much more penance and returning can be asked of us?

That Yom Kippur is still before us makes sense. The Talmudic sages explained that G-d makes His judgment on Rosh Hashana and only seals His verdict on Yom Kippur. It also makes sense that we continue to pray during these ten days lest the positive judgments of Rosh Hashanah be reversed or, G-d forefend, the negative judgments of Rosh Hashanah remain in place. But that we continue to repent and return to G-d during this time is difficult to understand. Once we have repented for our sins and have returned, what more can be asked of us?

On the deepest level it is true that there is no end to repentance. Regret can be experienced on many levels and the closer we draw to G-d, the more sincerely and deeply we regret our sins. Yet, if this were the only reason for the ten days of repentance, we should have an entire year of repentance. After all, King David repented all his life and declared, “My sin is before me all my days.”[1] Are we different?

It appears that the notion of continued repentance after Rosh Hashanah isn’t to deepen our relationship with G-d and broaden our repentance. Rather, it is to correct a defect in our Rosh Hashanah repentance.

Though we were sincere in our regret and genuine in our resolve and confessed our sins, in some way our repentance we left wanting. It was a fault that we could not possibly correct on Rosh Hashanah, which is why we are given a full week and a Shabbat day, to correct and complete it.


Humility is the signpost of repentance. We can’t regret our sins unless we acknowledge our failures. If we don’t confess our errors, we won’t acknowledge that we have strayed. Confession before G-d is a humbling experience; a bitter pill of shame that is the hallmark of regret. It is crushing to the ego to realize how low we have fallen. Despite our best efforts and intentions, despite our previous errors and repentance, we have yet to learn from them. There is a sense of hopelessness. No matter how many times we resolve to change, when a new Rosh Hashanah arrives, we realize that we have sinned again.

How much more humbling can a life experience be? We come, hat in hand, begging for a forgiveness we know we don’t deserve. Yet, we work at it because we really care. We try again. We resolve again that next year will be better despite all our shortcomings, weaknesses, vices and failures. As Rosh Hashanah progresses, a light kindles at the end of our tunnel. We sense that our relationship with G-d is on the mend. Our hope for the future is kindled. We creep out of despair and into the light. Our confidence in ourselves and our future, is thankfully restored. And this, this recovery of sorts, is the defect that the week of penitence and the Shabbat of Return are designed to correct.

The Red Heifer
A curious law about the Red Heifer will shed light on the defect of our Rosh Hashanah penitence.[2] The Red Heifer was a sacrifice through which the ritually contaminated were purified. A perfectly Red Heifer was slaughtered as a sacrifice and its carcass was burned to ash. This ash was mixed with water and this mixture was sprinkled on those who were ritually contaminated through contact with the dead.

Because the Red Heifer purified the impure, our sages instituted many practices to ensure that those who handled it were themselves pure. First, even if they were in a state of purity, they underwent the process of purification. Second, the water that purified the handlers was sprinkled by children who were born in stone houses, built in a way that precluded its inhabitants from ever becoming impure. Third, these children were raised in these homes and weren’t allowed to venture out, until they were old enough to perform the sprinkling, to ensure that they were pure when sprinkling the water.

Yet, despite all these precautions, our sages insisted that before actually handling the Red Heifer, the Priest be ritually contaminated and then immerse in a ritual pool. There was a historical reason for this. The tradition that our sages were handed down from Moses allowed for a ritually contaminated priest to handle the Red Heifer so long as he had immersed in a ritual pool. This teaching is not in the Torah, in fact a simple reading of the Biblical text implies the very opposite. Yet, this was their oral tradition.

In the last two centuries before the Common Era, a group emerged called the Sadducees, who opposed the entire notion of an oral tradition. They insisted on a literal reading of the Bible and rejected the rabbinic traditions. The sages went to great lengths to dispute this erroneous, though pious seeming, approach. One of the measures taken to oppose the Sadducees was to insist that the priest be contaminated in accordance with what was permitted by the oral tradition.

This is the historical reason, but let us delve into an underlying spiritual application. When the priest underwent this extraordinary process of exceptional purification, he would have exulted over his upgraded and unique state of purity. It can be assumed that it would have been challenging for him to keep this exultation from turning into pride. Pride smacks with arrogance and impurity, certainly an undesired ingredient for the facilitation of purification.

One of the benefits of contaminating the priest after the extensive purification is to lower him somewhat and demonstrate that he is still subject to impurity. No matter how holy one is, one is always subjected to sliding backwards. Pride makes us forget that and our sages never wanted us to forget.

Days of Penance

The penance of Rosh Hashanah is intense. Similar to the purification process for the priest that handling the Red Heifer, G-d wants us to cover all our bases and repent for every possible sin. He demands that we regret them sincerely and keep Him literally in our thoughts and heart every moment of Rosh Hashanah. This repentance is of the highest scale and its very height is its defect. It can lead to hubris.

Toward the end of Rosh Hashanah, our confidence in our relationship with G-d is restored. But such confidence allows pride to seep in. The next week is ordained a time of penance to remind us that no matter how high we rise on Rosh Hashanah, we can be in need of penance the very next day. It is a week to correct our Rosh Hashanah pride and restore our humility.


[1] Psalms 51:5 as elucidated in Tanya ch. 29.

[2] For this section see Mishnah, Parah, ch. 3 and Maimonides, Laws of Red Heifer, 1:13-14 and ch. 2.

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