Every year, we stand accused. The synagogue becomes a courtroom. God sits as judge, the Torah as prosecutor, and we the defendant standing trial. The world is judged collectively on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, according to the Mishnah. But on Rosh Hashanah, we are judged individually — “all who enter the world pass before God one by one.” It is deeply unsettling. At stake, if not life and death, are an upheaval of conscience and a dreadful sense of shame. And it is highly unconventional. Ours is a culture of acceptance. It is considered impolite to judge, to be judgmental. It is deemed unhealthy to live with guilt or shame.
Why do we enter into this drama of judgment each year at the High Holidays?
Rabbi Harold Kushner tells a story about a man who ascends to heaven at the end of his life and finds himself standing before two doors — one marked “Judgment” and the other marked “Impunity.” He must choose. Judgment carries accusation and the risk of punishment. So, he turns toward Impunity. What would that mean? All is wiped away — the agonized moral choices, the moments of courage, and the acts of cowardice. Impunity means nothing in his life mattered, nothing resonates in the universe. Judgment or Impunity? The man chooses Judgment.
There is dignity in accountability. To be judged is to be visible, to be significant. Remember who you are, taught the sage Akaviah ben Mehallel in Pirkei Avot: “You come from nothing and your end is nothing, but you are called to give account of yourself before the Supreme Holy One.” Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “The deepest human longing is to be a thought in God’s mind, to be the object of His attention. He may punish and discipline me, only let Him not forget me, not abandon me. This single desire which links our life and our death will be fulfilled on the Days of Awe.”
What is judgment? In our very first interaction with the Divine, man and woman hid. God called to us, “Ayecha? Where are you?” Judgment is not about punishment. Judgment is a search for truth about the self. Judgment is the antidote to the human propensity to hide, to evade, to lie. Most especially, judgment aims to reveal the lies we tell ourselves.
“Nothing is easier than to deceive oneself,” taught the Hasidic master Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. In Heschel’s retelling of this teaching, “as the mind grows sophisticated, self-deception advances.” Lying to ourselves may be built into human personality. According to research, as early as age 3, children exhibit a “positivity bias,” a tendency to exaggerate their own positive characteristics. By adulthood, we draw pictures of ourselves that are more attractive, more capable, more moral than we really are. Why do we lie to ourselves? To feel better about ourselves. To shield us from realities we are unable to face. To evade responsibility and deny the consequences of our choices. To forestall the need to change. The problem is that self-deception keeps us from growing.
We stay stuck. We can’t fix what we don’t admit. Din, the struggle for truth, is the beginning of teshuvah, personal change.
On these holidays, we pray God might move from the throne of din, judgment, to the throne of rachamim, merciful love. We pray not to dismiss judgment but to temper its aftermath. The appeal for leniency comes only in the penalty phase of the trial. First, we must ascertain the truth. Because the only way to authenticity, to growth, and, ultimately, to God, is truth — and the way to truth is din.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., and an instructor at the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the American Jewish University.