By Rabbi Eli Yoggev
The High Holidays are all about mending our ways and atoning for our sins. To be sure, this is the central theme of the Yom Kippur service. We literally recite the vidui (confession) from morning until evening. That is why it is so fascinating that on Rosh Hashanah we make no mention of sin. We actually distance ourselves from it as much as possible — to the point that there is a custom to not eat walnuts on this day because their Hebrew name shares the same numerical value as the Hebrew name for sin! Instead, we focus on Hashem’s kingship. We chant Avinu Malkeinu, our Father our King; we coronate Hashem as King with our shofars; and we speak about divine kingship in the malchuyot section of the Amidah.
How do we make sense of all of this? One of my favorite High Holidays d’var Torahs, originally taught by Rabbi Avigdor Neventzhal, the former chief rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, helps put the pieces together. He explains that there are two ways to go about demolishing a building in order to rebuild it once more. The first is to go floor by floor, from the top down, until the building is razed to the ground. The second is to begin from the foundations. Once they are uprooted, the rest of the building follows suit. The second method initially takes more work, but makes it easier to bring down the higher floors down the road.
The same goes, Rabbi Neventzhal explains, for the process of uprooting sin during the High Holidays. On Rosh Hashanah, we take the second path. Instead of focusing on each “floor,” each individual sin, we go straight to the “foundations” of sin. One of the central reasons people commit transgressions is that they forget there is a supreme G-d who is looking out for them and guiding their lives. They forget the King! On Rosh Hashanah, we return to this idea over and over again to help fortify this foundation of faith within us.
This explains the omission of sin throughout Rosh Hashanah. We want to uproot sin on a foundational level through coronating Hashem as King. Through doing so we pave the way for us to knock on our hearts on Yom Kippur and witness the rest of the edifice of sin come tumbling down! It is from this deep place of faith that we proceed to rebuild our spiritual lives as the new year begins.
Rabbi Eli Yoggev is a rabbi at Beth Tfiloh Congregation.