The Mishna in Tractate Rosh Hashanah (16a) establishes Rosh Hashanah as the day on which God judges all mankind. It describes the judgment of Rosh Hashanah as "all people on earth pass before Him like benei maron". The Gemara (18a) cites several different interpretations of this phrase. According to Rashi, all the different approaches amount to the same concept: that we pass before the Almighty one by one. No two people are judged together. Each of us must individually stand before the heavenly tribunal. We have no one else on whom to rely during this trial; we have no attorney or any other line of defense. Our deeds alone will determine the verdict.
Then the Gemara cites a comment in the name of Rabbi Yochanan that appears to mark a complete about-face in the Gemara's perspective of the judgment of Rosh Hashanah: "ve-khulan niskarin bi-skira achat" - "They are all assessed in a single assessment". This implies that the judgment of this day occurs on the general, rather than individual, plane. God does not assess each person independently, but rather surveys mankind as a whole and renders judgment. How can we resolve this glaring contradiction?
The following explanation was suggested by Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen, a noted contemporary author and lecturer (see: R. David Silverberg, www.vbm-torah.org/archive/salt-chagim/rosh%20hashana-6.htm). The first passage in the Gemara deals with the procedure of the judgment, whereas the second addresses its content and substance. As Rashi explains, every individual indeed passes independently before the tribunal; every person stands trial as an individual. But what are we judged for? What exactly must the tribunal determine?
To this the Talmud responds: every person must give an accounting of how he has contributed to the world - the extent to which he has fulfilled the role for which God placed him on this Earth. This determination requires a sekira achat - a general overview and assessment of the state of the world. The latter will reveal whether and to what degree the given individual has done his/her share. Holes or cracks appearing in the general picture may result from a particular person who has failed to supply his/her pieces to the universal puzzle.
This idea presents a somewhat frightening perspective on Rosh Hashanah. We are tried not for our actions in a vacuum, but rather within the context of the world around us. How have we met the unique challenges of our generation and our particular circumstances? Have we taken our own sekira achat, general assessment of the world, in determining how we spend our time and in what activities we invest our energies and talents? Have we considered the problems and dangers facing the world and Kelal Yisrael today in charting our path of conduct?
This idea is reflected in the famous Chassidic tale about the Rebbe Reb Zushe of Anapoli. Reb Zushe was troubled before he passed away; his friends asked him: “Reb Zushe, of what do you have to be fearful?" He replied, "I am not worried that I will be asked at the gates of heaven why I was not like Moses, or like Rambam or like the Ba'al Shem Tov. I clearly did not have their intellectual or spiritual skills. I am worried that I will be asked: ‘Zushe, why weren't you Reb Zushe?’ I am worried that I have talents and potential that have not been fully used.”
Jewish tradition indicates that these are the questions each of us must ask ourselves as we prepare for this Day of Judgment.
Rabbi Dr. Aryeh A. Frimer is the Ethel and David Resnick Professor of Active Oxygen Chemistry at Bar Ilan University. Email – Aryeh.Frimer@biu.ac.il.