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The holiday that falls on the first two days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei has many names. Most famously, it is known as Rosh HaShana, the beginning of the year. Yet it is also called Yom Zikaron Tru’ah – the day of remembering the blast of the shofar, Yom Harat Olam – the day of the world’s beginning, and Yom HaDin, the day of judgment.
Referring to Rosh HaShana as the day of judgment reminds us of the period of penitence that we begin the previous month and even more of the days of repentance which the holiday initiates. We are commanded to look deeply at the deeds of our past year, to do “an accounting of the soul,” so that by Yom Kippur we have had the chance both to seek forgiveness from the people we have wronged and ask God for forgiveness for our shortcomings in our relationship with the divine.
The judgment that we are called to do can certainly be a wake-up call and may even lead to us to focus so much on our faults that it becomes a cause for despair. The self-judgment, of course, is meant to be a tool on the path to repentance, and not a goal in and of itself, so if it leads to despair and not so self-improvement it has failed in its purpose.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov offers a different way of understanding the intersection of judgment and repentance, focusing on how the way that we judge others has a direct effect on their ability to improve their behavior. In one of his final teachings to his followers (Collected Teachings of Our Teacher, Rabbi Nachman, Part 1, Teaching 282), Rebbe Nachman explained that judging a person favorably (literally judge every person as being innocent) literally causes whatever good actions he has done to outweigh his failings on the scale of justice. If we are capable of focusing on whatever good exists in a person, no matter how insignificant, that good will eventually overcome a person’s instinct toward negative behavior and will cause him to become a better person.
It is tempting to see Rebbe Nachman’s teaching as indicating a cosmic balance in the world, in which God judges a person based on the way in which other people judge him. Yet the practical applications of Rebbe Nachman’s advice conform perfectly to our understandings of positive reinforcement as a way of encouraging positive behavior. What Rebbe Nachman is saying is that we need to recognize on our own whatever good is in a person, and by doing so, we will be able to identify that positive behavior whenever it arises and reinforce, causing the other person to himself to increase the positive behavior.
Intrinsic to Rebbe Nachman’s teaching is the idea that in order for us to self-improve, others need to recognize the good in us and the potential that we have for improvement. We therefore play an important role in repentance of other people, and we cannot shirk this responsibility. We cannot expect another person to improve his behavior when we do not give them reason to believe both that they are capable of good behavior at all and that their good behavior will have positive consequences. Thus, as we engage in our own soul-searching and accounting, we must also think on the effect that our attitude has on others, and take on the impressive responsibility of aiding other people in their journey toward self-improvement.
However, Rebbe Nachman’s advice does not end with the way we judge others. In fact, the core of his teaching is that each individual must be capable of looking at his own actions and seeing the good in himself as evidenced by the good deeds he has done. As he writes, when a person is feeling that he is filled with sins, he must search until he founds any good that he has done, no matter what the motivation was, and as a result of finding that good, he will recognize his potential to do more good, ultimately leading him to a place where his good actions outweigh whatever shortcomings he has.
While it is clear to see how finding one’s own good graces can have a positive impact not only on one’s self-image but on the entire process of repentance and soul-accounting, Rebbe Nachman takes his advice one step further. According to Rebbe Nachman, “it is known that in most cases a person cannot open his mouth to pray when he focuses on how far he is from living a life of holiness, but when he is able to find whatever good exists within him, then he can pray, sing, and give thanks to God.” What a message for the High Holiday season! While our traditional prayer book points us toward humility, recognizing our shortcomings, and trying to atone for them, Rebbe Nachman reminds us of the power that we give ourselves by simultaneously recognizing each individual’s spark of holiness and our abilities to give expression to them.
It is no coincidence that the traditional Confessional, in part recited by some communities on a daily basis, and in part recited on Yom Kippur, is written in the first person plural and not in the singular. While we must engage in our own accounting on a personal basis, we are forced to recognize the collective shortcomings of our community and our own role in those shortcomings. At the same time, however, during the days of repentance, we meet with our fellow community members to pray together. As our communities join together in song, we see the people whose good deeds affect our world, and just as we know that they have flaws but deserve to be seen as the good people that they are, so too can we rise above our flaws and recognize the goodness in ourselves.
According to Rav Kook, in his commentary to the non-legal aspects of the Mishnah and the Talmud (Tractate Ma’aser Sheni, 7:10), stated that each person should do a “confession” of the successful completion of mitzvoth alongside the traditional confession of sins. Many Israeli prayer books include such confessionals, focusing on such successes as “we spoke kindly, we embraced, we did our best.” Just as in the traditional confessional, so too are these verses spoken in the name of the entire community. It is a reminder to us all of the role the community plays in our explorations of self around the holidays. We must see the good in others, we must see the good in ourselves, and if we come together as a community, we will surely strengthen one another and brings ourselves closer to the people that we strive to be.
Rabbi Arie Hasit is spiritual leader of a newly formed Masorti Kehillah in Mazkeret Batya. He moved there recently with his wife Sara Tova and their 7-month daughter, after being ordained by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in a moving ceremony in Jerusalem on September 13, 2016.