The sages tell us that Rosh HaShannah is the day of judgement and yet, rather than reading a portion from the Torah about judgement, we began with the story of Sarah and the birth of Isaac. At that time Sarah was an elderly woman who had prayed for her own child but remained barren all her years. The Torah tells us that ‘God remembered Sarah’, meaning her prayers were finally answered and she gave birth to Isaac.
Why does the Torah tell us that God ‘remembered’? The idea that God remembered implies that He somehow forgot. This is clearly problematic. It is absurd to believe that an all knowing God could forget anything.
Remembering however, doesn’t necessarily mean that we forget.
On many festivals we say Yizkor – we remember parents and relatives who have died. No one believes that we need Yizkor to remind us of our loved ones who have passed on. We never forget them. That is not the point at all. The point of Yizkor is that during our most holiest seasons of the year we should set aside time to recollect what our parents and relatives gave to us, the affect that they had on our lives and on the lives of others and the imprint that they left here in this world which continues to influence us today.
The same is true when God remembers. God remembered Sarah in the sense that He examined her deeds. He examined the effect she was having on the world and when the time was right, answered her prayers. This forms the connection between remembering and judgement and helps us to understand what judgement means.
I want to illustrate this by the following example. Imagine that you are the head of a department in a large company with many different departments. You are responsible for managing the budget for that department, as well as the staff who work for you. One day, you receive an email from head office saying that in order to calculate the departmental budgets for the coming year, there will be an appraisal of each department to assess its performance and profit margin, compared with the previous budget. Furthermore, as the head of the department you must make a presentation to the board of executives, outlining your business strategy for the coming year and to apply for your budget to carry out that strategy.
You frantically begin putting together your presentation outlining all of the things that you have done, all of your department’s achievements, how you want to take the department forward in the coming year and how you need an even bigger budget to achieve it. On the day of your presentation, you nervously enter the board room, connect your laptop and begin your power point presentation. You begin to outline the need for a faster computer network, better office space, more staff and so on, acutely aware that the board are currently reviewing the results from the appraisal.
When you finish, they thank you and tell you that they will reach their decision in the next few days. In the mean time, they will be keeping a close eye on you while they deliberate. You leave feeling relived but also prepared to work hard over the next few days to impress the board hoping they will rule in your favour.
From Rosh HaShannah through to Yom Kippur we are all heads of departments. Every year God gives us a wide ranging budget – our talents, money, happiness, our family, even life itself. God is our CEO and Rosh HaShannah is the day of our presentation. He wants us to ask him for anything we wish for in the coming year, but to bear in mind that it will depend both on our previous achievements and desires for the year ahead. He gives us time to show just how much the budget we are asking for – life, prosperity, health, happiness and so on – means to us and how it will be utilised.
Nevertheless, if we look back over the year we may find that things don’t always add up. We thought our presentation went well. We thought that our friends and family also put together a good case and yet, inexplicably, we do not always come through the year with everything we ask for and yet others, who don’t seem to pull their weight come away with a greater budget each year!
While it is impossible to fathom, we can take comfort from knowing that our logic is not always God’s logic. As the prophet Isaiah writes (55:8-9):
כִּי לֹא מַחְשְׁבוֹתַי מַחְשְׁבוֹתֵיכֶם וְלֹא דַרְכֵיכֶם דְּרָכָי נְאֻם יְקֹוָק: כִּי גָבְהוּ שָׁמַיִם מֵאָרֶץ כֵּן גָּבְהוּ דְרָכַי מִדַּרְכֵיכֶם וּמַחְשְׁבֹתַי מִמַּחְשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Nonetheless, while our CEO may explain that we could never understand how He apportions our budgets for the year ahead, we must still come to Him and make our presentations and pledge that no matter how hard life seems, we will be grateful for the blessings and gifts we have and do our utmost to merit not only what we have, but to receive the sweetness of an even great bounty for the year to come and declare הוֹדוּ לַיקֹוָק כִּי טוֹב כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ – Give thanks to the Lord for He is good; His loving-kindness is eternal.
Shannah Tovah Umetukah