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At Four Times the World is Judged-A Message for the Days of Awe

A source in the Mishnah, one of the most important rabbinic texts in Jewish tradition, sees the major Jewish festivals as times when our fate hangs in the balance.

Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2

At four times the world is judged: On Pesach, for the crops. On Shavuot, for the fruits of the tree. On Rosh Hashanah, all the world passes before God like sheep, as it says, "He that fashions the hearts of them all, that considers all their doings." (Psalms 33:15) And on Sukkot, they are judged for the water.

This is a fascinating text. For one thing, it lifts the major Jewish festivals beyond their specific Jewish contexts and makes them universal. The fate of crops, trees, water, and sentient beings are judged at these times of the year.

Another fascinating aspect of this text is the omission of Yom Kippur which we ordinarily view as the most important holiday. But it is also true that Yom Kippur is the culmination of what begins on Rosh Hashanah, that is the period during which we are judged by God.

Notice also that the teaching recognizes that these four aspects of the world, crops, trees, sentient beings, and water are all in some way tied to each other for their existence.

My view is that the text seems to suggest that Sukkot is the most important festival, because without water, none of the other three would survive. But water does not need any of the other three to exist. This reinforces my preexisting opinion that Sukkot is the most important festival of our calendar, especially in the age of climate change.

Based on this text which of the four festivals would you say is most important? How do you understand this text?  I would love to read your thought which you can send to me at dov @ panimhadashot.org

The Days of Awe are a time of reflection and renewal. These festivals can serve as a spiritual autopilot, helping us to adjust our course and focus on what is important for us in the coming year.  We do live in extraordinary, confusing, and scary times. These days give us respite to reflect on them and how we live our lives in our new normal.

May you gain clarity from your meditations and prayers in the coming days. I wish you Shanah tovah v’tkikateivu v’tchamteinu basefer hachayim, -May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.

Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, Convener and Director of Panim Hadashot-New Faces