Yom Kippur, Teshuvah and the Gift of Malchus

In New Jersey (where I live), there is a law that requires motorists to stop for pedestrians who are entering a crosswalk. For the most part, this law, passed in 2010, is ignored by drivers. Every so often, however, law enforcement takes the time to “remind” motorists that the law exists.

A little before Rosh Hashanah, I had some business I had to take care of in the municipal building of a town not far from mine. As you may have guessed, in my zeal to secure a parking spot, I drove through a crosswalk at the same time that someone was starting to cross.

I only realized that I had erred when I finished parking my car. A police officer knocked on my window and told me what I had just done. He informed me that I was in luck; they were just trying to spread awareness of the law. The officer handed me a leaflet, and he went on his way.

I would have thought no more of this episode had it not been for my four-year-old son (who at times doubles as my mashgiach) who had come along for the ride.

“What did the policeman want, Ta?”

“I wasn’t supposed to drive through when someone was trying to cross. It’s against the law.”

“So why’d you do it, Ta?”

I had no good answer. The truth was that I had seen the person who was trying to cross, and I knew the law existed. So why’d I do it?

A mussar vort that I like to tell friends came to mind. When Bilam went to curse Bnei Yisrael, Hashem sent a malach to stand in his donkey’s path. When the malach finally revealed himself to Bilam, with his sword drawn, what was Bilam’s response? He said (Bamidbar 22:34): “Chatasi ki lo yadati ki atah nitzav likrasi badarech — I sinned because I didn’t know that you were standing opposite me in the way.” In essence, Bilam told the malach, “I’m sorry. If I had known you’d be watching, I wouldn’t have done it.” I like to point out the absurdity of his answer, but in my case that didn’t work, either. I had seen the police officers in the area, and I still drove through. Why?

Can you imagine if I’d said that to the officer? And while the idea is troubling in and of itself, its applicability to the Yemei Hadin was what was really bothering me.

Is the best argument one can make to the Master of the universe worse than Bilam’s? Not that what was done was done because of neglect to recognize His existence, but rather that there is so little thought given to His laws. How can one expect to get by the Yemei Hadin on something that would never stand up in any court of law?

There is something else that I had misunderstood for years about the Yamim Nora’im.

Many meforshim point out the importance of “Hamelech” and of Malchuyos on Rosh Hashanah. The Yesod V’Shoresh HaAvodah, for example, points out that Hashem told us explicitly, “Shetamlichuni aleichem,” and yet, people can get so caught up in their wants and needs that they forget all about this.

But why does accepting Hashem as our King matter so much? More importantly, why is it something that Hashem is telling us to do?

The answer is clear — if we understand what malchus really is. What is the function of a king? The Sanhedrin’s purpose is to pass judgments, so that can’t be it. Yet we find the Melech being referenced constantly in regard to din.

At a recent gathering in Lakewood, Harav Yisroel Reisman related an idea of the Ran that would answer this question. The function of a king is extrajudicial. While the Sanhedrin has to work by the letter of the law, the king has the ability to adjudicate in ways that take into account things that are not part of the usual judicial process. Another way of referring to the uniqueness of a king is to say that malchus is lifnim mishuras hadin. This middah, explains the Chasam Sofer (Drashos Shabbos Shuvah) is most associated with rachmanus.

But that’s not all. We all know that which the baalei mussar explain — that a prerequisite of a king is to be a rachum. So, in essence, what Hashem is imploring us to do is the only thing that can save us on a day of judgment. Say the pesukim of Malchuyos, we are told, Shetamlichuni aleichem — and then you will be able to have a judgment of rachmanus.

That is why we spend so much time emphasizing malchus in these days. As Harav Scheinberg points out (Derech Emunah U’Bitachon), that is why the day of Yom Kippur can only be after Rosh Hashanah. Although it might seem more appropriate to have a day of judgment after a day of forgiveness, it is only possible to have the rachmanus of a Yom Kippur, he explains, after we have accepted upon ourselves the Kingship of Hashem. Giving us the ability to accept this is just one more way that Hakadosh Baruch Hu is always looking to do what is in our best interests.

After a week of accepting this kind of malchus, and reflecting on the limitless goodness of Hashem, we can understand why there’s no reason to fear the absurdity of the justifications for our actions. We have a day for teshuvah, and the ultimate Meitiv wants nothing more than to accept it, no matter why we did what we did.

We just need to return to Him.