The last days of the year, which lead us to Rosh HaShanah, the Day of Judgment, are days of stock-taking, which every individual should do for himself. If the main part – namely, heart-felt repentance – is there, then the heart cries out and the stock-taking is done almost by itself. But if the main part is not there, people tend to cover this up with excessive detail – just like in the story about an absent-minded fellow who, before going to sleep, wrote down where he put each of his belongings, so that he can find them in the morning; the only thing that he forgot to note was … himself.
What is the nature of this yearly stock-taking? Surprisingly enough, the Rosh HaShanah prayers do not contain any reference to sin; certain prayer versions omit even the transgressions mentioned in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer – because Rosh HaShanah is a festival, and on a festival one does not make confessions of sins. Furthermore, although Rosh HaShanah is also the Day of Judgment, there is almost no mention of Judgment in the Rosh HaShanah prayers – except for the U-Netanneh Tokef prayer, which describes the Judgment. The reason for this is that the judgment – which is the outcome of the overall balance of good and evil, credit and debit – has already been made (albeit not finally sealed).
The theme that is repeated over and over again in the Rosh HaShanah (and Yom Kippur) prayers is the prayer for the revelation of G-d's Glory in the world. Our lives are filled with various kinds of questions, small ones and big ones. The main question that everyone ought to ask on Rosh HaShanah is – what have I done to help reveal G-d's glory in the world? If we ask it we may find out that we are experts at spitting when reciting "for they bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god which helps not" – but have not done a single thing to prove that they indeed "bend our knees, bow, and acknowledge our thanks before the King Who reigns over kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He."
In the course of the year we spoil and soil many things. The main point is not to find out why we damaged, or to what extent we have been sullied: the main point is to figure out the overall balance of our deeds, of the world as a whole. Throughout the year, "the Holy One, blessed be He, sustains [all creatures], from the horns of wild oxen to the eggs of lice" ; and on the Day of Judgment He asks: has this all been worthwhile? Should the world really be sustained for yet another year? The Day-of-Judgment-question, then, does not deal with minor issues and sub-paragraphs; these are dealt with by the "Forgive us, our Father" etc., which we recite three times daily. The Rosh HaShanah question encompasses the entire world. Therefore, this question is directed not only to the pious and the righteous, but to each and every individual, as it says: ויאמר כל אשר נשמה באפו וכו'. Every living, breathing creature should be wholly devoted to this goal. This is why in the Rosh HaShanah prayers there is no mention of guilt; rather, these prayers describe the world as it should be. Our task is to contemplate this description and compare them to our reality; and this comparison clarifies things to such an extent, that there is no need for any further details.
Take a soldier who is preparing for a parade: his buttons are shining, his hat is properly placed on his head, and there is not a single speck of dust in his gun. That he has no bullets in his magazine is immaterial, because he does not intend to go to war anyway. Something similar can happen on this great day, too: we focus on the small details, but there is absolutely nothing behind them. We stand up and cry out on Rosh HaShanah, and sing, and plead – but for what?
The only thing we can say is, "See how wretched and miserable we are; we are so ashamed! Please give us one more chance!" Yet all year long we have catnapped, even slept. How much improvement can possibly be made in one single day? Perhaps just a small, tiny motion; but if this tiny motion means that we are beginning to wake up and live, then we can really begin to do something.
In the very last Minchah prayer before Rosh HaShanah, we say – as we do on every other day of the year – "bless… this year and all its kinds of crops for the best." At that point in time, what remains of the year is a mere half hour or so – and still we are asking for a blessing for the whole year! The point is that even in that half hour we can change the meaning of the entire year. In some languages, the only difference between a declarative sentence and a question is the punctuation mark at the end of the sentence. Similarly, even if we cannot change what we have done in the course of the year; we can decide to replace a full stop with a question mark, or vice versa. I may have said or done certain things, and now I decide to doubts them; I may have given open checks for all sorts of things, and now I decide not to cash them; I may have been carried away, but now, at the very last minute, I can still say that I no longer agree that. Indeed, on Rosh HaShanah eve we do hattarat nedarim –annullment of vows – thereby releasing ourselves from whatever we have bound ourselves to in the course of the entire year. This enables us to set ourselves free, to turn our backs to whatever we want to, and to start an entirely new path.