We need a better answer on Rosh Hashanah to Hashem's question of, "Who are you?" than "I want a Lexus, but my friend wants a Prius."
One of the recurrent Rosh Hashanah themes of Rav Moshe Shapiro, ztz"l, was the nature of the judgment on each of us as individuals. His starting point was invariably the second mishnah in tractate Rosh Hashanah, which describes all those who come into the world as passing before HaKadosh Baruch Hu as "bnei maron." Though the Gemara offers three different interpretations of the term "bnei maron," they each have the aspect of passing single file — as a distinct individual — in front of Hashem.
The mishnah in question states that the world is judged four times in the year. Three of those judgments parallel one another: On Pesach the world is judged on the grain for the coming year, on Shavuos on the fruits, and on Succos on the water. The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 16a) specifies the different offerings brought on each of the days of judgment: the Omer offering on Pesach, the two loaves on Shavuos, and the water libation on Succos — each connected to what is being judged.
Rosh Hashanah stands out from the other three days of judgment cited in the mishnah. First, the mishnah does not specify what the judgment is on Rosh Hashanah, only that we pass in front of HaKadosh Baruch Hu as individuals. Nor is there any parallel to the other three specified offerings, which are clearly related to the judgment at hand. With respect to the judgment of Rosh Hashanah, however, the Gemara specifies no offering to be brought, only that we recite Malchuyos, Zichronos, and Shofros.
The difference between the judgment on Man and the judgments on the grain, fruits, and water lies in the difference in their manner of creation. All the other species were created "limineihu — according to their kind." Only Adam Harishon was created "yechidi — as an individual." Because Man was created "yechidi," not as a member of a species, a single offering cannot suffice. Each person must recite Malchuyos, Zichronos, and Shofros
As a unique creation, the mishnah in Sanhedrin (4:5) describes Adam HaRishon as an "olam malei — an entire world": "Therefore was Adam created yechidi, to teach you that one who destroys a single soul in Yisrael is deemed by the verse to have destroyed an entire world, and one who saves a single soul in Yisrael is considered as if he saved an entire world."
Each Jew is in potential an entire world for whom the creation of the world would have been justified. As such, he is subject to Hashgachah Pratis (individual Providence), as opposed to every other aspect of creation, which is governed by general Providence, according to its species.
The instrument through which each Jew realizes his potential is his daas, the faculty with which he forms a unique perspective on the world that unites its disparate parts. Just as the face of each individual differs from that of his fellows, so too does the daas of each individual differ from that of his fellows.
That is only true, however, for one who has developed his daas, who has given definition to what is unique about him and does not define himself in terms of anyone else.
In that moment that each of us stands alone before HaKadosh Baruch Hu on Rosh Hashanah, the question we are asked is: Who are you? What distinguishes you from every other person? What is your unique mission in life — the mission that gives you the status of an olam malei?
If we have never contemplated those questions, we have failed to actualize our potential as an olam malei, and we have no basis for beseeching Divine mercy. True, Hashem saw that the world could not exist according to the middah of strict judgment. Therefore, He descended from the Throne of Din and ascended, kivayachol, to the Throne of Rachamim. But din did not disappear from the judgment entirely. There must be a basis in din for the extension of rachamim.
When we beseech Hashem for rachamim, we are seeking an extension of time to fulfill our unique mission in the world. But if we have given no consideration to that mission or what is unique about ourselves, we have no basis for seeking an extension. As Chazal teach us, "It is forbidden to show rachamim to one who has no daas" (Berachos 33a).
If we define ourselves in terms of others or in comparison to them, we have turned ourselves into members of a herd and ceased to be individuals. We are compared to the animals (see Tehillim 49:13). In short, we need a better answer on Rosh Hashanah to Hashem's question of, "Who are you," than "I want a Lexus, but my friend wants a Prius."
Sadly, that perception of ourselves as members of the human herd is prevalent today. We are too distracted to exercise our daas to contemplate our uniqueness, or to fashion ourselves as unique beings. Science Magazine (July 2014) reported upon one experiment in which heavy users of handheld devices were instructed to shut off their devices and instead contemplate themselves. Those efforts at self-contemplation proved so beyond their capacity that when offered an electrical shock to relieve the boredom of being left to their own thoughts, 67% of the men and 25% of the women opted for the shocks.
One who commits suicide is described as m'abeid atzmo l'daas. Why is the word "l'daas" necessary? Why is it not sufficient to simply say that he has destroyed himself? Rav Moshe answered that such a person has failed to recognize the power of his daas to actualize his potential as an olam malei. Otherwise he would not have been able to end his own life. Spiritual suicide — the failure to utilize one's daas to give coherence and shape to one's existence — is increasingly more the rule than the exception.
What is more, one who lacks any conception of himself as a unique individual with a specific mission in the world cannot crown Hashem as Melech. The kavod (honor) that is given to a king can only come from one who himself possesses kavod. There is no greater insult — i.e., lack of kavod, for an individual than to be identified not as an individual, but as one of a herd. (That, incidentally, is the greatest sin of contemporary identity politics: It dehumanizes all who succumb to its lure.)
We can now identify the difference between the crowning of Hashem as King on Rosh Hashanah and the kabalos ol malchus Shamayim that is incumbent upon us each day. The judgment of Rosh Hashanah, during which we pass in front of HaKadosh Baruch Hu as individuals, as if we were the only adam in the world, forces us to contemplate our individuality, what makes us unique. Only when we do so can we truly proclaim Hashem as King, for only then do we possess the kavod inherent in our status of having been created yechidi. And only then can we offer to Hashem the kavod due to the King of kings.
Kesivah v'chasimah tovah