The following conundrum was posed by Rabbi Yaakov Culi, one of the spiritual giants of Jerusalem some three hundred years ago:
Which part of the Jewish population should be more anxious about Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment… the righteous and the learned who devote their time and energies to Torah, prayer, mitzvos, and lovingkindness: or the ordinary folk who have fewer mitzvos to their credit, seemingly, and perhaps even some sins? Clearly, the latter group.
And yet we bear witness every year to precisely the opposite phenomenon. Those who cling to Torah study and scrupulous observance are filled with far more trepidation than their brethren.
Rabbi Culi sought to explain this paradox with the following analogy:
A certain Bedouin, a life-long desert denizen, turned up once in the port city of Constantinople (present-day Istambul). For the first time in his life, his eyes feasted on the wideness of the sea – speckled now with a multitude of boats and ships.
All of a sudden, a nasty storm began brewing. The swift response of those at sea amused the Bedouin: "Are these the brave boatmen, the fearless lords of the sea?" The fear on their faces merely emboldened him: "Who will lend me a boat so that I can sail out into the harbor and show these waves a thing or two?!"
Of course, no-one was willing to put his craft at the disposal of the native Bedouin.
Only the inexperienced and ill-informed can be sanguine about confronting a stormy sea. The more one knows about the stakes involved, the more one has reason to be anxious – to take maximal precautions.
The stakes at Rosh Hashanah are about as great as can be: our health, our job, our bank account… indeed, our very life hangs in the balance. Complacency is out of the question – except for one does not appreciate the awesomeness of Rosh Hashanah and Days of Penitence which follow.