The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a-b) presents the concept of Israel’s need to “confuse Satan” on Rosh Hashanah:
ואמר) רבי יצחק למה…תוקעין ומריעין כשהן יושבין ותוקעין ומריעין כשהן עומדין? כדי לערבב השטן
Rabbi Yitzchak said: Why do we sound the shofar twice, once before the Amidah and once during the Amidah; [one time is certainly sufficient in order to fulfill the mitzvah]? In order to confuse Satan [i.e., to undermine his attempt, as prosecuting attorney, to present his case against Israel before the Heavenly Court].
In post-Talmudic tradition, other customs are explained as bring motivated by this same concept. For example, the ba’al tokea does not expose the shofar until the moment he is required to blow it – lest Satan see it in advance and thus have more time to prepare a stronger case for the prosecution. Likewise, one of the reasons suggested for not “benching Rosh Chodesh” on the Shabbos prior to Tishrei is to “catch the Satan by surprise,” as it were, so that he will have less time to prepare his accusations against us.
How are we to relate meaningfully to this concept? Does Satan really fall for these same superficial ruses, year after year, throughout the millennia? Also, doesn’t the Torah teach us that we are judged exclusively on our merits?
Deep mystical concepts – certainly beyond my ken – may underlie these traditions, and from that perspective, it behooves us to accept and of course respect them.
In addition, the following idea may also provide these practices with accessible meaning:
The concept of the “Satanic Accuser” may be understood as a concretization of our awareness that, from the perspective of Middas Hadin, our moral and spiritual failures constitute acts of betrayal that have the power, God forbid, to undermine all hope for kapparah.
Rosh Hashanah is the day that we devote to declaring – and internalizing – the most fundamental concept of being: that Hashem is the Possessor of the entire cosmos – the earth, the fullness thereof, and they who dwell therein [Tehilim 34:1]. Our sins constitute specific reasons for our losing the right to exist, r”l. The Accuser – whether he be real or a symbol – possesses an objective list which details our specific failures. We have no real defense, only a response, specifically, fulfilling the mitzvah of sounding the primal screams of the shofar, cries that indicate deep regret and yearning to return, if only we be granted another opportunity.
The Satan-reality thus serves to preclude any sense of spiritual hubris we may tend to feel as we fulfill this mitzvah. In short, by attempting, through these practices, to “confuse Satan,” we acknowledge that he possesses incriminating evidence indicating our unworthiness. Our acknowledgement of this fact is the necessary first step in reconciling with the Bore Olam.
This stress upon unworthiness appears in other contexts as well. For example, Birkas Hagomel, the blessing which one is obligated to recite publicly after having been rescued from life-threatening circumstances, praises Hashem as:
…[the One who] bestows beneficences upon the culpable, and has bestowed only beneficence upon me.
The clear implication of the underlined phrase is: The fact that I have been miraculously saved in no way implies that God found me to be
personally worthy of His salvation. My salvation, rather, was an act of Divine grace.
In Selichos, as well as in many parts of our normal liturgy, we request atonement on basis of ancestral merit, not our own:
עשה למען אברהם ויצחק…עשה למענך והושיענו