It began with my questioning–why don't Jews celebrate the Jewish New Year like the secular New Year? Where's the champagne and confetti? Why no Times' Square bash?
The reason is simply because Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the ten day period which culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. There is a bit of celebration at that point. But it is clearly muted compared with the secular New Year.
The Ten Days of Awe are supposed to be a period of powerful introspection and contemplation. We are about to be "judged" by God and our fate inscribed for the following year.
An analogy popped into my mind regarding the NDE [near-death experience]. Many who claim such an experience describe the "life review". It is an indescribably powerful and intense rapid review of every feeling, emotion, encounter with other beings during our lifetime. Apparently we actually feel and experience all our actions from the perspective of the other human being. The result is an incredible awareness of the interconnectedness of all beings and the power of our actions on others. It is described as truly humbling and often leads to greater compassion for others and a change in our behavior.
We "judge" ourselves. This is consistent with the reports from hypnotherapist Michael Newton's patients during deeply intense hypnosis when they apparently described an after-life review. The karmic implications are astounding and future reincarnation choices are often based on these reviews. Apparently our souls cannot make excuses for their deeds and judge themselves severely.
In a much watered-down version, the Ten Days of Awe should be seen as an annual life review. We do need to be honest with ourselves regarding our choices. We do not do this to inflict punishment on ourselves or others. It is purely to recognize, seek forgiveness and to make amends.
It can be seen as a gift to our souls if taken seriously. Are we judged by God on Yom Kippur? Who can say for sure. But the God within us, our soul, if given the opportunity, can do the job quite well.