by Moshe Kempinski
We are entering into the “Days of Awe”, the time of judgment and repentance. We approach these days with anticipation mixed with fear and trembling. The Torah calls the first days of the new year, Yom Teruah, the day of the call of the shofar;
“The first day of the seventh month shall be a day of rest for you. It is a holy holiday for remembrance [and] sounding [the shofar]. You shall not do any work and you shall bring a fire offering to G-d.” (Leviticus 23:24)
The Mishnah however describes this day of Rosh Hashanah as the “Day of Judgment” of the whole world. The Talmud describes how three books of spiritual accounting are opened on Rosh Hashanah, wherein the fate of the wicked, the righteous, and those of an intermediate nature are written.
In our prayers we further refer to this day as the day of the creation of the world. The prayer Ha-Yom Harat Olam (Today is the day of the world’s creation) is recited after the blessing at the end of each of the three special sections of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf prayer. It is then understandable that these are the days wherein the world is judged.
Yet the first day of the seventh month actually does not commemorate the actual birth of the world, but rather the birth of Adam and of Eve.
With the creation of Mankind came the creation of the concept of time as well. When man was immortal, the passage of time was unperceivable. When man became mortal and was faced with the prospect of death, the passage of time became an issue of great importance. The ticking clock of mortality prods man to find purpose and meaning in a life that otherwise tumbles towards death and lack of meaning.
Rosh Hashanah commemorates the beginning of that quest. It represents an annual exploration of how far and deep that quest has progressed. It becomes the world´s day of judgment. What is being judged is not whether individuals have found all the answers but rather if they have embarked on the journey of questioning. Such a journey will always bear fruit.
Is it any wonder that upon approaching this day one senses an uneasy insecurity and trembling. It is so easy to fall into a sense of being trapped by one’s past deeds and lifestyle. It is so difficult not to feel unworthy of entering into a Day of Judgment and introspection. Rosh Hashanah can truly be a day of awe and trembling.
Yet Rosh Hashanah is viewed as a day of joy as well. In the book of Nechemia we read how after the Temple had been rebuilt, a tall wooden platform was constructed and the great Jewish leader Ezra read the Torah from early in the morning until mid-day of Rosh Hashana.
”And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. And Ezra opened the scroll before the eyes of the entire people, for he was above all the people, and when he opened it, all the people stood.” (Nehemia 8:2-5)
The people’s reaction on that Rosh Hashanah was a bitter crying out and despondency. When they looked at how far astray they had wandered from the words and commandments they had just heard, they felt broken.
“…for all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the Law.” (ibid:9)
Nehemia attempts to lift their souls
“This day is holy to Hashem your G-d; neither mourn nor weep. Go, eat fat foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord, and do not be sad, for the joy of Hashem is your strength.” (ibid 8:9-10)
The first words of the Torah portion of Nitzavim that we read prior to Rosh Hashana mirrors the same tension between fear and joy.
“You are all standing this day before Hashem, your G-d the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 29:9)
Rashi (ibid: 12) says: When Israel heard the 98 curses at the end of last week’s parsha, in addition to the 49 curses in Vayikra (Leviticus), their faces turned green and they said,
“Who can survive these?” Moshe then began to comfort them: “You have already angered G-d a lot, yet He has not totally destroyed you. Just as the day gets brighter and darker at various times, so too G-d shined His light upon you and in the future will again shine His light upon you. These curses and afflictions are what keep you alive and allow you to stand before Him.”
Rosh Hashanah is as the name implies “a new beginning”. That is the secret of its power and its inherent Joy. We cannot ignore the past and must confront its implications but Hashem is telling us that just as the world and man were created ex nihilo, so to can we recreate ourselves into what we are meant to be.
That is the dual nature of the shofar that is blown on this Yom Teruah. The Baal Shem Tov understands the word te’ruah as referring to the breaking (as in l’roe’a, “to break”) of one’s inflated “ego” and haughtiness. It is likened to the sighing of the “shvarim shofar sound” and the broken sound of the ”teruah”. On the other hand we read in psalms the word Teruah used differently; “Make a joyful noise (ha’ri’u) to G-d, all the earth”.
The duality of our existence is to understand our limitations and our failures. On the other hand we must forever be cognizant of the divinely inspired power ensconced within us to renew and change ourselves into a perfected vessel. Both these truths are found within the word “Teruah”.
”Blessed are the people who know the Teruah sound; they shall walk, O Hashem, in the light of Your countenance.” (Psalm 89:15)
This duality is a deep and integral truth of our existence as individuals and as a people seeking G-d. It is a truth that was insightfully understood by Bilaam as he tried unsuccessfully to curse the people of Israel;
”None hath beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath one seen perverseness in Israel; HaShem his G-d is with him, and the shouting for the King( Teruat HaMelech) is among them.” (Numbers 23:21)
May the Joy of this Rosh Hashanah give us the strength to become worthy vessels of such joy.
Shana tova umetukah