Happy new year?

This is a weird Rosh Hashanah. My minyan is going to blow only 60 Shofar notes, and we’re not yet sure which of the many PIYUTIM (liturgical poems) we will actually chant. Rosh Hashanah guests are a non-starter. Maybe we’ll seat cardboard cutouts of a few friends and relatives, like at baseball games. I’m expecting the fish to social distance at Tashlich, and I won’t blame them. In spite of all the restrictions and limitations, we still must find meaning in our Rosh Hashanah experience. So, let’s go back to basics. What is the essence of our holiday called Yom HaDin/Yom HaZikaron? 

To understand the festival, I believe that you must first analyze its central performance, namely blowing the Shofar. We call this YOM TOV by many names, but the Torah refers to it as ZICHRON TERUAH (‘a remembrance of the Shofar blast’, Vayikra 23:24) and just YOM TERUAH (BAMIDBAR 29:1). So, let’s begin with the Shofar. 

Reb Saadiah Gaon (882-942) wrote that there are ten reasons for the mitzva of Shofar, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s go with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein OB”M, who taught that there are two reasons. He wrote: 

1) The ceremonial dimension of shofar blowing: On one level, the shofar blasts remind us that Rosh Hashana is the day on which God is crowned as king of the world in general and of the people of Israel in particular…Trumpets and other wind instruments pay a central role in the announcement of the ascent of a mortal king to the throne…It is through these blasts that the public demonstrates its acceptance of the yoke of the new king’s monarchy. 2) A second layer is reflected in the words of the Rambam, who writes that the shofar, with its various blasts, calls for repentance and awakening – directed not outward, but inward. The shofar calls out: “Wake up, you sleepy ones, from your sleep and you who slumber, arise (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 3:4).” We stir ourselves up and direct the blasts of the shofar inwards, to anyone whose hope and aspiration is to fully repent before his Creator. 

Is it any surprise that Reb Aharon’s father-in-law Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik proposed in 1975 that Rosh Hashanah itself has two aspects? Again, based on the words of the Rambam in the Laws of Repentance. In chapter 2, the Rambam discusses the period ‘between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur’, but in the next chapter, he discusses the period ‘from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur’. What’s the difference? In the former quote all the days share a commonality, however, in the second case, the two endpoints have a different character. There is a progression from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. In the first instance, they bookend a period of acknowledging God’s kingship over the cosmos. But what about the second case, how do they differ? 

According to the Rav, Rosh Hashanah is ‘involved in a preliminary stage of TESHUVA, called HIRHUR TESHUVA (the sinner is still ‘contemplating TESHUVA’)…the process is still amorphous and ill-defined (Before HASHEM You Shall Be Purified, summarized by Arnold Lustiger, p. 7).’ This initial stage of TESHUVA is characterized by the emotion PACHAD (dread), at some point, the Rav explains, ‘this powerful and ultimately destructive emotion must be transformed into a mobilizing, constructive force…YIR’AH suggests reverence and loyalty…YIR’AH prompts introspection throughout the remainder of the intervening days, culminating with Yom Kippur (p. 13).’ 

 The Rav often suggesting learning one of the ten chapters of the Laws of Repentance each day of Ten Days of Repentance. Read chapter ten to get the feel for Yom Kippur: God commanded this level through Moses as it states: “Love God, your Lord.” When a person will love God in the proper manner, one will immediately perform all of the mitzvot motivated out of love (law 2). 

Here’s the progression: PACHAD to YIR’AH to LOVE. When is this shift from PACHAD to YIR’AH? I strongly believe it occurs in the middle of MUSAF.  

The central segment of this long AMIDAH is called ZICHRONOT (remembrances). It begins: You remember the deeds of the universe…Before You all hidden things are revealed…Everything is revealed and known before You. Simply stated God videos all that has ever happened. Now that’s scary. 

How does it end? ‘You remember, O Lord our God, the covenant, the kindness, and the oath made to our Patriarch, Avraham.’ And concludes: Blessed are You, O God, Who remembers the covenant. We’ve moved from remembering what I did last year to remembering the eternal deals made with our ancestors. In other words, from scary stuff to reassuring material.  

The two aspects of the Shofar teach us this reality. The plain TEKIOT proclaim the Kingship of God, and bring fear of an omnipotent King with the powers of summary execution. This is PACHAD. The nuanced and varied SHEVARIM and TRU’OT notes stir our inner emotions towards YIR’AH, which is reverence for and loyalty to our faithful God. 

So, it’s okay, perhaps, preferred to enter Rosh Hashanah with trepidation, but be prepared for the anticipated shift to reassurance from the God/King who loves us. Then we will surely have a Shannah Tova U’Metuka! 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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