Frederick L. Klein

Rosh Hashanah: Of Revelations and Revolutions

Image courtesy of Wikipedia, "Shofar"

For most people, the most important investment we have is our house.  For many of us, simply buying the house outright is not an option, so we need to negotiate a long-term payment plan, a mortgage.  While some may want a short-term adjustable rate, for those who know they will be in the house a long time, most prefer a fixed rate, whether it is ten, fifteen or thirty years.  While anything could happen in life (and often does), the knowledge or assumption that one can predict and make plans is assuring.  The terms of the loan are known and are not going to change.

Everything I have said heretofore is obvious, except for the first sentence.  The most important investment we make is not in our houses.  It is in ourselves.   Our very bodies create the home in which our souls reside. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to put life itself on a thirty-year fixed?  “God, I will invest x, y, and z, and you will ensure my home, the body which holds my soul.”  Yet, every year Rosh Hashanah comes around, and every year we are told the Book of Life and Death are opened.  We need to annually renegotiate the terms for the only real home we have in this world.

In truth, this notion can be very disconcerting; we can be creatures that are averse to change, even if change is all around us.  Yet Rosh Hashanah can also be seen as an opportunity.  We renegotiate the terms, because on Rosh Hashanah we are expected to move into a new spiritual home, a new and better place.

The Shofar: Of External Revelations and Internal Revolutions

The holiday of Rosh Hashanah is unique in the sense it is called the Day of Judgement, and yet the notion of sin seems curiously absent.  We refrain from saying penitential prayers (selichot), we do not fast, and we do not confess (vidui).  In fact, besides the biblically mandated sacrifices of the Temple and the prohibition of work associated with any of the Biblical holidays, the Torah tells us only one thing to do on this day.  Blow the shofar, or more precisely “remember the teruah”- the blasts of the horn.  What could that possibly mean?  What possibly can blowing a horn have to do with the hard work of teshuva, repentance?

Throughout the centuries thinkers have tried to unpack the symbolism of these undifferentiated sounds, as well as suggest what we are to feel.   In the Rosh Hashanah mussaf service, the special three sections of mussaf, malkhiot (kingship), zikhronot (remembrances) and shofarot (the shofar) are not so much prayers as they are expositions on these piercing sounds.  They are suggestive as to what we are to think and feel. In a very real sense, the blowing of the shofar is the prayer, and the words are simply giving them form and context.  Given this fact, the prayers themselves are the key to understanding this strange ritual.

The prayer of shofarot opens with a declaration:

From the heavens, You let them hear Your voice, and revealed Yourself to them in pure clouds. So too, the entire world quivered before You, and the works of creation trembled before You, when You- our King, revealed Yourself upon Mount Sinai to teach Your people Torah and mitzvot. You let them hear the majestic splendor of Your voice, and Your holy words from flames of fire; amidst thunder and lightning You revealed Yourself to them, and with the sound of a shofar you appeared to them… (Rosh Hashanah liturgy)

The miraculous event of Mount Sinai was not simply the giving of some set of laws, but in fact was a singular encounter with God.  The entire world ‘quivered’ and the people saw fire enveloped by a cloud descend upon the mountain.  The experience was accompanied by thunder and lightning.   The people heard the voice of God, and it was accompanied by the sound of the Shofar.

There is a psychological condition called synesthesia, in which senses are confused.  People can smell sights, numbers can have colors, sounds can be felt.  The Torah tells us that the people ‘experienced the thundering’, ro’im et hakolot.  While the root ra’ah (see) can also mean experience, the midrash prefers to read the verse quite literarily.  That is to say, the people actually saw the sounds.  What the rabbis are really saying, is that at the moment of Sinai, the people’s very sense of reality began to break down.  The world and even their very sense of self began to melt away.  Revelation, seen this way, is not simply about seeing something outside of the self, but an upheaval within the soul.  Our general assumptions about the world are uprooted to their core.  The external revelation was at the same time an internal revolution of the soul.

It is therefore no surprise that the people begged Moses to intercede, asking him to ascend the mountain and bring down the Torah for them.  Moses acceded to this original request, and the bulk of the Torah was communicated through the voice of Moses.  It seems quite clear that the original plan was for God to reveal the entire Torah face to face to the entire people.  Perhaps the people’s request was inevitable.  As limited creatures, to live in relationship with the experience of the Divine voice is simply too much.  It is too overwhelming.  Yet, at this moment something was lost. A human voice replaced the Divine voice.  A human voice that was audible to human ears replaced an all-consuming voice that overwhelmed even sight and captured the soul.

The Torah commands us to remember the event of revelation every day.[1]  Yet, once a year, we are commanded to experience revelation.  How?  The blowing of the piercing sound of the shofar.  Through the same sound that accompanied the voice of God, we are meant to experience a small aspect of revelation.  The level of communication is not one of words, but a vibrating sound reverberating with the sound of our own breath.  Deep in our collective memory, that sound is meant to jar us, to awaken us.  It is meant to create an inner revelation and effect a revolution of the soul.  To remember the teruah is to remember and connect to a singular moment in which we saw ourselves and our lives in a totally new light. We finite creatures partook of the infinite.

It is hard to underestimate the revolutionary impact of this idea.  The meaning of human life is not defined and absolute but is indeterminate.  To build upon our original metaphor, every year we must renegotiate the terms, because in fact we are not the same ‘house’.  The shofar in particular, and this period in general, is meant to break down the very structure of our lives, to unmoor us from the familiar foundations through which we live our lives.  Unlike Yom Kippur, where we look at ‘self-improvement’ and ‘how we can do better’, the teshuva (repentance) of Rosh HaShanah is based upon a much greater realization of what it means to exist as a human being in this world.  We are creatures that hear the voice of God, who are blessed with the capacity to see beyond what we possibly could imagine.  This is indeed daunting, but simultaneously empowering.

The Moral Implications of this Realization: Always on the Journey

The singular moment of historical revelation, the moment of Mount Sinai, curiously disappears from Jewish history.  The exact location of Sinai is a subject for historians and archaeologist but does not concern religious thinkers.  Sinai is ultimately not a place.  Sinai is ultimately ‘housed’ within each of us.  We carry that idea within the walls of our own hearts, even if at times we forget about these truths with the demands and concerns of our daily lives, what Maimonides called the ‘vanity’ which often consume us.[2]

It is important to note that the blast of the horns (or shofar) was blown other times in the year.  Rabbi Yitzchak Twersky, a master teacher in Jerusalem, brings a powerful idea.  He notes that in the desert the sound of truah was blown when the encampment in the desert would travel (Numbers 10:5-6).  Not only each individual tent, but even the Tabernacle itself, needed to be disassembled, ready for the journey.  He notes that the journey of the desert is in fact a metaphor for our lives; for one year we may be ‘encamped’, defining ourselves and reality a certain way.  For most of our lives, it is difficult to change our assumptions or reality.  However, he continues “Rosh HaShanah changes all of that.  It tells us that our life is, in effect, over.”[3]   Thus, the sound of the shofar, that same sound we heard at Sinai, is the same sound that is meant to uproot us. The lease on our lives is up every year, and we have the capacity to create ourselves anew.

The Shofar: A Cry to Wage Inner Battle

If only this constant project of recreation was so easy!  In fact, it is incredibly hard.

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Leon, a sixteenth century Rabbi, comments in a sermon he gave on Rosh Hashanah yet another meaning for the sound of the teruah. “When you go into battle in your own land against an enemy who is oppressing you, sound a blast on the trumpets. Then you will be remembered by the Lord your God and rescued from your enemies” (Numbers 10:9). In other words, the sound of the broken sound of teruah is a battle cry, calling out to God for assistance and salvation.

Why blow the battle cry on Rosh HaShanah? Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh states there is a battle every year on Rosh HaShanah. To remember the teruah means that we need to ‘take to heart that this exalted day (Rosh Hashanah) presents us with something shocking, just like the shock of war.  Today we call to God, but not because of an external enemy, but an internal enemy.”  How many of us truly cry out for our inner life in the same way we would cry out in fear of an external enemy? Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Leon is teaching us that our inner life is critically important and not to be neglected.

To truly hear the shofar is to engage in spiritual battle.  We are involved in subversive revolutionary action, but the action is internal. We wage war with ourselves.  When we call out with the shofar, we announce our commitment to change, to become our higher selves, and to sublimate our darker motivations into productive action.  Thus, if we are sincere in our worship, ultimately the sound of the shofar that we experience moves from a sense of fear to confidence, from doubt to conviction, from brokenness to wholeness.[4]

I pray that all of us really pour our hearts out to the Divine in the true spirit of the teruah, and that in return we feel the support and strength to be the people we want to be- for ourselves, for our families, and ultimately the world.   Let us all make the investment in ourselves, dismantle the houses that are no longer serving us, embrace the journey forward, and be victorious over those forces which hold us back.

Shanah Tova

[1] Deut. 4:9-10; the Ramban counts this as one of the 613 commandments.

[2] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva 3:4

[3] Amitah shel Torah, vol. 2 (2020), pp. 48-49

[4] . (Adapted from elements of Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Leon, Nefutzot Yehudah, derasha 40.)

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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