The breath of life and the shofar blasts

The one biblical mitzvah that characterizes Rosh Hashanah reenacts the creation of humankind, an event that occurred on this very date in history
From Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel, 1512. (Wikipedia)
From Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel, 1512. (Wikipedia)

Rosh Hashanah appears to be missing a critical ingredient that makes up our other holidays. Generally, our holidays commemorate a historical event. For example, on Pesach we recall our Exodus from Egypt, our Sukkot recreate God’s protection in the wilderness, and on Shavuot we celebrate our receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (This last one is not referred to explicitly in the Torah, but the sages identify Shavuot as “Z’man Matan Torateinu,” the time when we received the Torah).

On each of these holidays, we do not merely remember that epic historical events once occurred to our nation. Rather, we recreate and relive these experiences ourselves each year. For example, on Pesach, we no not merely talk about the Exodus so as to preserve its memory in our collective national consciousness. Rather, we engage in a grand drama we call the Seder in which we see ourselves as though we ourselves are emerging from slavery to freedom by eating matzah and bitter herbs, dipping, leaning, drinking four cups of wine, etc., all while telling the story of the Exodus. Similarly, on Sukkot, we do not merely talk about God’s protection. We build ourselves temporary huts and move as much of our lives as possible into them throughout the week of the holiday (On Shavuot, the custom to stay up all night learning is our way to personally relive Matan Torah each year).

In contrast, Rosh Hashanah appears to be sorely lacking this element. It seems to be a day dedicated to prayer, introspection, and repentance, devoid of historical mooring. Perhaps that is okay. Rosh Hashanah is part of the High Holidays, the Days of Awe, rather than the triumvirate of the pilgrimage festivals. Perhaps only the latter commemorate particular events while the former occur in a historical vacuum, single-mindedly focused on vouchsafing for ourselves positive outcomes for the upcoming year.

Further consideration, however, reveals that this is not the case at all. Rosh Hashanah absolutely commemorates and is deepened by the historical event that occurred on this very date many years ago. I am referring, of course, to Creation. But not creation of the world; that began six days prior. On the first of Tishrei, humans were created (The Gemara in Rosh HaShanah 10b-11a records a debate among Tannaim as to whether the world was created in Tishrei (Rebbe Eliezer) or Nissan (Rebbe Yehoshua). Though the Gemara does not conclude which one is correct, our tefillot (prayers) clearly side with Rebbe Eliezer that creation occurred in Tishrei. Following each set of shofar blasts, we recite a paragraph that begins with the phrase, “hayom harat olam” — today is the birthday of the world. As the main text will clarify, it is actually the birthday of humankind.).

But does our observance of Rosh Hashanah include any type of re-enactment of creation similar to the Pesach seder’s dramatic reliving of the Exodus?

To answer this, we must first explore how the creation of humankind took place. The Torah’s description contains a troubling phrase – “Na’aseh adam” — let US make man (Genesis 1:26). To whom is God talking? Is He not the lone power behind creation? In fact, the Gemara in Megilla 9a records this as one of the changes that all 72 Elders universally made when forced to translate the Torah into Greek by Ptolemy. They each translated it as I will make man rather than We will make man, so as to avoid heretical implications. Yet God Himself clearly feels there is a critical message conveyed by the plural We, so critical that it is worth risking a dangerous misunderstanding regarding God’s oneness and uniqueness.

Rashi suggests that God is talking to the angels. The Ramban posits that He is turning to the earth, as God forms man from “dust of the ground” (afar min haádama; Genesis 2:7). In a teshuva drasha delivered at Ohr Torah Stone’s Midreshet Lindenbaum in 2017, Rabbi Riskin suggested a fascinating possibility. He proposed that God is addressing the animals, the immediate prior creation. Why would God turn to the animals as partners in the creation of man?

Because the Torah is acknowledging and hinting toward evolution, that man in fact developed from animals. The reason this is not theologically problematic is because the critical moment is yet to come. The climactic moment, the precise point in time when humankind comes into existence is the moment when God Himself breathes into him the breath of life – “Va’yipach b’apav nishmat chayim” (Genesis 2:7). Receiving from God the breath of life, a Divine living soul, that is what marks man as fundamentally different than any animal, regardless of the physical origin of our bodies.

This understanding of the moment of humankind’s creation transforms our understanding of the mitzvah of shofar. We take a horn that is quite literally a part of an animal and “va’yipach b’apav nishmat chayim” — we blow our life force into it. In other words, the one biblical mitzvah that uniquely characterizes Rosh HaShanah, blowing shofar, is an exact re-enactment of the creation of humankind, the momentous event that occurred on this very date in history.

We never recreate historical events merely to remember that they once occurred; it is always to inculcate into us some deeper message encapsulated by that event. Perhaps the message of the shofar is the power on this day for the creation of man — our ability to recreate ourselves through introspection and teshuva (repentance). Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik suggested yet another novel interpretation of “Let us make man” — that God was addressing man himself and inviting us to partner with Him in our own creation. Our paths, our very selves, are not divinely or genetically determined; God granted us free will. Through the powerful imagery of blowing the shofar, Rosh HaShanah invites us each year to “va’yipach b’apav nishmat chayim” — to blow the Divine spirit into ourselves by recreating ourselves in the Divine image.

About the Author
Rabbanit Dena (Freundlich) Rock is a core member of the faculty at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, where she teaches Talmud and Halachah, in addition to coordinating the Matmidot Scholars program. Prior to making aliyah in 2010, she served as Talmud department chair at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck, NJ. She holds a BA in Biology and Jewish Studies from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, an MA in Bible from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and was a member of the first graduating class of Yeshiva University's Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies (GPATS).
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