The Torah describes the process of rapprochement between Hashem and the Jewish people in a dance of oscillating words: the people do X, and G-d does Y. Then the people respond with Q, and G-d moves onto P, and so on. (see Deut. 30). There is fluid movement on both sides, changes in posture and attitude and desires, sometimes flexing in toward each other, sometimes bending away or even – when things go very wrong – one of the dancers abruptly breaking it off and leaving the dance floor.
It is this sort of language that helps us understand that G-d is not some kind of great static thing: a strong but silent gravitational force or a distant and proud king. On the contrary, the Torah’s words show us that G-d is a full participant in this dance, able to be distant or near, equally capable of being inflamed with anger or with love.
The dance of the Jewish people with G-d is, and always was supposed to be, a dance of desire and a dance of love. Our relationship is meant to contain every element found in a good marriage: love and respect and trust and desire. And like any good marriage, there are good times and bad, times of head-spinning romantic flight, and times of hard, but cooperative effort: and then there are times when it is sufficient and beautiful to merely sit together, to enjoy being close to each other after a hard day, or year, or life (See Rabbi Sacks’ beautiful explanation here.)
Most civilizations and cultures take their cue from the natural world, and conclude that the world is, and is supposed to be, inherently circular. The world, and the seasons, and so much of what we can see is cyclical in nature, and so it is easy to assume that this is in fact not only the way things are, but the way things should be.
Judaism has a different worldview. On a national as well as the most deeply personal levels, we Jews are on a journey, a historical quest of development and growth. So while the wheels of our wagon, seen in isolation, look like circles spinning in one spot, we are well aware that every time a certain point on that wheel touches the ground, it touches down in a different and new place. Our history is not of a wheel spinning in space, but of a wheel traveling down a road. Every year we have the same Torah readings and the same festivals and the same commandments – but we accomplish and experience those things within the context of our growth, and within the new developments within our relationships with each other and with G-d.
It is in this context that we can understand the High Holy Days. Observed in pretty much the same way for millennia, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur might seem repetitive, a neverending sequence of repetitious turns of the wheel, until one stands back and appreciate the broader view – the grand historical arc of the Jewish people, superimposed on the personal and heartfelt arc of the life of a single person. These are the days where we realize how far we have traveled since the last time we were here: we take stock of our lives, and our loves, our commitments and desires.
It has often been said that the opposite of love is not hate: the opposite of love is indifference. At least with hatred, a person still cares. With the emotion of love or hate comes the ability to think of others, to take an active interest in what happens to someone else. When we can think only of ourselves, we can never love or serve G-d, the author of the guidebook text in which the verse at the very middle is, “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is through loving others that we become capable of loving G-d. One is the gateway to the other.
Ours is not a transcendental faith: Judaism believes in anchoring ourselves in the physical world and then seeking to personally grow and also elevate the world around us. To this end, every physical act that mankind can engage in is something that we ennoble with blessings or prayers or rituals, infusing spirituality into even the most mundane acts. Everything we can do with our bodies can be done in a holy manner, in a way that makes the world a better place.
Animals call out to each other when they wish to mate. It is a necessary (though by no means sufficient) step in the propagation of their species. On Rosh Hashanah, Jews take this animalistic instinct, and we elevate it when we blow the shofar. Rosh Hashanah is called ”yom teruah” in the Torah, “a day of calling/blasting.” The sound of the shofar is the mating call of the Jewish people: Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the dance. Our spiritual analog to a mating call, blowing the shofar broadcasts our intense and profound desire to connect with Hashem, to renew and deepen the love between us.
This is our Zikaron Teruah (Lev. 23:24), remembrance through shofar-blasts. The remembrance is to recall that once again this part of the wheel is touching down, and we are repeating the connection to G-d, the connection made through the millennia, stretching back to the blasts at Sinai, and the offering of the ram in place of Isaac. And the shofar blasts indicate our heartfelt desire to renew our commitments to G-d, to both renew and grow our marriage to G-d.
This kind of mating call can be risky, of course. Every relationship is dangerous – even showing our interest in someone else exposes us, cracks the armor that protects us against the slings and arrows that cause so much pain. It is hard to do this, especially if we have been burned before.
And even with desire, of course, we do not have enough to sustain a proper marriage. Marriage to G-d takes every bit as much of an investment as a marriage between man and woman. There is desire, but there is also risk, and commitment, and the profound difficulties of self-examination and personal growth in order to become the kind of person whom your intended can love and respect in return. Relationships take enormous effort; like Jacob’s ladder if one stops climbing, then one is necessarily descending. As a result, each person needs to ask themselves: do I really have what it takes to make this work?
The journey down the road starts this very moment. The shofar blast is coming, and the dance is about to begin. Our partner is waiting, yearning to hear the teruah, the Jewish people re-initiating the dance. As the Torah makes clear, G-d wants to dance. But before He can, He needs us to take the first step, to call out with the zikharon teruah, to simultaneously recall our shared mutual history, and to express our desire to begin the whirlwind love affair all over again.