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What is Rosh Hashanah in the Torah?

In the past, I have connected the blowing of the shofar to G-d’s blowing of his spirit into Adam; by blowing the shofar we are connecting to Hashem’s creation of mankind, showing that we understand our mission is to imitate Hashem in elevating the world around us, contributing our focused energy into the world, and thus raising it to a higher level.

But blowing on Rosh Hashanah is so very much more than this, and the Torah, using only a few words, tells us why.

What are these words?

  1. A memorial of horn-blasting (Zichron Teruah) (Lev. 23:24). Note that these are the only words used in the Torah for Rosh Hashanah that are different from the words used for any other holiday.
  2. The action word takah, which means doing something with great force.

So that is all we have. Three words that somehow are supposed to tell us what Rosh Hashanah is all about? And yet, they do. All we have to do is understand these words, and connect the dots.

Zichron:

Usually translated as “a memorial”, the word zichron comes from the verb “to remember.” Remember what?

The first time the Torah uses the word, it tells us of Noah, in the Ark:

And G-d remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and G-d made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters assuaged. (Gen 8:1)

Do you see the connection between G-d remembering, and the subsequent use of wind?

G-d remembers His creations, and he creates a wind, creating space for life to renew. And what do we do on Rosh Hashanah? We reciprocate: we remember Hashem our G-d, and we blow, making space for G-d in this world. On Rosh Hashanah we invite Him into our world, into our bodies and souls, just as He invited Noah and all life back into the renewed world after the flood.

While the recession of the floodwaters made a physical place for mankind’s existence, our blowing of the shofar creates a spiritual place for Hashem within our own hearts. The sound penetrates us, and fills us with awareness and with awe.

The word “to remember” is found a few other places in the Torah as well – but only a few: G-d remembers Noah, and then Avraham, and then Rachel, and lastly He remembers His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when the Children of Israel are slaves in Egypt. In each case, the word “remember” precedes an action. It is like recalling a debt, and then paying up. The remembrance causes Hashem to act to restore and grow life: He saves Lot for Abraham’s sake, he gives Rachel a son, and He delivers the Children of Israel from Egypt.

We are tied by these remembrances to Hashem. We don’t live our lives in a vacuum; we are part of a tradition that goes back thousands of years, generation after generation. This grounds us, because zichron (a word which is also used for the other festivals) is a way for mankind to ritualize the historical ties between the present, and the relationship and experiences that our ancestors had with Hashem. It is a way for us to recognize our debts and, just as G-d did with Noach, Avraham, Rachel and the entire people, we do as G-d did, by restoring and growing life.

So on Rosh Hashanah, the “zichron teruah” is the day when our remembrance of Hashem precedes action, just as Hashem remembered his relationships, and delivered on them. We take these two days in the middle of the season of repentance to remember G-d – and then we do just as He did: we act. We engage in life-restoring acts in the runup to Yom Kippur, to repair all the damage we have done in the previous year between us and Hashem, as well as between each and every person.

First we remember, and then, after Rosh Hashanah, we act. And even in the blowing itself, we recall G-d’s act of making room for resumed life on earth when he blew the waters away, reciprocating in turn by inviting G-d back into a renewed existence in our hearts and souls.

Teruah

Teruah, a blast or horn blow, is an easier word to define than zichron because it only appears a few times: concerning Rosh Hashanah and then Yom Kippur. And then teruah is used to describe how the horns should be blown for assembling and marching the nation (Numbers 10:6 and 31:6).

What stands out here is that the Torah specifically tells us that when we are not marching, we can blow to assemble, but we must not blow a teruah. (Num. 10:7).

What does this mean? It teaches us specifically that the word teruah is associated not merely with alarm or assembly (both of which are found in the Jewish people on Rosh Hashanah), but that a teruah is the signal to start a journey or to go to war. We do not merely huddle together and tremble. We go out and we do something about it. The teruah is, among other things, a call to action, a call to arms. So, too, on Rosh Hashanah. When the shofar blows, we unify, and then we march.

Takah

Takah is not used in the Torah directly with Rosh Hashanah itself; the word is found elsewhere when blowing a teruah is mentioned, and our sages use it to explain the longer sounds we blow on Rosh Hashanah. So takah is integrally linked with the day throughout Jewish history and tradition.

What does it mean? This word is fascinating, because though takah is only found a few places, it is used in different ways almost every time. (For the curious, it is used Gen. 31:25, 32:26, Ex. 10:19, Num 10:3-10 – the last being when it is twinned with “teruah” to link with blowing.) Working with the principle that a word in the Torah is defined by its first usage, takah is defined in the standoff between Jacob and Laban as Jacob is going back to Canaan with his wives, children, and possessions.

Jacob had takah [pitched] his tent into the mountain, and Laban with his brethern takah in the mountain of Gilead.

The word here is one of deliberate, hard action: a strong driving force. Indeed, when one considers that every other case of a tent being pitched in the Torah uses a different verb yate, takah gains a very specific meaning: it is an act of building that is defiant and forceful in its nature. Yate is used when people pitch tents in a normal, peaceful way. Takah, by contrast, is a physically powerful act. It is the same verb used to describe Yael’s action of driving a tent-peg into Sisera’s temple.

So what does it have to do with Rosh Hashanah? I think the answer is found in the notion that our breath is the expression of our souls, the recycling of the spirit breathed into Adam. Solomon said, “All is vanity” but the word for “vanity” is the same word as “breath.” For mankind, everything is breath. And breath is everything. Our breath, our spirit, is at one and the same time our vitality and our mortality. It is our life force, and yet it is sure to be snuffed out.

When we blow tekias shofar, we are driving our breath into the horn. It is not a natural act, nor is it easy. Indeed, the sound that comes out the other end is one that pierces us, touches us at the core of our being. It is a difficult, defiant act. Takah is doing that which is hard to do! We are raging against the inevitable, using our breath to proclaim our lives and our spiritual energy. And at the very same time, we are triumphally engaged in zichron teruah, joyfully engaging with our Creator.

When we takah on Rosh Hashanah, we are driving our own tent pegs into the hard rock of a mountain: we are making our own stand, building an edifice against all the assaults of nature. And our takah is embued with the fierce pride of being Hashem’s people, for as long as we or our descendants draw breath.

Our lives and our breath are here, now. It is hard to build and sustain life, just as it is hard to drive tent pegs into mountain rock (or Sisera’s forehead). And our breath, just like Jacob’s tent, will ultimately have nothing more than a temporary existence. Nevertheless, we takah.

The famous Unesaneh Tokef prayer tells us of the Great Shofar Blasting (takah). What follows? The still small voice…. if we listen for it. The voice of the divinely-shared spirit is there, a shadow reflection of the great takah. That voice is in the silence that follows the ear-ringing scream of the shofar, in the thoughts that run rings around each other in our minds.

The only sure thing about the future is that we do not know it. Nevertheless, we do not flag, we must not lose courage. And that is a challenge. We are frightened by the unknown. Despite our best attempts to limit uncertainty, we don’t know what awaits us tomorrow or next month, let alone next year. Our Zichron Teruah is a remembrance of history and our relationship with Hashem, allowing us to extrapolate from our distant and near past and continue to take blind steps into the unknown. Going forward in life is an act of faith. We often are pretty sure that we know where we are, but we are never certain of where we are going.

What do we do? With simultaneous joy and trepidation, we blow the shofar. Tekiyas teruah is an act of faith. Anchored to zichron, we know that there must be a future for us, because there most surely has been a past. Our zichron bonds with Hashem and all of the reconnections and remembrances between man and G-d since Noah. Just as He remembered us, so too, we remember Him and make room for Him in every facet of our lives. And as with the Children of Israel when the horns blew the teruah, we gird our loins, and march into the New Year, united and resolved, and ready for action.

Footnote: Yate is also the word for planting a garden (Hashem yates the Garden of Eden, Noach does the same with his vineyard and Avraham with a tree) It is an organic act, an act of living in harmony. The word is even used with Yehudah’s intimacy. Yate is the comfortable way.

Comments are welcome!