Each of our festivals, biblical as well as rabbinic, derives its sanctity from the miraculous occurrence which took place on that day. For example, Passover begins on the date the Hebrews left Egypt, and Hanukka on the date the Maccabees achieved victory over the Greek- Syrian Hellenists.
In the case of Rosh Hashana, our liturgy repeats again and again, “Today the world was conceived” (Hayom harat olam), and the Midrash explains this phrase to refer to the day on which the first human being was created. Hence Rosh Hashana is the most universal of our celebrations, urging us to give thought to and thanks for the emergence of the human being. This leads us to ponder the most existential of questions: Why are we here? What is our purpose? And – each in his/her own personal way – are we making the most of the allotted time we have in this world? It is to be expected that the commandments of the day will help us on this crucial existential journey. The introductory verse to this commentary defines a commandment unique to Rosh Hashana: On this day we must sound the shofar, the ram’s horn, and it is to be the broken, staccato sound of the horn, the terua. The Talmud defines this sound as either three sighs (shevarim),nine sobs (terua) or a combination of the two.
What is this commandment teaching us? Is it that this world, this life into which we were born, is a vale of tears, a series of sighs, a sojourn of suffering? If so, why is Rosh Hashana considered a festival, a day on which we are enjoined to rejoice, a day in which we must drink wine and eat meat, a day which cancels a bereaved person’s seven days of mourning? Does our Bible not teach us, at the conclusion of its account of the primordial week of creation, “And God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good” (Genesis 1:31)? Does not the entire corpus of Jewish law teach us about the ultimate value of each human life, the necessity of even desecrating Shabbat to preserve life, that he who preserves a human life is considered as though he preserved the entire world?
To be sure, there is an additional sound of the shofar. An exultant, victorious sound; the straight, clear sound which announced the coronation of the kings of Israel. The tekiya sound. But the source of this sound is not a description of our Rosh Hashana celebration; rather it belongs to the Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year, the 50th year which in biblical times proclaimed freedom for all inhabitants throughout the land, when each person was to return to his family and ancestral heritage, a year which presaged the period of redemption for all humanity.
The Talmud links Yom Kippur to Rosh Hashana, and joins the tekiya of Yom Kippur to the terua of Rosh Hashana as well.
But why is the day the first human being was born biblically linked to the sighing, sobbing sound of the terua? My revered teacher, Rav Joseph B.
Soloveitchik, explained that in truth the Almighty created an imperfect, incomplete – even broken – world. The prophet Isaiah says it clearly: “The Former of light and Creator of darkness, the Maker of peace and Creator of evil – I am God, the Maker of all these things” (Isaiah 45:5).
Rav Haim Vital explains, in the name of the Holy Ari, that God – who is first and foremost a God of love – had to constrict Himself (tzimtzum) as it were, and leave room for “other.” He had to leave room for a human being with the freedom of choice to do even that which God would not wish him to do, leave room for a world which would also contain chaos, darkness and evil.
Thus the human being would not merely be an extension of God (for if so, in loving the human being, God would only be loving Himself); the truly free human being would then act not merely as a pawn or puppet, but rather as a full partner with God, charged with the possibility of repairing the broken world, or perfecting the imperfect, incomplete world in the Kingship of the Divine.
God promises His chosen people, Israel, that we will ultimately choose the good, repent, perfect ourselves and teach the world God’s love, morality and peace, so that the world may be redeemed (Deut. 30:1-10, Isaiah 2, Micah 4). Hence our mission is to repair the broken world, each in his/her own way, each in his/her environment with the gifts with which we were blessed by God.
Each of us must communicate Abraham’s compassionate righteousness and moral justice however we can do it best.
The terua, the broken sound of Rosh Hashana, tells it to us the way it is, from the depths of the broken vessels within the world. The exultant tekiya sound tells us that ultimately we can and will succeed – personally, universally and cosmically.
For every broken sound, there are two victorious sounds – because our Creator loves us, believes in us and guarantees our ultimate success and redemption.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.