Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is upon us. The final days of 5780 are fleeting, as 5781 enters. Jews the world over will observe the upcoming Days of Judgement with awe and trepidation, as the King of all kings sits upon His throne of justice.
And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying, דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר: בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ, יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שַׁבָּתוֹן--זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה, מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ - speak to the Children of Israel saying: in the seventh month, on the first of the month, it shall be a Sabbath for you, a remembrance of the shofar blast, a calling of holiness (Vayikra 23:23-24).
The main motif, the Biblically ordained mitzvas ha’yom (commandment of the day) is the blasts of the shofar. The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 3:4) teaches: אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁתְּקִיעַת שׁוֹפָר בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה גְּזֵרַת הַכָּתוּב רֶמֶז יֵשׁ בּוֹ כְּלוֹמַר עוּרוּ יְשֵׁנִים מִשְּׁנַתְכֶם וְנִרְדָּמִים הָקִיצוּ מִתַּרְדֵּמַתְכֶם וְחַפְּשׂוּ בְּמַעֲשֵׂיכֶם וְחִזְרוּ בִּתְשׁוּבָה וְזִכְרוּ בּוֹרַאֲכֶם - Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashana is a scriptural decree, it contains an allusion. It is as if [the shofar's call] is saying: Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep! (Wake up) you who slumber, arise! Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator.
The shofar blasts are meant to arouse us from our spiritual slumber. Tekiah - shevarim - teruah it calls out to us. The blasts stir our souls and remind us that there is an Eye that sees, an Ear that hears, and that all of our deeds are recorded in the Book (Avos 2:1).
R’ Soloveitchik zt’l powerfully teaches, “מִן-הַמֵּצַר, קָרָאתִי יָּ - הּ, from the straits I call upon G-d (Ps.118:5). The dominant theme of Rosh Hashana is the declaration of G-d’s sovereignty. The corresponding realization is that we are utterly dependent on Him alone. Prayer is significant only when it dawns upon man that his situation is hopeless, that he is utterly defeated, that there is no one to help him but G-d. Prayer and crisis are inseparably linked. Meaningful prayer issues from existential distress, from ‘out of the straits,’ when man feels trapped and defeated.
“The Shofar prompts crisis-awareness. On Rosh Hashana we are in crisis because on this day, the fate of the individual as well as that of the world hangs in a precarious balance. Although this awareness is most acute on Rosh Hashana, it is a permanent feature throughout the year. The crisis exists as long as the human is aware of himself. It is the crisis that expresses itself in man’s fear of death, his anxiety about his future, his feelings of guilt regarding the past, and his yearning to recover lost time and wasted opportunities, to undo things that he did and to do what he did not do” (Machzor Masores haRav l’Rosh Hashana, p. 444-445).
While this Rosh Hashana is admittedly very different than yomim tovim past, and many of us may find ourselves davening this year - not with a minyan in beis knesses - but from our own homes, let us not forget the power of the day’s holiness.
R’ Yisroel Stone, the Chabad rabbi of the Chabad Lower East Side (NY), shared the following story:
At or around midnight the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, Ashkenazic Jewish communities around the world begin reciting Selichot — the penitential prayers in preparation for the High Holidays.
A story is told about Rabbi Shmuel Munkes, a disciple of the Alter Rebbe (R’ Shneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812, founder of Chabad), a very devout and spiritual man with a strong sense of humor.
One year, as he traveled to be with his Rebbe for Rosh Hashanah, he spent Shabbat at a roadside inn owned by an elderly Jewish couple. At midnight, the owners dutifully roused their guests to join them at the local synagogue for Selichot. When they came to Rabbi Shmuel’s room, he seemed confused.
“Why are you waking me up in the middle of the night?” he asked. “To recite Selichot,” they replied. “I’ve never heard of this prayer before,” he said. “What is it all about?”
The owners seemed bewildered at the site of a bearded and respectable looking rabbi, who apparently had never heard of this ancient Jewish custom. So they began to explain: “We pray to G-d that the cow gives milk in the coming year and that we make enough money to support our family.”
Rabbi Shmuel then turned serious and said to them: “You’re waking up in the middle of the night the week before the holiest day of the year to pray for your cow?! That’s not what the High Holidays are all about!”
Indeed, let us not forget that while we surely should be praying for materialistic good, our focus during the High Holidays should be on our relationship with G-d, and our commitment to being the best Jews that we can be.
As we pass before G-d this Rosh Hashana, as a shepherd counts his flocks, let us recommit ourselves to living meaningful, connected and purposeful lives. While we daven that ‘the cow should give milk’, let us not forget that Rosh Hashana is Coronation Day. Let us daven that G-d’s Presence be revealed in our world, that truth shall prevail over falsehood this coming year, that light shall dispel the darkness that envelops us, and that peace shall finally be bestowed upon our people, our Land, our city of peace, and this world.
May we merit to hear the call of the great shofar this coming new year, which will signal our final redemption and ultimate return.
ותקע בשופר גדול לחרותינו ושא נס לקבץ גליותינו - and blast the great shofar of our freedom, and raise the banner of the ingathering of the exiles (weekday amidah).
בברכת שנה טובה ומתוקה
- Aleinu L'Shabei'ach: Understanding The Bnei Basar & Rishei Aretz & The Corruption & Destruction of Society