There is a part of me that really dislikes Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is called Yom HaDin, the “Day of Judgment”–and I simply dread being judged. Who enjoys feeling fear, feeling threatened, or thinking about possibly being punished? It is also referred to as Yom HaZicharon, the “Day of Memory.” On this day God remembers everything—every little itsy bitsy tiny weenie little thing that I did last year—and then decides my fate for the upcoming year.
There is, however, another part of me that feels much love for Rosh Hashanah. It is an opportunity to take inventory of my actions, reflect and make changes to improve myself and my relationships with others. Judgment is actually empowering. It tells me that God cares about my choices and that I make a difference in this world.
Reconciling Our Discrepancies
There is a verse from the book of Psalms that summarizes my ambivalence. The sages associate this verse with Rosh Hashanah. It states
“Serve God with awe, rejoice in trembling.”
This seems to be a paradox—either I am happy and rejoicing or I am frightened and trembling. How can I be doing and feeling both? Yet on Rosh Hashanah somehow I am rejoicing about my trembling.
On Rosh Hashanah when I acknowledge that God is the one and only King and Judge, my ego feels frightened and overwhelmed. My illusion of being self-contained without any accountability to a higher power is shattered.
This egotistical illusion is what the Kabbalah calls klipah–the hard shell. When the shell is broken I realize that I cannot do whatever I want, whenever I want or wherever I want. I am not independent and self defined. There is someone that I am responsible and accountable to. That is very frightening for the ego, but also very reassuring for the self.
The self wants to feel accountability because if I am not accountable then I don’t count. Therefore, on Rosh Hashanah, while my pained ego shatters into little pieces, my true inner self, the soul, is encouraged and rejoices.
On Rosh Hashanah we tremble with joy because we know that God’s judgment is actually an expression of great love and care.
The Shofar’s Three Sounds
When we blow the shofar (ram’s horn) on Rosh Hashanah, we start with a long blast announcing the coming of the King and the establishment of His ruling power. Then the shofar is sounded again, but this time it is a few shorter, fragmented blasts. The sound of this second blast reflects the breakdown of the ego. The King’s presence overwhelms the ego and it breaks down. Then, strangely enough, out of the breakdown comes this new strength, another longer blast, and that hints to the establishment of the self. This is one interpretation of the variation in the blasts of the shofar.
The first sound is called in Hebrew tekiah, which means to sound a horn, but it also means to drive a stake firmly into the ground. In other words, it signals to us that we must firmly establish in our hearts the truth that God is the one and only King and true Judge.
The halacha (Jewish laws) regarding the sounding of the shofar demand that all of the shofar notes sounded shall have a tekiah to precede and succeed them. The tekiah, with its long straight sound, is the bookends of all life. It comes first and it goes last. Tekiah indicates stability, peace, discipline and consistency in life.
However, Tekiah can be a symbol of complacency with the status quo, a complacency which will soon be stirred to action through courage which the Tekiah commands. We have lived a stable life, going about our mundane routine, day in and day out throughout the year. This routine made us indifferent to certain mistunes or defects present on our path. It made us feel safe and sound in that which is familiar. Tekiah is the sound which is to awaken us from a spiritual slumber and prepare us for what is coming next:
The next set of sounds is called shevarim which literal means “breakings.” The shevarim represent the times of trouble, the wails that emanate from the human heart when failure, tragedy and seemingly insurmountable problems befall us. No one can pass through this life without shevarim. It is the call to look beyond ourselves, realize and empathize with the pain existing in this world. It is an awakening towards self evaluation, introspection and the heartbroken feeling that follows, when we understand that we have once again failed living to our full potential. It is the cry to reconnect, grow and achieve. The shevarim sound is also the sound of mourning for the Holy Temple which once stood in Jerusalem. The Jewish people have shed an ocean of tears over history due to the terrible ordeals they had to go through, but those tears have become the strong foundation of a national existence. It is in the darkness of the shevarim of the Jewish People- everything fractured, cracked or broken in our history, that we can find a glimpse of hope and the potential for change.
The broken notes of the shevarim hint to the breakdown of the klipah–the hard shell—created by our ego which claims that we are independent of God. However, after the ego is shattered we once again blast the sound of tekiah, now expressing the establishment of the soul. We now know that we are strong and confident, standing in the loving presence of God. God’s judgment actually affirms our power to make a difference, the truth that we matter and that He loves us.
The teruah is a call for accomplishment. It signals that passivity is unacceptable if our potential is to be realized. We need to be honest about the objective of our lives: Who we are, where we’ve been and the direction towards which we are headed. Teruah is an alarm clock reminding us to complete the mission. It brings clarity, alertness and focus.
The short staccato sounds remind us that progress is often measured in small steps, one foot after the other. Redemption and self-improvement are processes rather than miraculous and sudden epiphanies.
We sound the shevarim and teruah consecutively during shofar service to indicate that after troubles and even tragedy, resilience and positive action is required.
The Shofar’s Symbolism
The sounding of the shofar accompanies three themes that we express in the prayers on Rosh Hashanah: malchiot (kingship), zichronot (memories) and shofrot (shofars).
Malchiot means that God is the King. He is our King, He rules over us all because He created the world and He created us. This world is His Kingdom and we are His subjects.
Zichronot means “memories.” Even though He is our King and next to Him we may feel comparatively minute, zichronot reminds us that we are great in the eyes of God. He remembers us and watches over us. God takes note of everything we do because each and every one of us is significant and noteworthy to God.
He is our King and we are His subjects, not His objects. He is like a King who cares about us and therefore, we are the subject of His rule and love. He only wants whatever is in our best interest, unlike a tyrant or dictator who treats his people like objects to be used for his own interest and pleasure. Zichronot affirms that God remembers us and never forgets us. Even though there are times in our lives when we feel forgotten, that’s only from our perspective. God always remembers us, watches over us and cares.
The third theme expressed in the Rosh Hashanah prayers is shofrot, which literally means “sounds of the shofar” but symbolically refers to the sounds of the shofar heard at the giving of the Torah at Sinai.
This affirms our belief that God not only loves us and cares about us, but He gave us a way to love Him and care about the manifestation of His presence on earth; through the mitzvot, the (divine commandments) of the Torah we are able to love and bond with Him. This is the meaning of the teachings of the Torah and the ultimate purpose of fulfilling the mitzvot.
God’s judgment actually affirms our power to make a difference. When the people of Israel heard the blast of the shofar at Sinai they were literarily blown away (forgive me for the pun). The Midrash teaches that the immensity and the intensity of the revelation were so overwhelming that everyone’s souls flew from their bodies. Therefore God, so to speak, sent angels to push the souls of the Jews back into their bodies and revived them. Although we were totally devastated by the revelation of God, He gave us the strength to maintain ourselves in His presence.
These are the same dynamics at work on Rosh Hashanah. On the one hand, we feel frightened and threatened, and on the other hand, there is something very affirming to know that the King cares, that our choices matter to God and that His judgment will guide us towards choosing the greatest good, a life of Torah and mitzvot so that we can enjoy the greatest pleasure—to love and bond with God.
This article was supplemented with additional information from Shofar.Co, The Holy Land Shofar Company.