In the past I had trouble with figuring out what to do on Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur was straightforward enough – ask for forgiveness for all the wrong things that I had done and hope that He says yes. But on Rosh Hashanah, there was no asking! Of course, the prayers were lengthy and intense, but it mostly contained descriptions of God as King, as One Who Remembered, along with lists of the sources for Shofar. There wasn’t much in the way of concrete directives to assist in focusing my thoughts. I looked in the Torah and found an answer (with some assistance from R. Hirsch)
The following helped me understand the meaning behind each of the three stages (Rosh Hashanah, Aseret Yemei Teshuva and Yom Kippur) that we find ourselves thrown into this time of year and perhaps, if you too have this ‘Rosh Hashanah quandary’ maybe this will assist you in a more meaningful start to the New Year.
If the sounding of the Shofar is the sole ‘mitzvah symbol’ of the day (as prescribed by God), then we must understand its meaning to fully understand the intended meaning of the holiday itself. There are four times in the Torah (besides Rosh Hashanah) where a ‘blast’ is sounded; although twice it is with a Shofar and twice with trumpets, the blasts are labeled ‘Tekiya’ or Teruah’ regardless of the instrument. We can therefore compare all of these ‘blasts’ to construct an overall message behind the blasts of Rosh Hashanah (which are also ultimately described as a ‘Tekiya’ and ‘Teruah’).
The first of the four blasts recorded in the Torah is that of the Shofar at Har Sinai which introduces the episode of the Aseret Ha’Dibrot (Shemot, 19: 16). The next is mentioned at the beginning of Parshat Be’Har, during the description of the Yovel (50th year) process (Va’yikra 25: 9) where the Shofar is sounded to announce the return of all slaves to their original state of freedom and the return of the land to their original owners. The third and fourth are both used in Parshat Be’Ha’alotcha, in the description of how to call the nation to war (Ba’midbar 10: 5) and how to order the nation to travel (ibid: 9).
The basic requirement for blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah is: Tekiya, Shevarim/Teruah and a final Tekiya. In other words, the blast pattern is as follows: a long blast, some kind of broken blast, followed by another long blast. (This is the basic set the Torah requires as explained by Chazal, learned through a gezeira shava from Yom Kippur on Yovel).
Bringing all this together, we can now posit an understanding behind the sounding of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah and how it assists in our kavanah for the day. The first Tekiyah (that of Har Sinai) is there to remind us of the original Brit; this illustrates the supposed relationship we are to have with God. This is the way it is supposed to be! We – both God and Bnei Yisrael – signed a contract at Har Sinai which required us to perform in a certain way, mutually accepting a reciprocating relationship. The next blast to be blown, the broken Tekiya, is the Shevarim or Teruah which represents our corruption of said relationship; a tainted, broken ‘Sinai Brit’ because we have not reciprocated as required during the previous year and are sins have demonstrated a rejection of that ideal, intended relationship with God. (This also fits well with the idea that these broken blasts are supposed to mimic two different forms of crying!) With the blowing of this sound, we are made distinctly aware that in actuality we have not upheld our side of the covenant as required. The final sound, the second Tekiyah, is our ‘call to war’ / our ‘call to travel’! We must ‘rally’ ourselves to ‘travel’ forward, out of our corrupted state and return to the proper, original state (Yovel). This blast serves as our wake up call to return to the intended relationship as prescribed (and accepted) at Har Sinai!
Having understood the meaning behind the Shofar of Rosh Hashanah, we can now better understand exactly what we should be thinking about and working towards during this holiday. Through the hearing of the Shofar (and the text of the davening – declaring God as King, for example) we are to realize the exact requirements of the covenantal relationship and how God has fulfilled His conditions while we have not satisfied ours. In other words, Rosh Hashanah is there to make us aware of the expected relationship and how far we have strayed from it during the past year.
A popular misconception is the label ‘Aseret Yemei teshuva,’ and the days to which it is referring. For most people understand this to refer to the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; however, in actuality, in order to reach ‘ten days’ you must include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If this is so, we must understand how every one of these days fits into the formula in obtaining teshuva. With our understanding of Rosh Hashanah, the role of each of these days will now fall perfectly into place. Having realized through the awakening of Rosh Hashanah that we have in fact strayed from our responsibilities, we are then required to make a list, itemizing exactly what has caused us to stray – this is done during interim Aseret Yemei Teshuva days. Then, with that list in hand, we can confidently and preparedly enter into Yom Kippur with the proper motivation (and with the method/vehicle) to return to the ideal God/Jew relationship (as illustrated on Rosh Hashanah) and the sins we have to repent for (the interim Aseret Yemei Teshuva) in order to receive full forgiveness and ‘return’ (‘Teshuva’) to God for another chance to join into the expected relationship with Him.
Rav Jonathan Bailey