Dvar Torah on Rosh ha-Shanah

Rosh ha-Shanah 2019 / 5779 - Redemption, Exile, Redemption: The Message of the Shofar

27.09.2019 by

This week’s parsha, Nitzavim, which we read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, contains the parsha of Teshuva – Repentance. The repentance discussed here is basically national, rather than personal: “And it shall be when all these things shall come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have placed before you, and you shall return to your heart, while you are among all the nations to which the Lord your God has driven you, and you will return to the Lord your God, and listen to His voice, according to all the things I command you today…And the Lord your God will return the captives, and have mercy on you, and return and gather you from among all the nations to which the Lord your God has scattered you.” (Devarim; 30, 1-3).

The dynamic is one that begins with redemption – the redemption from Egypt which has already happened, and the entry into Israel which will happen soon after this speech, and which will be crowned with “blessing”. It will then proceed to sin and punishment – the ”curse” and the subsequent scattering among the nations - and end with “return”, a return to God, the commandments, the Land of Israel, and blessing. We know that this cycle of redemption, exile, and redemption will repeat itself throughout Jewish history; whether we are now living in a period of redemption, almost-redemption, or exile is a matter of some debate.  

This dynamic is, of course, echoed throughout world literature, both in terms of the communal and the personal. We are all familiar with various great beginnings – starting from the Garden of Eden – which go wrong, lead to a fall, a curse, and a difficult period of “exile” – and which then, hopefully, are successfully understood and navigated in order to reach a “return”, back to the initial blessed state. This is the dynamic of Jewish history, and the dynamic of countless individual lives: we start off in an Edenic state, be it childhood, the first days of a new school year or job, the first years of a marriage or of parenthood, then often experience difficulty, challenge, hardship, even, God forbid, tragedy, and then, hopefully, return, and make our way back to a state of blessing, of return, and redemption.  

When we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we symbolically play out this dynamic. The notes we blow – always a tekiah, followed by a shevarim, teruah, or both, and then again a tekiah, symbolize the dynamic of beginning from a place of wholeness – the straight, clean unbroken single blast of the tekiah – followed by brokenness in its various forms – the broken, tearful notes of the shevarim (which means “broken ones”) and the teruah - followed by the “redemption” of the pure, clear, unbroken tekiah. This is the way all the blasts are sounded: an auspicious, hopeful beginning, then a brokenness, a failure, and, finally, the promise of a return to blessing, the clear blast of the final, redemptive, tekiah.

I wish you all a safe and easy journey through our various experiences of שבר – brokenness – whatever they might be, and a speedy return to where, in our hearts, we know we come from and know we once again will be, a place of  wholeness, unity, and blessing.

Shanah Tova,Shimon

Rosh ha-Shanah Summary

ראש השנה

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, has contradictory characteristics and elements. We have the custom, at the holiday meal, of eating apples and honey, along with other special, symbolic foods, as we wish one another a sweet new year. On the other hand, it is a day of judgement, when, on the day the world was created, the creator judges all of his creation. The liturgy for the day contains many beautiful prayers, along with the blowing of the shofar, a ram's horn, all meant to arouse us to examine and improve ourselves and the way we live, as we begin a ten-day process of repentance, leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when, hopefully, our sins and shortcomings will be forgiven.

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