Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Monday, September 2, 2013

Walk Article


Rosh Hashanah-5774

Rabbi David Walk


            Rosh Hashanah is unique amongst Jewish holidays.  It is the only Yom Tov which coincides with Rosh Chodesh, the new moon.  This is significant because moonlight was of great consequence to humanity before Thomas Alva Edison.  I've hiked in theJudean Desert under a full moon and there was no need for flashlights.  You could even read a book with large print by this powerful glow.  So, it's not a surprise that most Jewish celebrations take place on the fifteenth of Jewish months, which is when the moon is full.  The significance of Rosh Hashanah as the unusual circumstance is, therefore, very important.  Actually one of the nicknames for this festival is Keseh, the covered day.  The source for that usage is in the Psalm recited by many on Rosh Hashanah:  Sound the Shofar on the New Moon, on the covered time for the day of our festival (81:4).   This makes some sense, of course, because this status of the moon being covered hints at the state of doubt surrounding our fate on this Day of Judgment.  Even though we may be confident and even pleased that God is our judge, nevertheless there is still some anxiety over the verdict until that great day of forgiveness, Yom Kippur.  However, I saw an idea, which was new to me in a recent publication by Rabbi Ya'akov Medan of Yeshivat Har Etziyon in Alon ShvutIsrael.

            In an essay about the process of blowing Shofar on the festival, Rav Medan suggests that the covered nature of the Shofar goes far beyond astronomic phenomena.  Initially he says that the holiday itself is covered because there is no mention in the Torah about the significance of the day.  We are basically just told to celebrate it:  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 Israel through the Shofar blast a holy occasion (Leviticus 23:24).  Nary a mention of Creation or judgment.  But the most revealing aspect of the covered nature of the day is connected to the Shofar.  This idea will take a little explaining.

            The Musaf service for Rosh Hashanah is sui generis.  All of our modern silent devotion prayers have either nineteen blessings, like the daily Shmoneh Esreh (which ironically means eighteen, but that's a topic for another time), or seven like all Shabbat, holiday and Musaf services, except Rosh Hashanah Musaf.  This one has nine.  Instead of one central blessing describing the sanctity of the day, there are three blessings about the three central concepts of the day, namely God's kingship over the world, God's power of memory, and Shofar blasts.  The Sages decided to emphasize the importance of these concepts by attaching ten Biblical quotations to each, three from Torah, three from the Writings, three from the Prophets, and, then, a last verse from the Torah.  This format makes this the longest prayer of the year.  But when you look at the verses chosen for the Shofar section, a pattern emerges.  In the verses chosen from the Torah and the Prophets the Shofar is being blown by God.  The earlier verses discuss God blowing Shofar at Mount Sinai, and the latter verses are about the Shofar which will be blown to herald the Messianic period.  However, the middle verses (from Writings) are about humans blowing Shofar for the glory of God.  The verses about us performing the mitzvah of Shofar blasts are bracketed fore and aft by verses about God blowing Shofar.  Our Shofar blasts are covered.  But that's true of the real life Shofar blasts as well.  We bracket the broken notes (teruah andshevarim) with the simple, straight notes (tekiah).   Thank you to Rav Medan for making me aware of this reality, but what does it mean?  Well, I guess it's time for me to earn my keep.

            If I were a true mystic, I might say that this arrangement truly describes human life.  Our souls begin in the Divine environment of the spiritual realm where things are simple and straightforward, like a tekiah.  On the other hand, life in this physical realm is complicated and full of broken notes and tears.  This scenario ends with our souls returning home to simplicity.  But I'm not a true mystic.

            Another answer may be hidden in the Psalm which we recite seven times before we blow Shofar.  In this poem we proclaim:  God shall be exalted with the trumpet blast (teruah); the Lord, with the sound of the Shofar (Psalm 47:6).  In that verse God is Elokim or our Creator in the scary, judgmental mode, while Lord is the ineffable name, which denotes the Deity in compassion guise.  So, we want the harsh courtroom version of our Maker to have the compassionate edition of God on the left and right.  Also, when we blow the Shofar the broken, complicated notes have an elegant, simple note before and after.  We tend to hide our tears and sobs.  We want the whole world to see our smiles and hear our shouts of joy.  We stand before the Heavenly Judge on Rosh Hashanah, and we recount our actions of the previous year.  Don't we want the covers of this book to be upbeat?

            But, perhaps the best answer of all is that covered-ness describes the reality of our very being.  What are humans if not a spiritual core (penimiyut) surrounded by a physical husk of flesh, bone and sinew (chitzoniyut)?  We're like one's favorite candy, an attractive chocolate coating over a hidden secret treasure.  I'd like to suggest a Rollo, my personal favorite.  We go through life with the true essence of our being covered and hidden.  Isn't the justice system meant to uncover the underlying truths?  So, shouldn't our Day of Judgment be an attempt to penetrate the shell to free the Divine spark within?  We go through life disguised.  Rosh Hashanah demands that we acknowledge our true identity, and concede that the soul within must call the shots.  Too often we allow our physical side to control our lives.    Rosh Hashanah is a great opportunity to reveal and reverse history's greatest cover up.

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