Awaken from your slumber: Rosh HaShana

The Hebrew phrase shana hadasha (new year) contains within it a contradiction – a shana (year) denotes something that repeats itself again and again, whereas hadasha (new) denotes change, emergence from a cycle of repetition.

Each year is essentially a repetition of the basic structure. Once again, we experience fall, winter, spring, summer; once again there are shorter days and longer days, rainy season and dry season, cold and heat. The constant repetition is not limited to the weather or to the annual seasons; recurrence and routine are the pattern of all of life. Every person’s life, with the exception of rare incidents, essentially flows in a routine cycle. Even events that involve change or upheaval – birth, marriage, death – quickly fall into set molds. Indeed, the events of most people’s lives are so similar that it often appears as though we experience these events not as different people but as one anonymous figure. It is as if a form of a human being, invested with life-like mobility, moves from place to place, constantly changing its garments, rushing from one ceremony to the next, repeating over and over again the same motions and the same words and going through the same emotions.

And the people themselves, the living people who, after all, have their own character and their own lives – what are they doing? They seem to be sleeping, leading a vegetative existence, looking forward to a “new year,” anticipating something that will bring change and awaken them.

Rosh haShana is the day on which the new year begins, and the central event of this festival day is the blowing of the shofar. The shofar is not, and never was, a musical instrument. The shofar‘s sound, particularly when broken into the tones of shevarim and terua, is the sound of a cry, of sobbing and moaning. It is a sound that is threatening, agitating, and alarming. Maimonides writes:

In the blowing of the shofar on Rosh haShana, there is an allusion, as though saying: Awake you sleepers from your sleep, and slumberers arise from your slumbering…All who forget the truth in the follies of the times and err the whole year in vanity and emptiness that cannot benefit or save, look to your souls, improve your ways…(Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4)

The sound of the shofar is not meant to be pleasant to the ear; its purpose is to arouse and to shock, to awaken those who slumber in the endless routine of life and guide them toward teshuva.

Religious life – Interrupting the routine

The essence of teshuva is to stimulate the ability of self-renewal, one’s ability to again become oneself instead of being merely a copy – a copy of a newspaper advertisement, a copy of the neighbors, or even a copy of one’s younger and more authentic self.

Perhaps one might argue that teshuva, returning to a more religious way of life, is by no means the proper way to renew one’s selfhood. After all, isn’t religion, with its thousands of fixed details, commandments, duties and prohibitions, part of the endless repetition and routine, only redoubled?

In truth, religious obligation does not constitute further routine, but rather escape from it. There is certainly a routine of prayers, commandments and good deeds, but this system does not go hand in hand with the other routine of life. On the contrary, it clashes with that routine constantly. It interrupts the ordinary course of eating, drinking, and working, and that interruption of the uniform sequence stimulates change.

It is this “trivial” intervention of the halakha in all the small details of life that saves us from sinking into the mire of animalistic action. The halakha tells us: “Let us desist for a moment from this race! Let us switch for a moment to another system – a system of blessing, of prayer, of washing the hands – a system that is not connected to and does not flow from the daily course of affairs.”

There is an additional renewing aspect of religious life that is worthy of consideration. In any other realm, a person can carry on his activity like a robot for years on end, without feeling obligated to give more of himself than that. One may be a talented and successful worker in the office, an outstanding educator, a spiritual leader, a reliable husband, a loving father – and all these may be nothing more than a mask. Even worse, there may be nothing behind the mask! This is not possible within the world of Judaism, however. One can lead a life of routine, but one cannot escape the knowledge that what he is doing is not right and not proper, that he is deceitful. Although one may be absorbed in a routine of mitzvot, he is bound by the basic duty to direct his mind to what he is doing. He may certainly fool other people in this regard, but he cannot fool G-d, and therefore cannot take comfort in the thought that no one knows the truth.

Because the Jew maintains the feeling that he can and should lead a more meaningful life, he has a chance!