High Holy Days: Gates Of Repentance

The Wordless Cry  

We just celebrated Rosh HaShanah – and it was indeed the most unusual Rosh Hashanah in Israel. Due to the coronavirus lockdown, we did not celebrate with relatives and friends; we couldn’t worship together; we couldn’t actually leave our homes! Almost everything about this year’s celebration was different – but amid these mostly sad differences, there was something that actually gave us hope. It is this hope that I’d like to share with you today.

We remember that the Torah refers to this festival as Zikhron Teru’ah (memorial [of] blowing [of Trumpets]) – therefore, the central point of each Rosh Hashanah service and celebration is blowing the Shofar. Have you ever wondered why?

The Torah does not specify why we are to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.  Many explanations can be found though, and you probably know some of them. “On Rosh Hashanah we acknowledge God as King of the world. The shofar’s call heralds this exciting event.” Or: “It reminds us of the sound that was heard when God descended on Mount Sinai and gave us the Torah.” Or: “Made of a ram’s horn, the shofar reminds us of Aqedat Itzhak, the Binding of Isaac, who was saved when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead.” And of course, all these reasons are true and valid – but there is something else extremely important  that I want to mention here. What else, according to Jewish commentaries, does the sound of shofar symbolize?

You probably know that the shofar of Rosh HaShanah inaugurates the period of Ten Days of Repentance. Our sages teach that the piercing sound of shofar symbolizes the cry from someone who has no words—who enters these Days not even able being to utter the words of repentance, but he still desires to reach God! Aren’t we all like this? We all want God to hear us; we want to tell Him about our utmost desire –רצוננו לעשות רצונך , it is our desire to perform your will! – and about  our constant failure to fulfil it. Whether we describe it as our ‘evil inclination,’ as Judaism does, or together with Paul we say,  For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” [1]  – we know that we fail to fully perform His will; that we are stained with sins and long to be cleansed. And for that we have the shofar: its sound represents the cry of the heart that has no words, but still longs to return to its spiritual home! And even though there are people who are not moved by the sound of shofar, who go through these Holy Days with the slumbering hearts and without any spark of inner recognition, there are always hearts that are awakened by this piercing sound, by this wordless cry and wordless hope reaching to Heaven.

But it doesn’t end there. The sound of the shofar doesn’t only represent the cry for spiritual help – it is also our cry for physical help! The Talmud says that the shofar brings before God a remembrance of the Jewish people for their benefit.  Therefore, I was so happy to learn, even before the Holiday, that there was appointed a special hour when Israelis all around the country would blow the shofar simultaneously! And so it happened: standing on the porches and balconies of their homes, Israelis blew their shofars before God, recognizing His absolute sovereignty and our total and complete dependence on Him – as the wordless hope and plea, as the wordless desperate cry piercing the Heavens. I know that many friends of Israel joined this piercing cry of our shofars from their own countries and from their homes as well – and I sincerely believe that it was the most important point of Rosh Hashanah this year.

 

What Can We Say?

I love Jewish commentary regarding the different names of God in the opening chapters of Genesis: “God” (Elohim) in Genesis 1, and “the Lord God” (Adonai Elohim) in Genesis 2. Jewish tradition sees in these names two sides of the nature of God – where “God” represents the quality of justice, and “the Lord God” represents the quality of mercy. According to some midrashim, the world was originally created by God as Elohim in Genesis 1, but then God saw that, without His mercy His creation would not endure, and therefore, in Genesis 2 He is called the Lord God.

Without His mercy His creation would not endure … There is a human counterpart to this statement: without the possibility of repentance, the world could not exist! As our sages teach and as we all know from our own experience – man stumbles more than he strides. That’s why “the concept of teshuvah  (repentance) had to be created before the universe, for God would not create a world that was doomed from its inception”.[2]

We already know that the shofar of Rosh HaShanah opens Ten Days of Repentance. According to Jewish Sages, repentance during these Ten Days is especially meaningful and can accomplish more than at any other time of the year. In Biblical times, during the solemn ritual of Yom Kippur, the High Priest had to confess before God “all the iniquities of the sons of Israel”.[3] Today, we ourselves confess our sins before God on Yom Kippur. Confession is a very important step in the eyes of God, and yet the first time the word “confess” occurs is in the book of Leviticus (Lev. 5:5). Was there confession in the Torah before Leviticus?

Surprisingly, we don’t see the Patriarchs confessing their sins before God. Perhaps they did, but the Torah leaves it between them and God. The first person that the book of Genesis shows us confessing his sin is Judah, the fourth son of Jacob. At the end of the greatly overlooked story of Judah and Tamar, Judah admits his sin and takes responsibility for it.

Is this connection between Judah and confession occasional? As we all know, nothing is occasional in the word of God – and amazingly, the very message of confession is hidden in the name of Judah. Some of my readers  may  know that the name Judah (יהודה) comes from the verb lehodot (להודות), and the first meaning of this verb is to “thank” or to “praise” (When Leah gave birth to her fourth son, she declared: “This time I will praise the Lord.” Therefore she named him Judah). However, few are aware that the verb lehodot has yet another meaning: to “admit,” or “confess”. For example, a special prayer of confession for Yom Kippur is called Vidui, confession, and … it comes from the same very root. This means that the name of Judah might be rendered as ‘The Confessing One’.

To make this case even stronger, I would quote from the special prayers called Selichot – the prayers we recite before Yom Kippur asking for forgiveness: “What can we say? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves?”  Not many people know that these are actually  Judah’s words: we find them in Genesis 44, when Judah speaks to Joseph after Benjamin’s alleged ‘crime’ with stolen cup. You might remember the story and recall that Benjamin was not guilty of this crime and neither were his brothers – they didn’t steal the cup. However, Judah does confess the iniquity that God has found!  Even though the brothers were not guilty of that particular sin, they accepted the conviction and chastisement from the One before whom they had long ago so terribly sinned: What can we say? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves?

This should be our attitude when we come to the Lord with our confession and repentance. Even if at first we see ourselves as innocent regarding some sins, as we stand before God and open our hearts to the rays of His light, He brings things to the surface, and confession becomes profound and real. That is why the words of Judah that open one of the most beautiful stories of confession, became part of the Selichot prayers—as we begin our Selichot time, we say the same words: What can we say? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? There are no words we can say to justify ourselves, – and because of that, the Days of Awe open and close with the wordless cry of the shofar!

[1] Rom 7:15

[2] Yom Kippur – it’s significance, laws and prayers, Mesorah Publications, ,p.15 ; Nedarim 39b

[3] If you are interested to read more about this mysterious sacrifice and its prophetic meaning, you can read my post on this blog “Two Goats of Yom Kippur”.

https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/yom-kippur-two-goats/

 

If the articles on this blog  whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying  in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsI would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding  eTeacher courses (juliab@eteachergroup.com) . Also, if you like the  articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  click  here to check them out. 

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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Join the conversation (12 comments)

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  1. Anna MáriaMagdaléna Banášová

    Hi Julia! Thank you for your work. I enjoy reading your blogs very much. It is like diving into God’s wisdom… Unfortunatelly, my english is not very good, sometimes I need a dictionary or translator. I put some sentences from this blog into translator and I saw something breathtaken…”Judah’s words” was translated (slovak language) as “words of Judas”, words of man, who betrayed Jesus. I saw Judas… Maybe he whispered or shout the same words:“What can I say? What can I speak? And how can I justify myself?” But he didn’t know that there was a shofar for him…

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Anna, thank you for being a faithful reader and supporter, I really appreciate you making these efforts to read the blog. This translator’s mistake is very unexpected and truly makes one think about what was going on in Judas’ heart. Do you know by the way, that there is no difference in Hebrew between the names of Judah and Judas, in Hebrew, it’s the same name Yehudah? So much to ponder.

  2. Mark Stevens

    Julia, this was a beautiful narrative and poetic in a sense – thank you for sharing your heart on this….

  3. Joseph

    That is amazing!

  4. Dorothy Healy

    Julia, you express so beautifully the profound interaction between the deep, hidden sins in our hearts, and the Spirit and grace of God necessary to bring them to the surface in order for true repentance to take place. For me, this resonates with Zechariah 12:10 – a time, perhaps at the time of the Rosh Hashanah shofar blasts, when He “pours out on the House of David and on the people of Jerusalem, a spirit of grace and prayer…”, and their prayer, “What can we say? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves?” truly ushers in the most profound, world changing repentance in all of history.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Dot – and welcome back! I missed you on these pages! Chag Sameach!

  5. Francois Aerts

    Shalom Julia, I noticed something weard as I read the Hebrew text ” מַה-נֹּאמַר לַאדֹנִי, מַה-נְּדַבֵּר, וּמַה-נִּצְטַדָּק ” “What shall we say, what shall we speak, how shall we justify ourselves ?”. I think that ” מַה-נִּצְטַדָּק ” (how shall we justify ourselves) should have been ” מה נתצדק “. Where is this displacement of letters and that middle TETH coming from ? When splitting up the verb, we see the word ” דַּק ” (meager, weak) on the left and ” נֵץ ” (hawk OR flower) on the right. We see the duality “powerless and thin” on one side, and “strong and beautifull” on the other side. This agrees with the meaning of the letter teth in Hebrew : – its meaning is connected to the Hebrew word “tov” (טוב), meaning “good”. – A certain duality is associated with this Hebrew letter because, while it is the first letter in the Hebrew word for “purity” (טהרה), it is also the first letter in the Hebrew word for “impurity” (טומאה). The existence of “Tov – good” implies the existence of “Ra – Evil”. Additionally, while it is the first letter in the word for good (טוב) which is used to describe G-d’s reaction to the creation of light, He then goes on to separate between the light and the darkness, thus connecting once again back to duality (Source : https://hebrewtoday.com/alphabet/the-letter-tel-%D7%98/ ).
    My conclusion is that this distortion in the Hebrew text might not be erroneous, but rather inspired by Roeach Elohim – The Spirit of the Lord. What is your point of view concerning this weirdly distorted hitpaeel verb ?

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Francois, your comment is so deep, as always. Honestly, I’ve never really given it a thought, since there is a simple rule for the Hebrew Hitpael verbs: if the first root letter is צ, then ת becomes ט (as in הצטער, for instance). But after your comment, I really started to think about it, since I know ( and always say that ) that Hebrew is an amazing language, and that every word in the Scripture expresses incredibly profound things! Thank you so much for bringing my attention to this word! I would love to hear more from you on these pages!

  6. JOHN AKIN

    Julia, Thank you so very much for your thoughts, teachings and out going love for us your readers. God blesses me through them.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you John, I am really blessed to hear that. Chag Sameach!

  7. Lisa Tuggle

    Julia, thank for sharing. This blog is wonderful. Your keen insights in this blog post lead me to see–once again–the beautiful artwork of the Lord our God as displayed in the interplay between the scriptural pericopes you describe and the traditions of Judaism experienced today.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you so much Lisa, for your kind words. I am so glad you find this blog helpful! Chag Sameach!