The Wordless Cry
We are in the Hebrew month of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. As you all know, the number seven is very important in the Bible. Just as the seventh day is a prophetic symbol of the future messianic kingdom, so is the seventh month: the journey of the soul to the joy of the messianic kingdom is gradually unfolded in this special month, as we proceed from one Festival to another.
Of course, we will begin with the first of Tishrei – Rosh Hashanah. The term “Rosh Hashanah” in its current meaning does not appear in the Bible. Lev.23:24 refers to the festival of the first day of the seventh month as Zikhron Teru’ah ([a] memorial [of] blowing [of Trumpets]); Num. 29:1 calls the festival Yom Teru’ah (“Day [of] blowing [the Trumpet]”). Thus, the biblical Hebrew name for this holiday is Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה), literally “day [of] shouting/blasting”, and is usually translated as the Feast of Trumpets. The only commandment we have in the Torah for this day is indeed the blowing (of the shofar). 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 that I would like to share here. What else, according to Jewish commentaries, does the sound of the 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 a shofar symbolizes the cry from someone who has no words—who enters these Days not even being able to utter the words of repentance, but he still desires to reach God! Aren’t we all like that? 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,” we know that we fail to fully perform His will; that we are stained with sin 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 the shofar, who go through these Holy Days with 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.
The Journey of the Soul
Thus, the sound of the Shofar is a reminder to every soul (that is why it is called Yom Zichron Trua). We each have our own story, but there is also a greater story that each of us is a part of, whether we are aware of it or not. Yom Zichron Trua is a reminder that we are part of His story. It is a reminder to each of us that we are not orphans in this world, that we have a true Father and this Father is King. If we recall also that in Scripture the word lizkor, “remember”, always requires some action—when we read “And the Lord remembered Noah… Sarah… Joseph,” there is always some action following these words—we would understand that the awakening of the soul is only the starting point, after which the real action, the work of the soul, must follow. This work of the soul is the repentance that the Lord expects from the soul. The sound of the shofar awakens the soul on Rosh Hashanah: the soul remembers that it has a Father and a King, and embarks on the path of awe and humility. And then we enter the ten Days of Awe.
I believe these ten days symbolize the journey of the awakened soul. This is the path of somebody who was awakened by the sound of the Shofar to realize that his Father is King, and rejoices and trembles with happiness, but gradually comes to understand that He is his King as well, and humbles herself under this knowledge: He is my King, He is my Master, He is my Lord. It is the same progression that we see in the Song of Songs—from the initial jubilation: My Beloved belongs to me, to the humble recognition: I belong to my Beloved. And thus, we arrive at Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Israel calendar, when we are told to “humble our souls”.
Judah and Slichot
What does it mean, to “humble our souls”? In Leviticus 16, during the solemn ritual of Yom Kippur, the High Priest had to confess “all the iniquities of the sons of Israel”. These days, we ourselves confess our sins before God on Yom Kippur. Clearly, confession is an important step in this “humbling of our souls”. Therefore, before and during Yom Kippur, Jews recite special prayers called Selichot – the prayers of confession and repentance. As we begin our Selichot time, we say: מַה־נֹּאמַר֙ מַה־נְּדַבֵּ֖ר וּמַה־נִּצְטַדָּ֑ק – What can we say? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? Surprisingly, we find exactly the same words in Genesis 44, when Judah speaks to Joseph after Benjamin’s alleged “crime” with the stolen cup. For me personally, this is one of the deepest stories of confession and humbling in the entire Torah. What can we learn from here?
You probably remember the story and recall that Benjamin was not guilty of this crime and neither were his brothers – they didn’t steal the cup. Yet Judah begins his speech with these words: “What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants!” What a surprising declaration! As if truly, for a long time, they had hidden their crime, but God uncovered their sin and pinned it on them, and Judah does confess the iniquity that God has found! Why did he say this? Because by now, Judah and his brothers certainly understood that what was happening was between them and God. They had no reason and no way to justify themselves. The Spirit of God, who was the One at work behind this whole scene, was touching their hearts and Himself directing the dialogue with them. They were not guilty of that particular crime, but they accepted the conviction and chastisement from the One before whom they had long ago so terribly sinned.
This should be our attitude when we come to the Lord with our Selichot, our confession prayers, on Yom Kippur: Even if at first, we see ourselves 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 regular Selichot prayers. This also provides an important insight into the character of God: clearly, repentance is so very important to Him, that He establishes the kingly line of Israel from the tribe of Judah.
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