Rosh Hashanah: A day of insight not atonement -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

September 21, 2011

What is the difference between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?  We often refer to both as days of judgment, yet they seem as different as night and day.  Rosh Hashanah is a Yom Tov, a joyous holiday, on which we eat and drink and have simcha, joy.   In contrast, on Yom Kippur we are filled with awe and perhaps anxiety, asceticism, and standing for long periods of time, almost the opposite of the Yom Tov of Rosh Hashanah.


The Rambam, Maimonides, writes that the shofar (ram’s horn) is like an alarm that wakes us from the everydayness of the year, the wasting of time, the banal passage of day in and day out.   The sound of the shofar shocks us into evaluation, into reflection upon the rest of the year.


But if Rosh Hashanah is such a day of reckoning, why not say vidoy, confession, on Rosh Hashanah as we do on Yom Kippur?  Indeed according to the halacha, Jewish law, there can be no tishuvah, no repentance, without all of its steps, one of which is verbal confession before God.


Rosh Hashanah, according to the Talmud is the main Day of Judgment.  Yom Kippur is a kind of last resort for those not forgiven on Rosh Hashanah.  As the Talmud says, “On Rosh Hashanah all pass in judgment like sheep…the righteous are judged for life, the wicked for death and the judgments of others are suspended until Yom Kippur.” Then why is Rosh Hashanah a holiday filled with food and drink?   Why not have Yom Kippur on the first of Tishrey (the Hebrew date upon which Rosh Hashanah falls) and be done with the process of judgment?


Perhaps Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are fundamentally different and necessary modes of doing tishuvah (repentance and return).  We see this I think from Maimonides.  According to Maimonides Rosh Hashanah with its shofar sound is not a day of achieving atonement, of the steps of repentance, but of waking up, of coming to terms with life.   Rosh Hashanah lacks the four steps of tishuvah, one of which is formalized confession, yet it is indeed a day of judgment.


There are two stages to tishuvah one which is achieved on Rosh Hashanah and one on Yom Kippur.   One is not complete without the other.   If  we had only Yom Kippur, we would go through the formalized steps of repentance, regretting our sin, stopping it, asking and receiving forgiveness, verbal confession, and becoming someone who will not do it again.   But this would be an incomplete tishuvah.   This would be a tishuvah, though real and transformative with regard to each sin itself, of formality.   The tzadik, the completely righteous person, who has no sins to speak of does not require Yom Kippur and is, according to the Talmud forgiven on Rosh Hashanah, but the righteous individual still does require Rosh Hashanah.   Why?


The tishuvah of Rosh Hashanah is not atonement for individual sins but an essential day of waking and reckoning, of evaluation and insight, which even the person who has not sinned must undergo.  As Maimonides points out, this day with the sound of the shofar, and not Yom Kippur with its atonement, conditions the rest of our year, makes us see the rest of our year as one in which every moment is significant, one in which every moment is a test of making choices, of being at a spiritual crossroads.


Before we can engage in the formalities of the tishivah process of Yom Kippur, we must experience the more global life changing insights of Rosh Hashanah.  To do tishuvah on all of our sins, to feel regret for each of them, ask forgiveness, confess them and not do them again is not enough.   The New Year must be a time of whole life insight and existential transformation.  Such is the call of the Shofar.


My blessings for a New Year of insight, light and transformation,

Rabbi Hyim Shafner

May It Be a Year of Knowing What To Ask For -Rabbi Barry Gelman

September 7, 2010

Shanah Tova to all!

Out Of Control – Rabbi Barry Gelman

September 22, 2009

This past year has been a very frustrating, scary one for many people. The economic crisis has left many people feeling helpless and out of control. Not only in the realm of the economic crisis, but in many other areas of life, we may feel that we are not in control. 

There are some who have put much effort in to raising their children to follow a certain path, yet they choose a different, often a heartbreaking path. As a result, we feel helpless, out of control.In our relationships, especially our marriages, many feel that there is no time to work on a marriage under stress and that our marriages are just sort of limping along. Read the rest of this entry »

For Crying out Loud!

September 11, 2009

In a few days, on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah many of us will fulfill the once a year commandment of hearing the sound of the Shofar.  The mitzvah of the Shofar, as reflected in the blessing we make upon it, is not to blow the shofar, but to hear its sound.

There are primarily two shofar sounds, the tekiah (one long sound) and the teruah (a series of shorter sounds).   The tikiah is the main blast blown on the Yovel, the jubilee year, to declare freedom throughout the Land of Israel, and in a war to call the people to battle.  It is a declaration, a public address system.  But on Rosh Hashanah the main sound of the shofar is the teruah, the shorter staccato series of sounds.

The Talmud in tractate Rosh Hashanah tells us that this teruah blast is the sound of crying.  We blow two versions of the teruah sound, three medium blasts (shevarim) and nine very short blasts because we are unsure what type of cry to mimic, a waling cry (medium blasts) or a more staccato cry (short blasts) so we blow both on Rosh Hashanah.   All of these teruah blasts on Rosh Hashanah are for one purpose, to express through the shofar horn, the sound of crying.

What is the purpose of this crying; this teruah blast?  The Torah tells us (Lev. 23:24) that it is “zichron”, memory.  But what are we to remember through the cry of the teruah and how does crying shofar sound help us to remember?

The medical and psychological literature on crying tells us that crying results from changes in, and usually losses of, intimate interpersonal relationships.  As Don Quixote once said, “He loves you well, who makes you weep.”

What purpose does crying serve?   Many people facing the loss of such a relationship report feeling less sad after crying.   Though the relationship they were lamenting has not changed their crying was a kind of catharsis, a shedding of armor allowing deeper emotions and true feelings to emerge into awareness.  Crying is a state that is quite vulnerable, one in which we become more ourselves, exposed and real.  True crying is perhaps the most genuine of acts.

“Zichron,” or memory, is thus an essential part of crying.  Without memory there is no change in relationship.  Without memory things are only as they are.   There can be no regret without memory, no hope for the relationship to be or have been other than it was.   No feelings of loss for the past and no feeling of hope for the future.

Our Shofar sound, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy relates, also recalls two historical shofar blasts.  That of the shofar at Mount Sinai when the Jews first received the Torah and became a godly nation, and the future shofar blast that will be sounded at the heralding of the messiah.  We first recall the shofar of the past, the memories of our most intimate moment of relationship with God, the moment of our wedding as a nation to God at Mount Sinai.

Weddings are the most photographed and remembered moments.   From no other event is cake saved for years to come only to recall the past, dresses preserved and videos watched.   But weddings, as ours with God at Mount Sinai, are only one day.  A wedding’s function in memory is to remember how the relationship can be, the intimacy that was possible in the past and can be again for the future.   The intimate present of our relationship with God, facilitated by our memories of Mount Sinai in the past, will lead us hopefully to a deeper relationship in the future and ultimately the shofar of the Messiah.

Memory itself is an intellectual act, but crying along with memory, the teruah’s cry, helps us not only remember but for the memories to become real, to be emotionally overwhelming even in the present.   To then relive and reestablish the relationship we remember, in the present and ultimately into the future.

Yes, Rosh Hashanah is about judgment and forgiveness but only as a tool to reestablish our intimate relationship with the Infinite one, from the past, in the present, and hopefully with God’s help, into the future.

Shanah Tovah!  A Sweet Year!