Every week, parshaoftheweek.com brings you a rich selection of material on parshat hashavua, the weekly portion traditionally read in synagogues all over the world. Using both classic and contemporary material, we take a look at these portions in a fresh way, relating them to both ancient Jewish concerns as well as cutting-edge modern issues and topics. We also bring you material on the Jewish holidays, as well as insights into life cycle rituals and events...
At the center of the experience of Rosh Hashanah stands the blowing of the shofar - the ram's horn. This mitzvah is basically all the Torah tells us about the holiday, calling it once "יום תרועה" - a day of making the sound of the teruah - and once "יום זכרון תרועה" - a day of remembering teruah. The teruah is understood as a note we blow on the shofar, but, since it's not easy to describe a sound in writing, the Rabbis in the Talmud need to work a bit at defining precisely what the teruah should sound like. They ultimately agree that it is something which sounds like weeping or sighing. They get to this understanding in the following way: First, they point out that the accepted Aramaic translation for teruah is יבבא - yebava - a word whose meaning they get to by turning to the song of Devorah in the Book of Judges, which she sang after she and Barak ben Avinoam defeated the Cannanite general, Sisra. In the song, she describes how Sisra's mother, distressed at his delay in returning from battle, looked out her window, watching and waiting for her son, and cried over his absence. The word used by Devorah for her crying is "ותיבב" - "va'teyabev", from the same root as the "yebava" translation of teruah, which must therefore mean that yebava, and therefore teruah, is a form of crying. Once that is established, there is some disagreement as to whether a yebava is a short sob or a longer sigh or moan, or both together. Ultimately, it is decided that, to accomodate all the positions, the way we blow the Biblical teruah is to blow both, the sob and the sigh, together and separately. We call the shorter, sob-like sound a teruah, like the original Biblical name for the note, and the longer, sigh-like one, shevarim - or "broken ones" - but they are both meant to be the Biblically mandated teruah. (The additional תקיעה - tekiah - which we blow before and after the shevarim and teruah, is the way the Rabbis feel we need to bracket the central, essential note - the teruah called for by the Torah - and has its own seperate symbolism, usually understood as a message of hope, calm, or well-being, which stands as a counterpoint to the teruah's sense of alarm and distress.)
So, to review: The Torah mandates we blow the teruah, some sort of sound, on the shofar, on Rosh Hashanah. That is traditionally translated into Aramaic as a yebava, which is defined as a form of crying, based on the description in Devorah's song of the mother of Sisrah, the Canaanite general, doing just that - "va'teyabev" - "and she cried" - as she waited for him to return from battle, fearing that he had been killed, which was, in fact, the case. That crying is either a short sob or a long moan, so we blow both.
What all this means is that the Torah feels that on Rosh Hashanah, the day of universal judgement, the appropriate emotional response as we go over our actions for the year and try to assess who we are, what we've done, and hope for the chance to do better next year, is a fearful, distressed cry of some sort, a weeping. This is, basically, what the shofar is saying: weep, sob and sigh, in the face of judgement. Weep for your shortcomings, sob for your failures, sigh over your sins. This in itself is certainly an interesting insight into the shofar and Rosh Hashanah, but I want to focus on the linchpin of the process the Rabbis went through to get to the definition of what a teruah is meant to sound like: the weeping mother of Sisra. Although it is true that we essentially use her story as a linguistic clue - teruah is defined as a yebava, so what is a yebava ? - it would be a mistake to ignore the fact that it is the weeping of a non-Jewish mother, standing at a window waiting for her missing Canaanite general son which is the model for the emotions we are meant to be feeling and expressing on Rosh Hashanah with the blowing of the shofar. Not a Jewish weeping, of which, one would think, there are many examples from which our tradition could have chosen, nor a specifically religious or spiritual reason for weeping, which might, at first glance, be more connected to the messaage of the Day of Judgement and the New Year. It is simply the weeping of a mother for her lost son, the most human and personal of responses to the most common and basic form of distress and worry.
Now, the fact that Rosh Hashana is seen by the Rabbis as a day of universal, and not just Jewish, judgement, when, as the Mishna in Tractate Rosh Hashanah tells us, "all the world's inhabitants pass before Him, individually, one by one", helps us make sense of the choice of this gentile model. When we, on Rosh Hashanah, attempt to assess our lives, understand them, and change them, we do so, first and foremost, as human beings, together with all our fellow human beings, Jew and non-Jew alike. Our first obligation on Rosh Hashanah is to react to our shortcomings and failures as people. The first question we must ask ourselves on the Day of Judgement is what kind of men and women are we, before we ask what kind of Jews are we. For this reason, the distress which Sisra's mother expresses with her tears - an elemental, universal distress, one common to all mankind - is particularly apposite as our emotional model for the day.
The choice of Sisra's weeping mother as the model for the teruah clarifies the essentially human, rather than specifically religious, nature of the day. This is the central task given to each of us on Rosh Hashanah: to stand as a human being, recognizing our shared humanity, and assess how we have lived up to the demands of simply being a person. The cry of the shofar is a human one, a universal one, in the universal language of a mother's wordless cry, which is meant to touch and challenge us at our most basic and human place. How are we doing as people, as fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, spouses, brothers, sisters, and neighbors? Those are the questions we must first try to grapple with on Rosh Hashanah. We need to be good people first, as we try to become good Jews.
Best wishes for a sweet, happy, and good year,
Rabbi Shimon Felix