The Torah (Deuteronomy 29:1) calls Rosh Hashanah “יום תרועה” a day of “teruah.” The exact meaning of the word “teruah” is a mystery, and a bit of detective work was necessary to define it. The first step was to look at the Aramaic translation of Onkelus for a hint. There it says, “”יום יבבא a day of yebbava. But exactly what is a yebbava? A verse from Judges (5:28) gives us the answer.
(כח) בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן נִשְׁקְפָה וַתְּיַבֵּב אֵם סִיסְרָא בְּעַד הָאֶשְׁנָב מַדּוּעַ בֹּשֵׁשׁ רִכְבּוֹ לָבוֹא מַדּוּעַ אֶחֱרוּ פַּעֲמֵי מַרְכְּבוֹתָיו
28) Through the window she gazed, Sisra’s mother sobbed by the window. “Why is his chariot delayed in coming? Why are the hoofbeats of his carriages so late?”
This verse is part of the song that Devorah the Judge sang after defeating the mighty king Sisra, who fell prey to the enticements of Yael, who killed him in her tent. The word yebbava is used to describe Sisra’s mother’s sobbing at the window as she waited in vain for his return from the battlefield. We deduce from this that the sound of a teruahis similar to a sobbing sound. A sob is an expression of deep anguish and despair created when one sees no way forward and feels himself against a brick wall. This profound frustration triggers sobbing that emanates from deep within. Sobbing is done in short cries one after the other. Hence, we learn that a “teruah” is the short, broken blasts of the shofar. (The long, unbroken sound of the shofar is called the תקיעה – “tekiah.”)
Maimonides writes (Laws of Teshuva 3:4):
(ד) אע”פ שתקיעת שופר בראש השנה גזירת הכתוב רמז יש בו כלומר עורו ישינים משנתכם ונרדמים הקיצו מתרדמתכם וחפשו במעשיכם וחזרו בתשובה וזכרו בוראכם אלו השוכחים את האמת בהבלי הזמן ושוגים כל שנתם בהבל וריק אשר לא יועיל ולא יציל הביטו לנפשותיכם והטיבו דרכיכם ומעלליכם ויעזוב כל אחד מכם דרכו הרעה ומחשבתו אשר לא טובה
Even though the mitzvah to blow the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah is an edict from the Torah, there is a message in it. It is saying, “Wake up those sleeping from your sleep, and those of you who are slumbering, wake up from your slumber and inspect your deeds and return to Hashem in teshuva. Remember your Creator, those who forget the truth in the throes of time, and while away their time in frivolous matters that don’t help or save anyone. Look into your souls and improve your ways and deeds; each person should leave his evil ways and thoughts.
Having said this, we can understand a deeper meaning in the day of Rosh Hashanah as “a Day of Teruah.’ Maimonides teaches us that the sound of the shofar is supposed to work like the alarm clock that wakes us up in the morning. Sleep is sweet and confers many benefits upon a person. Once in bed, one tends to try to get as much of it as possible. We set an alarm to wake us from our sleep so that we can be on time for our important engagements. When the alarm goes off, as tired as we are, we respond and are grateful that it woke us up.
We should react the same way to the sound of the shofar. It comes to accomplish the exact same goal, only in a figurative way. A person tends to get caught up in the daily grind of earning a living and many other distractions, which take him away from his obligations to Hashem and the Torah. We never pause for a moment to contemplate what we are doing. We are on the treadmill of life. Maimonides urges us to “remember our Creator Whom we tend to forget in the throes of time.” Do I acknowledge Hashem in my life? Do I realize that I owe Hashem a deep, heartfelt “thank you” for every aspect of my life? My health, my wealth, my children, etc. Am I fulfilling my obligations to Hashem? Am I paying as much attention to my spiritual needs as much as I am to my physical needs?
Maimonides urges us to “Look into your souls and improve your ways and deeds.” Are there any areas where I am deficient in my service to Hashem? Is there any area in my relationship with Hashem that I can improve? The short, broken blasts of the shofar, representing sobbing, tell us to take a break from our routine and look into our souls to improve our ways and deeds. Moreover, a little sob would go a long way to convey our sincere remorse to Hashem for having neglected Him.
The Mishna in Rosh Hashanah (1:2) teaches us.
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה כָּל בָּאֵי הָעוֹלָם עוֹבְרִין לְפָנָיו כִּבְנֵי מָרוֹן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים לג) הַיּוֹצֵר יַחַד לִבָּם, הַמֵּבִין אֶל כָּל מַעֲשֵׂהֶם
On Rosh Hashanah all people in the world pass before Hashem like sheep for judgement, as it says (Psalms 33:15) He Who fashions their hearts together, Who comprehends all their deeds.
On the day that Hashem fashioned Man’s heart, the first day of Tishrei, He also looks into all of our deeds and judges us.
The Mishna teaches us that Rosh Hashanah is also the Day of Judgment. What is it about this day that makes it the day that Hashem has decided to judge the world? Passover is celebrated on the 15th of Nissan, commemorating the anniversary of the Exodus. Shavuot is celebrated on the 6th of Sivan, because that day is the anniversary of the day that the Jewish Nation received the Torah. What happened on the 1st of Tishrei that makes it the day of judgment?
The Sages answer that Adam, the first man, was created on that day. Starting with the 25th of the month of Elul, for six days, day by day, Hashem prepared a magnificent world for man to live in. Even today, we are awe struck by the beauty and splendor of Hashem’s magnificent world. Can you imagine what it looked like when it was just created?
All that Hashem had created was for but one purpose, the last thing that Hashem created, namely, Man! On creation’s sixth day, the 1st of Tishrei, Hashem created Man, the reason and purpose for the entire creation.
It is easy to see that Man is the purpose of creation, because Hashem has put the entire world at his disposal. Hashem actually commanded Adam to take control of all of the world’s resources and to use them for his needs. Man uses the ores in the earth, the trees and plants on the earth, and the animals that roam and fly over the face of the earth, as he pleases. There is virtually no place on Planet Earth where man’s reach has not touched, some for better and some, unfortunately, for worse.
The Sages teach us that Adam was created as a fully-grown man of approximately 27 years old. Having been the hand-crafted masterpiece of the Master Creator, he had to have been brilliant beyond our wildest imagination.
Imagine for a second that you are Adam at 27 years old. You wake up and realize that you are alive, and, all at once, you see Hashem’s magnificent world with all of its millions of components surrounding you. Grass, trees, birds, animals, sun, clouds, the list goes on and on. You can’t believe the beauty of each thing that you see! As you gaze at one magnificent creation after another, you can’t help but marvel at the brilliance and ingenuity of its Creator. You are immediately filled with awe and trepidation at the power and ability of the Creator of the world around you, and then it hits you. Whoever created all of this, created me, too!
At this point, what would be your first thought? What would be your first question to your Creator?
“What is all this for?”
“Why, for you!” would come the answer.
What’s the next question? “What am I for? Why did you create me?”
“You were created to receive and enjoy the greatest pleasure possible that I have in store for you. But first, you must earn it,” Hashem responds.
“Sounds amazing,” you say, “But how do I earn it?”
“You see this magnificent world around you? I have chosen to reveal Myself to you, through it. I have created it with wisdom and ingenuity so that you could see Me through it. When you acknowledge me as your creator, you have fulfilled your purpose in this world, and for it, you are worthy of great reward.” When we consider that the human being is the only creature on the planet able to appreciate this magnificent world that G-d has created, we realize that that is our mission to recognize Hashem through it.
This is what Hashem told Adam in the Torah (Genesis 2:15).
(טו) וַיִּקַּח יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקים אֶת הָאָדָם וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן עֵדֶן לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ:
15. Hashem God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to guard it:
Rabbeinu Bachye writes (ibid):
רבנו בחיי על בראשית פרק ב פסוק טו
והיתה עמידתו שם בתענוג רב גדול ועצום לרוב הרבה בתענוג הנפש ומעט בתענוג הגוף בהשקט והנחה וקורת רוח שאין כמוה בהיות כולו שכלי, נפשו וגופו הם אחת בהשגת בוראו בלבד, ולכך מנע ממנו עץ הדעת הגורם ההמשך אחר התאוות ולא נמנע ממנו תחילה עץ החיים הגורם לחיות חיי עד, אבל לאחר שחטא ואכל מעץ הדעת האכילה ההיא גרמה לו שימשך אחר התאוות ושישתדל בצרכי הגוף יותר מצרכי הנפש ככל אשר אנחנו עושים פה היום הוא היפך המבוקש ממנו, ולכך נתחייב שיתקצרו ימיו ותשלוט עליו מיתה
Adam’s situation in the Garden of Eden was one of the greatest pleasure possible. His spiritual pleasure overwhelmed the small amount of physical pleasure, since he was completely intellectual. His body and soul were united in their comprehension of Hashem and this understanding of Hashem was his sole occupation there. This is why Hashem proscribed the Tree of Knowledge Good and Bad, which would cause Adam to follow his physical desires, and not the Tree of Life, which would have given him eternal life. However, Adam’s sinning by eating from the tree of knowledge caused him to follow his physical needs more than his spiritual ones, as is our condition today- the opposite of Hashem’s goal. Hence, he had to have a limit to his days and die at some point. (It was then that Hashem took Adam out of the Garden of Eden so he wouldn’t eat from the Tree of Life.)
Adam had one commandment from Hashem (Genesis 2:16,17).
(טז) וַיְצַו יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהִים עַל הָאָדָם לֵאמֹר מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל:
(יז) וּמֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ מוֹת תָּמוּת
16) And Hashem commanded the man, “Of every tree of the garden you may eat; 17) But of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you must not eat: for on the day you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Do not eat from the Tree of Knowledge Good and Bad. He needed to continue basking in the pleasure of his connection to Hashem and never touch the forbidden tree.
How long would he have had to do this? Adam was created on the sixth day of the week, Shabbat eve, and received his soul in the seventh hour of the day. He entered the Garden of Eden in the eight hour and he needed to hold out until Shabbat. Had he done so, the world would have reached its purpose, and he and all his progeny would have received pleasure forever and ever.
Adam’s mission was to acknowledge Hashem at all times by listening to His commandment. When Adam ignored Hashem’s commandment, preferring his own personal will instead of Hashem’s, he failed in his mission.
Upon eating from the Tree of Knowledge Good and Bad, the evil force entered Adam’s body, and with the evil force within him, he could no longer achieve his prior level of holiness. Before, both body and soul were holy, whereas with the evil force within him, body and soul are at odds with each other. The body pulls in an earthy direction, while the soul strives for spirituality. In his completely spiritual existence before eating from the forbidden tree, Adam had clear sight of Hashem the acute awareness that everything was from Him, and that He was everything. Now, the evil force within him obscured that reality. The physical world around him now ingeniously hid the reality of Hashem’s existence. It had systems and processes that looked like they could operate without any input from Hashem. There was what looked like nature, an autonomous reality, separate from Hashem.
Before eating from the forbidden tree, Adam’s mission in life was to remain attached to Hashem and constantly increase his relationship with the revealed Hashem that he so clearly saw. When Adam opted to accept a lower level of connection to Hashem, one through a physical, materialistic world, his new job became to see Hashem through His thick camouflage.
For example, when a person has a job, he goes to work, puts in his hours to produce what he is supposed to produce, and gets paid for his work. The pay seems to be the direct result of the work that he has done. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. The pay is a gift from Hashem, part of his allocation for the year, and the work is merely the tax that he had to pay to receive it. Our job in this world is to understand that reality, and to acknowledge Hashem as the source of all our blessing, in spite of nature. Hashem created man to acknowledge Him and, then, to receive reward for it. This remains man’s purpose; only it has now become much harder.
The Mishna in Tractate Sanhedrin (4:5) answers a perplexing question.
לְפִיכָךְ נִבְרָא אָדָם יְחִידִי,
When Hashem created the vegetation, He said, “Let the earth be covered with vegetation!” When He created the fish, He said, “Let the seas be teeming with fish!” The same with the animals and all the other creatures in creation. Why then, when it came to creating man, did Hashem create just one? Why didn’t Hashem say, “Let the earth be teeming with people!” Why was man created as an individual?
The answer is, to teach us that each person is as unique an individual as Adam, the first and only man, was. And, just as the entire universe was created solely for Adam to recognize and connect with Hashem, so, too, Hashem would have created it entirely for every other human being’s unique connection and recognition of Hashem as well. Just as there was no other human around when he was created, so, too, there is no other human being around like me! There never was and there never will be! Adam was no more unique or special than I am. And just like Hashem created the entire universe for Adam to recognize Him, so, too, He would have done the exact same for me.
לְפִיכָךְ כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד חַיָּב לוֹמַר, בִּשְׁבִילִי נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם
The Mishna continues to say,
Therefore, each person is obligated to say, “The entire world was created just for me.”
Each person has to reveal Hashem and see Hashem through the camouflage just as Adam did. Each of us was created different than any other person on the planet, now and ever, in the past and the future. Starting with our inborn qualities and personality, all the way to our parents and the surrounding environment, literally billions of factors and events influence who we are and how we developed into the person that we currently are. And we are not finished growing! Indeed, we must continuously improve and perfect ourselves.
We are different because through our unique life, we must reveal Hashem in the world. The gifts with which Hashem has endowed us constitute the tools that we need to use to accomplish this mission. We accomplish it through the choices that we make when facing life’s varied challenges. Each challenge provides us with a new opportunity to expose Hashem and come closer to His reality. Every time we choose to do a mitzvah or learn Torah, putting Hashem’s will over our own, we are making the most powerful statement possible that Hashem is a reality. Why else am I doing this unusual act? Because I know Hashem asked me to do this, and I am subjugating my will to His! That is why I am doing it! With every mitzvah or word of Torah learned, Hashem becomes more of a reality in our lives. In this way, through my life’s choices, I reveal Hashem in, and to, the world. This is why Hashem created me.
This idea is expressed very eloquently in the commentary of Nachmanides to Exodus (13:16):
וכוונת כל המצות שנאמין באלהינו ונודה אליו שהוא בראנו, והיא כוונת היצירה, שאין לנו טעם אחר ביצירה הראשונה, ואין אל עליון חפץ בתחתונים מלבד שידע האדם ויודה לאלהיו שבראו
The goal of all the mitzvot is to show our belief in Hashem and to thank Him for having created us. And that is the reason for creation! There could be no other purpose for Hashem creating man other than this. Hashem wants nothing more from man than for him to know that Hashem created him and for him to thank Hashem for having done so.
On Rosh Hashanah, if, when a person hears the sound of the shofar, he takes the message of Maimonides to heart and thinks to himself how he has become distracted by the material world and how he has neglected to see the reality of Hashem in his life and in the world, and then thinks how he wants to change his life around, in that very moment he has fulfilled his purpose for having been created. If he asks Hashem for another year of life so that he may accomplish his goal of recognizing Hashem more in his life, Hashem will surely give it to him. After all, Hashem wants every person to accomplish the mission for which he was placed in the world.
There is a time-honored custom that dovetails with this concept.
Our Sages teach us that on Rosh Hashanah, a person should make a “New Year’s resolution.” This has nothing to do with the idea of going on another diet that you hear about around January 1st every year. This is rather a very significant matter, which can make a tremendous difference in one’s ultimate judgment.
The concept is that a person show Hashem that he is serious about bettering his ways, by accepting upon himself a very small mitzvah that is easy to do and that he can do every day. This conveys the message to Hashem that “I am serious about change, and here is my first step. I have embarked on a path of change, and here is my down payment.” If, when a person is thinking about recognizing Hashem more, he also accepts a small mitzvah upon himself, this would be the most profound expression of his desire to change.
The mitzvah could be something as small as reciting the verse “Shema Yisrael…” once a day, or reciting a blessing on something that he eats or drinks, say, his first coffee in the morning. A small baby-step is all that is necessary to show Hashem that we are serious about improving ourselves.
This is why the message of the shofar is so vital on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgement. The message of the shofar, if taken to heart, is sure to guarantee us a good judgment.