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The Meaning of Rosh Hashana

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Founder and Chancellor, Ohr Torah Stone

People often mistakenly view Rosh Hashanah as a personal day of reckoning. Although there is of course some truth to this, such an understanding fails to grasp the main point of the day.

Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of the world; the anniversary of the creation of the first human being. It is not a personal day of reckoning but rather, first and foremost, a global one. This realization enables a true understanding of the significance of the day.

The essence of Rosh Hashanah is related to the major mitzvah of the day: “יום תרועה יהיה לכם” – this is the day of the sounding of the Shofar, the sounding of the Trua.

The word “Trua” comes from the verb ‘רעוע’ which means a broken sound; [1] “אי גנוחי גנח אי ילולי יליל”, the sound of sighing or sobbing.

Now this seems rather puzzling; according to most of our authorities, Rosh Hashanah, the day of the creation of the world, is commemorated as a day of simcha, a day of wholeness and of joy (this was a disagreement in the time of the Gaonim, but fundamentally all of the Rishonim agreed on this point[2]). How then could it be that the major sound the Torah enjoins us to make with the Shofar is a broken one? One of sighing and of sobbing?

The answer is that these sounds are perfectly appropriate, for in reality the world is oftentimes a veil of tears. Ours is a world of earthquakes, of tsunamis and of hurricanes, of wars and of suicide bombers. A world where suddenly, and without warning, we encounter death without rhyme or reason.

This is the world that G-d created, and our response to it is one of sighing and sobbing.

The prophet Isaiah[3] described it thus: “יוצר אור ובורא חשך עשה שלום ובורא רע אני ה’ עשה כל אלה” — “The designer of light and the creator of darkness, the maker of peace and the creator of evil, I, the Lord, did all of these.”

G-d did not create a world filled with darkness and evil for no reason, and this order is not intended to remain so indefinitely. G-d wished to grant humankind the freedom of choice. This same freedom that enables us to reach up to the heavens entails the possibility of descending to the void, of choosing wrongly, and of willingly wronging others.

The natural world was created as a reflection of this same imperfection found in human nature. Were the natural world to be perfect and just, filled only with light and good, this would leave no room for exercising our free will. All this may make sense from a theological perspective; however, on the existential level, our reaction to this incomplete world is often one of sighing and sobbing.

I often retell the story of the individual who gave his suit to the tailor for repair, expecting it back within a few weeks. Three months later, still not in receipt of his suit, he returned to the tailor, complaining, “It took G-d seven days to create the entire world – how long will it take you to patch up one suit?”  The tailor responded: “Yes, He may have created the world it in seven days, but look at what a mess he made!”

The story is amusing, but it is also misleading. The tailor is not really correct. G-d did not make the mess. We made the mess, and nature is a reflection of our situation. Nonetheless, the facts remain unchanged – ours is an imperfect and incomplete world. – A world of sighing and sobbing.

Having understood the source of the תרועה, we must now explain how it can be that Rosh Hashanah is nonetheless, first and foremost, a chag – a festival of joy.

Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of the world, can achieve the status of a day of joy and celebration only because G-d believes in Knesset Yisrael. We rejoice on this day, because G-d believes, and tells us that we must believe as well, that ultimately we will succeed in perfecting ourselves and perfecting the world.

That is why in addition to the Trua sound of sighing and sobbing, we also blow the simple, straightforward and unbroken Tekia sound. We remember that on the fiftieth Jubilee year, when all slaves are freed and each Jew returns to his homestead in the Land of Israel – itself a foreshadowing of the ultimate redemption – the joyous redemptive Tekia would be heard. On Rosh Hashana, we combine those jubilant Tekia sounds from the Jubilee year with the sighing and sobbing. With two Tekia blasts before and after each broken Trua, we are declaring that we have within us the power to turn weeping into an exultant and exalted shout of song.

We can do this because G-d believes in us. This is fundamentally the core message the Rosh Hashanah prayers – and of Judaism.

[1] Rosh Hashanah 34a
[2] See Beit Yosef Orach Chaim 597 regarding fasting on Rosh Hashanah
[3] Isaiah 45, 7
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