2nd Tishri – T’ki’ah, T’ru’ah, Sh’varim
On Rosh Ha-Shanah, we are commanded ‘to listen to the voice of the shofar‘ – lishmo’a kol shofar. In traditional communities, 2nd Tishri is the second day of Rosh Ha-Shanah, and when the first day falls on Shabbat, the shofar (ram’s horn) is only sounded on the second day. The reason for this is not because the shofar should not be sounded, but because the shofar-blower might inadvertently carry the shofar, and so break the Shabbat prohibition against carrying.
The blessing speaks of ‘the voice of the shofar‘, but the shofar has many voices: T’ki’ah, T’ruah, Sh’varim. T’ki’ah – a loud blast (T’ki’ah G’dolah: a ‘great’ loud blast). T’ruah – nine rapidly discharged short blasts. Sh’varim – three blasts delivered in a broken, undulating way. The meaning of these words partially explains the actual sounds they represent: T’ki’ah – from the root, Tav-Kuf-Ayin, to thrust, clap, give a blow, blast; T’ruah – from the root, Reish-Vav-Ayin, to raise a shout, give a blast; Sh’varim – from the root, Shin-Beit-Reish, to break.
In the Torah, the first day of the seventh month, which came to be known as Tishri, is recorded not as a new year, but as Yom T’ru’ah, the ‘Day of Blasting’. The first day of the seventh month was the time of calling the community together in readiness for the tenth day of the month: The Day of Atonement; Yom Ha-Kippurim, as it is called in the Torah. Rabbinic Judaism transformed the first day of Tishri into the ‘new year for years’, and the ‘Day of Blasting’ became an occasion for an entire ceremony of blasting the shofar during the Musaf (‘Additional’) service, chiefly as a call to t’shuvah, ‘return’. And so, the ten days from the 1st through the 10th of Tishri became aseret y’mei t’shuvah, the ‘ten days of return’.
The journey of t’shuvah is essentially a personal journey for each one of us. As we consider the different voices of the shofar, the ten days are an opportunity to reflect on our own voices – not in a metaphorical sense, rather in the actual sense of the different sounds we make when speaking: when we speak loudly or softly, rapidly or hesitantly; when we speak to be heard and when we speak to ourselves, when we speak at moments of joy and celebration and when we speak at times of sorrow and despair; and when we feel unable to speak.
Jewish teaching is very much focused on words – first spoken and then written. The first creation story in the Book of Genesis presents God calling the world into existence. As we make our t’shuvah journeys, we may wish to reflect on how important words are to us – both spoken and written – and how important silence is to us. Words can be inspiring and uplifting, consoling and healing. Words can also be used like weapons. If we find the courage, we might think about when we use words constructively and when we use them destructively. Our challenge for the 2nd day of Tishri.
3rd Tishri – Malchuyyot: From Judgement to Acknowledgement
The first series of shofar blasts on Rosh Ha-Shanah is called Malchuyyot, ‘Kingdoms’. The Aleinu, the prayer that concludes all Jewish liturgical services, was introduced by the Babylonian sages for use on Rosh Ha-Shanah, when the Eternal One is perceived primarily as melech malchei ha-m’lachim, ‘the King above the King of Kings’; ‘the King of Kings’ being the designation used by Assyrian and Babylonian rulers in the Ancient Near East.
The most important dimension of Rosh Ha-Shanah as conceived by the early rabbis is expressed by one its names: Yom Ha-Din, the Day of Judgement. On Yom Ha-Din, the Eternal Judge of human affairs, sits on His throne – and yes, the Judge is a King – and pronounces judgement on human beings. Those considered thoroughly wicked are written in the Book of Death, those considered thoroughly righteous are written in the Book of Life, and the lives of those who are neither thoroughly wicked nor thoroughly righteous hang in the balance. Only those who mend their ways and repent in the days between Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, will be written in the Book of Life.
It is a truly awe-evoking image. For some, it is the image of the Judge sitting on His throne that compels them to attend the Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur services. For others, many of whom would not step inside a synagogue, it is a repellent image that keeps them away from connecting with Jewish communal life. As progressive Jews, who, perhaps, feel less commanded and demanded upon by an Eternal Commander, the image of God as a mighty Sovereign and Judge can be reimagined in terms that makes sense for our own lives. The voices of the shofar call us to reflect on our lives, to interrogate, and, yes, judge, our deeds and misdeeds. Yom ha-Din challenges us to examine ourselves and take steps to change.
One of the traditions associated with aseret y’mei t’shuvah, the ‘ten days of return’, is to conduct cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of ourselves in much the same way as one would go about an accounting of one’s economic affairs.
So, for those who haven’t done this already, on this 3rd day of Tishri, in the spirit of Malchuyyot, why not take a piece of paper, and like a profit and loss account, make a list of the good you have done in one column and the harm you have caused in another, and then reflect on ways in which you can increase the good and acknowledge the harm, and take steps to make amends.
If the either/or nature of drawing up an account doesn’t speak to you, then try thinking of your actions in a threefold way in terms of what you have done that has been helpful, what has hindered, and what has harmed. The process of hindering can go either way. What we do may hinder the help we can offer someone and we can also hinder the harm we may cause someone.
Alternatively, you might simply choose to begin the process of reflecting on your actions of the past year by tackling three areas for improvement. Cheshbon ha-nefesh: Our challenge for the 3rd day of Tishri.
4th Tishri – Zichronot: Remembering and Re-Membering
The second series of shofar blasts on Rosh Ha-Shanah is called Zichronot, ‘Remembrances’. One of the rabbinic names for Rosh Ha-Shanah is Yom Ha-Zikaron, ‘The Day of Remembrance’. According to the Torah, God remembered our ancestors in their plight again and again, and as the blessing for the shofar blasts of Zichronot puts it, the Eternal One ‘remembers the covenant’ – zocheir ha-b’rit – present tense.
The present demands our presence. We, too, are called during these yamim nora’im, literally, ‘awed days’, to remember. The Torah exhorts us again and again: ‘You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt’. Every evening and morning, the blessing of g’ulah, ‘redemption’, after the Sh’ma, reminds us of our ancestors’ liberation from slavery. Each Shabbat is, both, a ‘memorial of the work of creation’ – zikaron l’ma’aseih v’reishit – and a ‘memorial of the Exodus from Egypt’ – zeicher y’tzi’at mitzrayim.
So, we remember our liberation – and we also remember the persecution we have suffered: ‘Zachor Amalek …. Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as your coming out of Egypt. / How he met you by the way and attacked the weakest in your rear.’
Remembering is a Jewish reflex transmuted into a liturgical refrain. But during the ten days of return, we are challenged to do another kind of remembering: to remember our own lives; to remember our deeds of the past year. It’s natural to want to block out this kind of remembrance. After all, remembering can be very painful. And while we may readily access the memories of the hurt done to us, we do not so readily remember the hurts we have inflicted.
But in order to repair ourselves and our relationships and begin the New Year, we must remember the hurt and damage we have caused ourselves and others. How can we commit to acting differently in the future, if we haven’t acknowledged how we have acted in the past?
Ultimately, remembering can engender re-membering; a bringing together of the disparate parts of ourselves, and the possibility of healing our broken relationships. But for this to happen, we have to be prepared to look back; to rake through the tangled undergrowth of the path trailing behind us. Our challenge for the 4th day of Tishri.
5th Tishri – Shofarot: The Call to Act
The third and final series of shofar blasts on Rosh Ha-Shanah is called Shofarot, ‘Horns.’ The voices of the shofar thunder through the Torah and more broadly, the TaNaKh, the Hebrew Bible. Quite apart from the specific sounds of the shofar we are compelled to hear on Rosh Ha-Shanah, each time the shofar is mentioned in the TaNaKh, the context is one of loud proclamation. At Sinai, ‘the voice of the shofar grew louder and louder’. Chapter 58 of the Book of Isaiah, opens with the words: ‘Cry aloud, do not hold back, let your voice resound like a shofar; declare to My people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob, their sins’. Significantly, we read this passage during the Yom Kippur morning service. In the Torah’s account of the Jubilee year, the fiftieth year following seven cycles of seven, the shofar was to be sounded on Yom Kippur to ‘proclaim d’ror, ‘freedom’, throughout the land to all its inhabitants’. There is no evidence that the Jubilee year was ever put into practice, but elsewhere in the TaNaKh, the shofar also heralds the future time of restoration: ‘And it shall come to pass on that day that a great shofar shall be blown; and they shall come that were lost in the land of Syria, and they that were dispersed in the land of Egypt; and they shall worship the Eternal on the holy Mountain Jerusalem’.
Above all the reasons for sounding the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah is its role in summoning us to sit up and take notice. As Maimonides put it in his ‘Laws of Repentance’, the shofar is an alarm call, proclaiming: ‘Awake you sleepers from your sleep! Rouse yourselves, you slumberers out of your slumber! Examine your deeds, and return to God in repentance’.
So, the shofar blasts are a call to action. A call to act in the context of our own personal lives. A call to act in the wider context of the society we inhabit and the world around us. The call is not subtle. It is urgent. Another year has passed in which poverty and inequality has continued unchecked. Another year has passed in which the voices of the persecuted and the oppressed, the vulnerable and the marginal have not been heard. Another year has passed in which the ecological crisis has deepened – albeit the early days of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown brought some respite.
The shofar calls each one of us to take responsibility and to play our part in whatever way we can in tackling injustice and engaging in tikkun olam, repair of the world. At the midpoint of the ten days of returning, let’s pause and think about what we can do, what practical steps we can take to generate change and make a difference. Our challenge for the 5th day of Tishri.
6th Tishri – T’shuvah: Returning to Ourselves and Others
T’shuvah is the goal of aseret y’mei t’shuvah, the ‘ten days of return’ that begin on Rosh Ha-Shanah and conclude at the end of Yom Kippur. The word is usually translated as ‘repentance’, but the root Shin-Vav-Beit means to turn, or return.
Repentance is the purpose of t’shuvah, but the notion of turning and returning is more dynamic. It reminds us that the process of acknowledging our misdeeds and taking steps to make amends involves a journey.
The word ‘journey’ has been overused in recent years, but it really does apply to t’shuvah. We all know that Life is a journey from birth to death. T’shuvah involves recognising that we have strayed off the path of our lives, or taken a route that has led to a cul-de-sac, and that we need to turn back and return to our path. Turning back does not mean going back; we can’t go back. The past is the past. We can only move forwards. When we turn and move towards the path and then find it again, we discover that we are further along. We have learnt from our experiences. In making the effort to turn and return we have become more self-aware and admitted our errors and mistakes and how and why we came to lose our way.
T’shuvah doesn’t just involve returning to the path of our lives, it also entails returning to ourselves and to others and rebuilding our relationships.
But none of this is easy. T’shuvah is elusive. If we approach it in a mechanical fashion, ticking off items on the list, we will not experience the sense of renewal it offers. T’shuvah requires our commitment, but not our drive. We cannot speed our way back to the path of our lives; in the awareness of our frailties, all we can do is put one foot in front of another, tentatively, and feel our way along. T’shuvah requires our humility.
Nevertheless, there is sense of urgency attached to t’shuvah. The purpose of our return is our repentance. We will not automatically be absolved on Yom Kippur. On the contrary, as we read in the Mishnah, tractate Yoma:
One who says: I shall sin and repent, sin and repent, they do not afford that person the opportunity to repent. [If one says]: I shall sin and Yom Ha-Kippurim will atone for me, Yom Ha-Kippurim, does not effect atonement. For transgressions between a person and God Yom Ha-Kippurim effects atonement, but for transgressions between one person and another, Yom HaKippurim does not effect atonement, until they have appeased their friend.
As the aseret y’mei t’shuvah turn towards Yom Kippur, the need to make amends and repair our relationships becomes more pressing. Acknowledging this is our challenge on the 6th day of Tishri.
7th Tishri – T’fillah: Addressing God and Ourselves
What is prayer? Some people never pray. Others only pray in desperate situations; their prayer a plea for help: Please God, please help me! Jewish prayer takes the form of liturgy, set prayers, mostly written hundreds of years ago. The majority of these prayers are not actually prayers in the commonly accepted understanding of the word. Most are peons of praise to God in the form of blessing. There are blessings connected with thanksgiving, and acknowledgement of God for the gifts we enjoy that nourish us and enrich our lives, and blessings concerning actions that we are commanded to perform, like lighting candles.
Petitionary prayer is largely confined to thirteen blessings recited on weekdays in the middle of the Amidah, which consists of nineteen blessings all together. Apart from the option of adding a personal prayer to the blessing for healing, the themes of the petitionary blessings are fixed, and include requests for understanding, repentance, forgiveness, justice.
On Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, the liturgy is even more extensive and includes special prayers, like Avinu Malkeinu, which addresses God as ’our Parent and ‘our Sovereign’. The tone of these prayers is utterly supplicatory. For example, the concluding verse of Avinu Malkeinu:
Our Parent, our Sovereign, be gracious to us and answer us, for there is little goodness in us; treat us with justice [tz’dakah] and lovingkindness [chesed], and save us.
As Yom Kippur approaches, the question arises, what role does prayer play in our efforts to experience atonement? Answers to this question emerge when we look at the Hebrew word for prayer, t’fillah. The root Pei-Lamed-Lamed means to intervene, interpose, arbitrate, judge, intercede. Interestingly, ‘to pray’, l’hitpalleil, is a reflexive form. Reflective forms express an action in relation to ourselves. In the context of praying, this is very significant. We assume that to pray is to address God, but l’hitpalleil suggests that when we pray, we also address ourselves.
If we think of prayer in terms of the root meanings of t’fillah, then what we are doing when we pray is interrogating ourselves. And so, to pray, l’hitpalleil, is to open our hearts and to acknowledge our frailties and our needs – for love, compassion, support, affirmation, forgiveness. To pray is to give thanks for our lives and all the ways in which our needs are met. To pray is to acknowledge that we have the power to shape and transform our lives. To pray is to acknowledge that in order to transform our lives, we must also be prepared to let go and move on and trust that we can renew ourselves and our relationships.
Our t’shuvah journeys began seven days ago. To allow ourselves to pray is to open up the possibility that we will be able to reach our destination and begin again. Our challenge for the 7th day of Tishri.
8th Tishri – Tz’dakah: Acting Justly
Where is the ten-day t’shuvah journey taking us? The obvious answer is: repentance – and so, at the end of Yom Kippur: forgiveness and atonement. But what is the point of our repentance? Repentance isn’t an end in itself. If it were, the journey would only be from the past to the present. But Jewish teaching is concerned with the work of renewal and repair for the sake of the future. So, the goal of the journey of t’shuvah reaches beyond repentance, forgiveness and atonement to tz’dakah; to the task of practising righteousness and justice after the yamim nora’im, the ‘awed days’, are over.
Tz’dakah is usually translated as ‘charity’. But the root meaning of charity, the Latin concept of caritas, is very different from the root meaning of tz’dakah. Caritas centres on the feelings of love that move us to feel compassion for others and to take action to support them, both materially and emotionally. Tz’dakah, based on the root Tzadi-Dalet-Kuf and related to the word tzedek, ‘justice’, focuses on the imperative of just action. Emotions cannot be compelled, so righteous acts that are dependent on our feelings are useless. We may feel moved to help others, but we may not. Tz’dakah, by contrast, is a commandment. It is our obligation to put right what is wrong in relation to the poor, including the homeless, those who are oppressed and persecuted, and, specifically, the most vulnerable groups in society, identified in the Torah as the stranger, the orphan and the widow.
In the haftarah on Yom Kippur morning from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 58, the prophet decries observance of the rituals of Yom Kippur that are not accompanied by acts of righteousness:
Is this the fast I look for? A day of self-affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Eternal One? / Is not this the fast I choose: to release the shackles of wickedness and untie the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free and to break off every yoke? / Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?
The unknown prophet who speaks in the later chapters of the Book of Isaiah was addressing the exiles in Babylon in the 6th century BCE. The prophet’s words also address us and are just as relevant to the society we inhabit. So, how will we respond? We know that we live in a world in which injustice is rife. What will we do about it? Our ten-day t’shuvah journey will conclude at the end of Yom Kippur, and then it will be our task to harvest the fruits of our repentance with acts of tz’dakah. The moment has come to begin to focus our attention to how we will conduct our lives after Yom Kippur. Our challenge for the 8th day of Tishri.
9th Tishri – S’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kappeir lanu
‘Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement’: Preparing for Yom Kippur
S’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kappeir lanu. There are several poignant melodies for this phrase that concludes the recitation of the Al Cheit, the confession of our ‘sins’ on Yom Kippur; each tune designed to move us and open our hearts. I’ve put the word ‘sins’ in inverted comas because strictly speaking, cheit, expresses the kind of error we commit when we miss our way. There are many words for ‘sin’ in the vocabulary of Yom Kippur. We may find it difficult to identify with the word, ‘sin’, because it may feel far removed from the errors and misdeeds that most of us perpetrate. The text of the Al Cheit makes it clear that, even the ordinary errors we make that we so often excuse ourselves for, are serious and require our repentance.
S’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kappeir lanu. On Yom Kippur, following our work of t’shuvah, our efforts are dedicated to confessing our misdeeds and seeking forgiveness, pardon and atonement. Although each one of us is on our own personal journey, confession is recited in the first-person plural, expressing our shared predicament as frail human beings who go astray.
Human beings need forgiveness. We need to feel forgiven so that we can let go of the past and move on. But Jewish teaching makes it clear that we can only be forgiven if we repent and do what we can to make amends. We also need to forgive others. In fact, if we fail to forgive someone who has sought our forgiveness three times, we are the ones in the wrong.
But forgiveness on Yom Kippur takes on a deeper resonance. Having engaged in the process of t’shuvah, and having done what we can to repent and seek forgiveness from those we have harmed, we are seeking forgiveness from the Eternal One. More than forgiveness, we are seeking pardon. The Hebrew, m’chal lanu, ‘pardon us’, expresses a blotting out or wiping out, an annulment. But how can we be seeking an annulment, in other words, a cancellation of our misconduct? Because, ultimately, Yom Kippur represents the drawing of a line under all that has gone before, so that we can start the New Year afresh. The Hebrew, kappeir lanu, ‘grant us atonement’, literally, means ‘cover us’. We read in the Torah that the Ark was covered with a kapporet, a ‘covering’. The goal of Yom Kippur is a covering over of our misdeeds of the past year. They do not disappear or evaporate; they are not conjured away by the rituals of Yom Kippur; they are covered over. So, what we do with the covered over wrongs we have committed during the past year? Do we store them away? Do we bury them? We do neither. We recognise that they are covered over – and move on. But we are running ahead of ourselves. As Yom Kippur approaches, is there anything we can do to lighten the burden of our regret? We can acknowledge that we have left much undone on our t’shuvah journey and prepare for Yom Kippur. Our challenge for the 9th day of Tishri.