Long ago, there was debate as to which season should be chosen as that for the celebration of the New Year. One reason that this time, the new moon closest to the autumnal equinox was selected was the unique coincidence that the first word of the Torah has the same letters as the Hebrew term for today's date: (the first day of the month of Tishre). The beginning began on this day, Rosh haShannah! Not only that, the ancient rabbis taught that it was on this day, Rosh haShannah, and in the first hour of this day that the thought came to the creator to form Adam: humanity. This concept of a created world is of great importance. It is so significant that we Jews celebrate the event of the creation. We do this by recognizing that just as the world was created and is created anew each year, so we, as creatures within the world have the ability to renew and be renewed each year. In fact, think of it a moment: of all the things in this world with which we come into contact, what is the most complex single creation over which we have the ability to shape, renew and improve? Ourselves. The idea of a created world and re-created human being serves as a basis for the concept of free will. In fact it is so important that the ancient rabbis believed that when an individual, --let's say I-- act incorrectly during the year, a record of the transgression is inscribed in faint ink in the Book of Life (like writing in lemon juice on paper). If I repent during the ten days of repentance, the record is erased. But, if I don't, it is rewritten in indelible ink (the heat generated by my not repenting causes the lemon juice to become visible), and these acts become an inexpugnable part of my character.
The Bible also gives certain hints that this may have occurred during the procession of generations on the earth. For ten generations after the creation, the Bible tells us, the ways of humanity deteriorated: from the murder of Able by Cain his brother, through the haughty building of the tower of Babel, till the tenth generation, that of Noah. It was then after ten generations when repentance was possible but didn't occur that God decided to clear away the dross and begin again. God made a new attempt at creation after the waters of the flood receded. (And, on top of that, traditions suggest that the cleansing flood even began in Tishre, now, at this time of year, Rosh haShannah -- and (nice coincedence) this year it rained on Rosh haShannah.) However, even the descendents of Noah did not live up to God's expectations. Not much time passed before they, too, began to act in evil ways. But this time (again, after ten generations), instead of destroying the world and all humanity, God tried a different method: focus on one part of the world, one family among all of humanity, the family of Abraham. God decided (the ancient rabbis tell us) that through the descendents of this couple (Abraham and Sarah), the world would be inscribed for life. Ten generations after Noah marked the birth and selection of Abraham and Sarah; a new attempt to create a perfect world.
And, I've heard, another ten generations passed since the time of Abraham during which period we lived through the most trying time of our early history. After famine occurred in our land we went to Egypt where we were tricked into slavery and began serving other gods. A new creation huddled in the shadows of the pyramids ready to occur. From the family of Abraham and Sarah to the Nation of Israel. In our struggle toward formation we received ten constraining Commandments. Like the molten iron of the blacksmith, cast into the fire and beaten on the anvil, we were shaped, concentrated, compacted till our formative process was completed and we were cast into the world, ready to re-enter our land. Ten generations of creativity shaped by limitations and formed by contractions: Adam to Noah, Noah to Abraham and Sarah, Abraham and Sarah to Moses.
That other name: Yom Teru'ah, the day of the Shofar Blast. Yes, even the youngest of us here knows that today we blow the Shofar. But to name this great and awesome day after a musical instrument or a part of an animal? There must be more to it all. And there is. The clue is, of course, in our Torah reading for today: the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. The story of Abraham and Isaac's journey proceeds at an unbearably rapid pace, and for a time it truly seems that Isaac will actually be sacrificed. As though, like us, Abraham must cut back on an aspect of himself at this time of year to contemplate his creation, and Isaac (perish the thought) is what must be given up! In fact, when I first starting thinking about these thoughts I share with you today, I awoke from a nightmare in a sweat, having dreamt that indeed Abraham had actually sacrificed his son as a paring away of his own unruly growth. We all know that Isaac was not sacrificed, and yet, the Bible's story is awesomely powerful and compelling each time we read it.
What was it that Abraham offered in place of Isaac? The ram. We read that an angel told Abraham not to slaughter his son. I like to think that this was actually the braying of the ram caught by its horns in the thicket. It was the ram's horn itself that signaled the change in the turn of events and determined that even if Abraham was to draw back on his unbridled growth, he was certainly not to sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loved, Isaac. Similarly, the Shofar, this ram's horn is also a symbol, and when sounded, a cry out to us that it is time to change our ways.
The word is, of course, a noun, but when pronounced: , it becomes a verb and actually means to improve and to cleanse! The ancient rabbis, aware of the poetic possibilities inherent in this double meaning taught that god says: If you cleanse your deeds, then I will be to you like the shofar. Just as the Shofar draws in the air from the narrow end and emits it from the wide end, so I will get up from the throne of Judgement from which I make tight, stringent, decisions and sit down upon the throne of Mercy, and turn for you the attribute of judgement into the attribute of mercy.
We can also see this in the actual shape of the shofar, its sound and the method for producing that sound. It takes great concentration of mind and muscle at the narrow end of the shofar, before the broad powerful tones come out the open end. The tones themselves play a role in the concentrating and redirecting of our creative lives. The ancient rabbis tell us that the sound of "Teki'ah" urges us to beg for God's mercies. Then, the sound of "Teru'ah-Shevarim" actually shatters the enslavement of our hearts to unworthy desires.
A story is told about the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem which has been the object of friction between Arabs and Jews for many years. In 1929, the British controlled the area. To appease the Arabs, the British forbade the traditional sounding of the shofar at the Western Wall at the end of Yom Kippur. But the Jewish underground ignored this prohibition.
That Yom Kippur as the service at the wall came to the final prayers, the Ne'ilah. The cantor chanted the final Avinu Malkaynu. He added a phrase to the prayers-- "Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father our King, we have the shofar; draw a circle around us." The British guards were oblivious, but the Jews understood the Hebrew, but did not know what to expect. Suddenly, at one end of the wall, a clear shofar sound came out of a child's voice. The British police immediately surrounded the child. At that very moment, a Tekiah Gedolah, the long shofar sound for the end of the service for Yom Kippur, reverberated from the other end of the wall.
All the worshipers spontaneously recited "Next year in Jerusalem rebuilt" and then sang Hatikvah.
The following year, a man named Moshe Segal blew the shofar at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. He was immediately arrested by the British. They held him at the police station without food until midnight, when he was released. Only then did he learn how his release came about: the chief rabbi of Palestine, Abraham Isaac Kook had phoned the British and said, "I have fasted all day but I will not eat until you free the man who blew the shofar."
The secretary had replied, "But the man violated a government order."
Rabbi Kook replied, "He fulfilled a mitzvah religious commandment."
Years later during the 6 day War, when the Israeli Defense Forces recaptured the Old City of Jerusalem Jews gathered at the Western Wall for the first time since 1948. The shofar was again sounded to proclaim the victory and to reassert the right of Jews to worship in freedom at that sacred site. A few months later, at the end of Yom Kippur that year, the shofar was sounded at the Western Wall-- by that same man, Moshe Segal. The shofar, once again, sounded as a symbol of continuity, calling us to pay close attention to our actions in this wrold.
Everything about this day is directed at encouraging us to draw in our unbridled energies and concentrate them anew in the appropriate directions. There is the Shofar, with its sounds, shapes and method for producing tones, signalling us that the time has come to re-evaluate. There are the ten days, between now and Yom Kippur, symbolic of the various ten generations during which the work of God's creation contracted and was redirected anew. And finally, and perhaps most simple, we have the example of that created world all around us as it begins to draw into itself in re-creation. Rosh haShannah offers us the chance, one might say presents us with the responsibility of renewing our conception and creation of our selves. It is our choice.
The sages said "God will say to Israel, even to all humanity, -- 'My children, I look upon you as if today, on Rosh haShannah, you have been made anew, as if today I created you -- a new being, a new people, a new humanity.'" Today, Yom Harat Olam, the day of the creation of the world, we are created with a conservation of our energies so they can be directed correctly. Rabbi Tahlifa said: "The Commandments concerning all sacrifices read: 'And you shall offer,' but the one concerning sacrifice on Rosh haShannah reads 'And you shall make.'" However, he continues: "We should read: 'And you shall be made,' for after you are dismissed from the Tribunal of Justice (above (where you have sacrificed your inappropriate behaviors), (and leave, being blessed by the attribute of mercy), you are as freshly created."
As a final reminder -- which we learn during the shofar service, we should be aware that all good things come to Israel through the Shofar. We received the Torah with the sound of the shofar all around Mount Sinai. We conquered in the Battle of Jericho through the blast of the Shofar. We are summoned today to repent through the sound of the Shofar. And we will be made aware of the Redeemer's arrival through the great Shofar blast that is yet to occur.