The Hebrew phrase shana ĥadasha (new year) is itself a contradiction – a shana (year) denotes something that repeats itself again and again, whereas ĥadasha (new) denotes change, emergence from a cycle of repetition.
Each year is essentially a repetition of the same basic structure. Once again, we experience fall, winter, spring, summer; once again, there are shorter days and longer days, rainy season and dry season, cold and heat. The constant repetition is not limited to the weather or to the annual seasons; recurrence and routine are the pattern of all of life. Every person’s life, with the exception of rare incidents, essentially
flows in a routine cycle. Even events that involve change or upheaval – birth, marriage, death – quickly fall into set molds. Indeed, the events of most people’s lives are so similar that it often appears as though we experience these events not as different people, but as one anonymous figure. It is as if a form of a human being, invested with life-like mobility, moves from place to place, constantly changing its garments, rushing from one ceremony to the next, repeating over and over again the same motions and the same words and going through the same emotions…
And the people themselves, the living people who, after all, have their own character and their own lives – what are they doing? They seem to be sleeping, leading a vegetative existence, looking forward to a "new year,” anticipating something that will bring change and awaken them.
Rosh HaShana is the day on which the new year begins, and the central event of this festival is the lowing of the shofar. The shofar is not and never was a musical instrument. In fact, the shofar’s sound, particularly when broken into the tones of shevarim and terua, is the sound of a cry, of sobbing and moaning. It is a sound that is threatening, agitating, and alarming. Maimonides writes:
In the blowing of the shofar on Rosh HaShana there is an allusion, as though saying: Awake you leepers from your sleep, and slumberers arise from your slumbering…All who forget the truth in the follies of the times and err the whole year in vanity and emptiness that cannot benefit or save, look to your souls,
improve your ways…
The sound of the shofar is not meant to be pleasant to the ear; its purpose is to arouse and to shock, to awaken those who slumber in the endless routine of life and guide them towards teshuva.
Religious Life – Interrupting the Routine
The essence of teshuva is the process of stimulating the ability of selfrenewal, one’s ability to again become oneself instead of being merely a copy – a copy of a newspaper advertisement, a copy of one’s neighbors, or even a copy of one’s younger and more authentic self.
Perhaps one might argue that teshuva, returning to a more religious way of life, is by no means the roper way to renew one’s selfhood.
After all, isn’t religion, with its thousands of fixed details, commandments, duties, and prohibitions, part of the endless repetition and routine, only redoubled?
In truth, religious obligation does not constitute further routine, but rather escape from it. There is certainly a routine of prayers, commandments, and good deeds, but this system does not go hand in
hand with the other, ordinary routine of life. On the contrary, it clashes with that routine constantly. It interrupts the ordinary course of eating, drinking, and working, and that interruption of the uniform sequence stimulates change.
It is this "trivial” intervention of the halakha in all the small details of life that saves us from sinking into the mire of animalistic action. The halakha tells us: "Let us desist for a moment from this race! Let us switch for a moment to another system – a system of blessing, of prayer, of washing the hands – a system that is not connected to and does not flow from the daily course of affairs.”
There is an additional renewing aspect of religious life that is worthy of consideration. In any other realm, a person can carry on his activity like a robot for years on end, without feeling obligated to give more of himself than that. One may be a talented and successful worker in the office, an outstanding educator, a spiritual leader, a reliable husband, a loving father – and all this may be nothing more than a mask.
Even worse, there may be nothing behind that mask!
This is not possible within the world of Judaism, however. One can lead a life of routine, but he cannot escape the knowledge that what he is doing is not right and proper, that he is deceitful. Although one may be absorbed in a routine of mitzvot, he is bound by the basic duty to direct his mind to what he doing. He may certainly fool other people in this regard, but he cannot fool God, and therefore cannot take comfort in the thought that no one knows the truth.
Because the Jew maintains the feeling that he can and should lead a more meaningful life, he has a chance – at rare moments – to relive the primal experiences of Ma’amad Har Sinai (the revelation at Sinai) and Zikaron LeYom Rishon (remembrance of the first day of Creation).
Hard to Have Faith
Many people think that true faith is unattainable in our day. "Perhaps it was possible once, in past generations, in the small Jewish towns of Poland, in the ghettos of Morocco, in the immigrant neighborhoods in the far corners of the world. But nowadays, in our wise and discerning era, who can be a true believer?”
The story is told that when King Solomon, in his wisdom, set down in his book of proverbs, "A simple person will believe anything,” all the fools in the world became very agitated. They convened a grand
World Congress to deal with a pressing issue: Until Solomon revealed that "a simple person will believe anything,” it was impossible to discern the wise person from the fool, and the fools could escape the attention of others. But now what was to be done? The fools concluded that in order to avoid detection, they would do just the opposite. From now on, they must not believe in anything. And, indeed, that is the practice of fools to this very day…
When people, simple or scholarly, speak of the inability to have faith in our day, of the absurdity of faith, one is tempted to ask them:
"Were you perhaps a participant in that Congress?”
Of course, the way to faith is not an easy one. It is not easy for a person who grew up in a "religious” home, and not for one who grew up in a non-religious environment. The way of faith is a "long shorter”
way; it is not a wide highway, traveled in the same way by all, but rather a narrow and winding path, personal and private.
The words of one tzaddik who spoke on this matter are simple and profound. On the words, "For I know that God is great,” he commented, "For I know – I alone know, and no other person can know like
me!” Another person may know more than me, or in a deeper, broader, or more complete manner, but knowledge of God is ultimately a private, personal experience that cannot be communicated.
It is possible to recount to another person what you ate through all sorts of descriptions and explanations, but it is impossible to convey the taste. Taste can only be perceived in one way – through actual experience. This is the meaning of the verse, "Taste and see that God is good” – taste Him for yourselves!
Neither in Heaven nor Beyond the Sea
But who can reach that level? Who can taste "of the fruit of the tree of life”? Isn’t it necessary to be great and exalted, an eminent scholar, pure of heart and pure of mind, in order to attain a "religious experience”?
This question has no clearer answer than the words of the Torah that are read communally on the Sabbath preceding Rosh HaShana:
It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven and bring it to us, so that we hear it and do it?” It is not beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross the sea and get it for us, so that we can hear it and do it?” It is something that is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.6 Where can faith be found? Neither in heaven nor beyond the sea. It is very close, "in your mouth and in your heart.” Both theology and personal experience attest that every person utters words of faith and trust, although he may not be aware of the subconscious thoughts that emerge from his mouth, and he fails to discern what his heart truly believes. In every ordinary statement of "It will be all right,” there is a true expression of faith. The comforting words spoken to a crying child, the awareness that somehow it is possible to get through life despite all the obstacles – these and the like are expressions of belief in God.
There are people who deny God’s existence and yet believe with all their heart in the "eternity of Israel.” There are people who are unwilling to accept anything that is part of the religion, of the tradition, of the
heritage of our ancestors, and yet they stand and fight for things they think are good and right. These may be intellectual or simple people, they may have lost their way or they may be on course – but they have a wealth of true faith "in their mouths and in their hearts.” There are hindrances and obstacles that lead them to think that they have no share in their heritage; they think that true religious faith is found somewhere far away in the high heavens, inaccessible to them, and so they do not search for it in the closest place possible. They do not nurture and develop the kernel that is found in their own selves.
The word emuna (faith) is related to the word omen, one who raises and nurtures an infant. The seedling of faith must be tended like a child. The authentic experience must be developed and given room to grow; it must be given the opportunity to find expression. We must stop being afraid of ourselves, stop worrying about the approval of the Congress of Fools. We must find and nurture the thing that is so close, which needs only "to be done” – to be carried out and actualized.
This Year Will Be a New Year One year follows the other; "What has happened is what will happen.”7 A person can spend his whole life repeating externals, never questioning them. For such a person, every year will be another old year, the very same thing again – an endless dream, a closed circuit from which
there is no exit. For this reason, the shofar is sounded! Its unpleasant sound is a cry without words, for there are no words that would convey the message to disparate people. This sound simply cries out. Sometimes, it is a blast of broken sobbing over what has happened, over what has been lost, while other times it is a blast of warning against further pitfalls and sources of decline. And sometimes it is the sound of victory, of assurance that this year, in spite of everything, it is indeed possible that life will not be merely a repetition – that in the midst of the cycle of the seasons, there is a door of hope that this year will truly be a new year.
1. Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuva 3:4.
2. Proverbs 14:15.
3. Psalms 135:5.
4. Siĥot HaRan 1.
5. Psalms 34:9.
6. Deuteronomy 30:12–14.7. Ecclesiastes 1:9.