Thoughts on Rosh HaShanah 2020
At the start of a year which we hope will restore a sense of normalcy to our lives, Rosh HaShanah will be anything but normal. This year we won’t be sounding a shofar on the first day of the holiday, in deference to the rabbinic restriction of shofar on Shabbat. How can we appreciate a day whose very essence is the sounds of the shofar without a shofar? How may we approach the “Yom Teruah” (Bemidbar 29:1) without a teruah?
Imagine the scene of an orchestra which experiences unexpected technical difficulties just as it prepares to play. The instruments were wrongly arranged and it will take hours to properly assemble them. The conductor turns to face the audience and embarrassedly announces that the show is postponed until the instruments are fixed.
Now imagine a different scene. A band takes the stage in a concert hall. And just as they tune up their instruments and begin to play, the room turns dark and the electricity goes out. As the people in the audience begin to nervously shuffle in their seats, the band leaders step aside from their instruments, walk to the edge of the stage and begin to sing with all their might. The crowd erupts in applause, spontaneously joining in with the chorus and reveling in every second of the unique experience.
Why is the outcome of these two scenarios so different? Why can’t the orchestra adjust to the situation in a way similar to the band at the concert? The answer, of course, is that an orchestra can’t play as an orchestra without instruments. Its function, by definition, is to make music with instruments. The function of a band, in contrast, is to sing songs. And although they generally do so with the accompaniment of instruments, the truly skilled group can adjust to sing even without. Pouring their hearts into the singing, the band may even seize that opportunity to raise the situation to a new level, generating a unique experience for their listeners in the absence of any sound from an instrument.
What does “Yom Teruah” actually mean? Okelos translated it as “Yom Yebabah” – a “Day of Crying.” The essence of Rosh HaShanah, then, lies not in the sound of the shofar per se, but in the cries that we raise up to God on the day – with or without a shofar. It’s no wonder, then, that the Hakhamim determined the calls of shevarim and teruah by comparing them to the cries of the mother of the fallen general Sisera. The shofar plays not as our “orchestra,” but as the “musical accompaniment” to our band of prayers to God.
This year will begin differently than usual. The first day of Rosh HaShanah will present us with the challenge of realizing the “Yom Teruah” as a “Day of Crying” without a shofar. The electricity will go out and we will be forced to decide between postponing the concert or stepping forward and singing our hearts away. So, go ahead. Take a deep breath and step forward in prayer. Find the courage within to replace the external sounds of the shofar with the genuine cries to God that lay dormant in your heart.
Cf. R. Yeruham Olshin, Yerah LaMoadim: Yamim Noraim vol. 1 (Lakewood, NJ, 2014), ma’amar 37, for the well-known halakhic opinion of R. Yisshak Zev Soloveitchik z”l that the shofar plays an integral role to the tefilah of Rosh HaShanah. See, as well, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Blessings and Thanksgiving: Reflections on the Siddur and Synagogue (New Milford, CT, 2019), pg. 103.