The mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is in hearing the shofar. All of the other intense, holy things that we do on the holyday are subordinate to that. The g’mara in Masechet Rosh Hashanah (ר”ה לד) even points out that if I could go somewhere where the prayers would include the mandated verses OR a place where they would blow shofar only – shofar is preferred. The only mitzvah that Hashem directly commanded us in regard to the holyday, is the mitzvah of shofar.
In the minimalist sense, one fulfills an obligation merely by hearing the shofar with the intent of carrying out God’s command. But we all know that isn’t really nearly enough. If the obligations of the day come down to one key mitzvah, there really must be something very special, even challenging or demanding, about that commandment. With regard to maximum fulfillment of the commandments, Rav Yaakov Moshe Harlop (מי מרום אורי וישעי פרק ב) taught that mitzvot are not like other actions we do in this world. When we do a mundane, material act – the benefit accrued comes about even without understanding the whys and wherefores of the act. Think of the benefits we receive, for instance, from medications. Most of us are not pharmacolgists or physicians; but when we take a medication according to the directions, we benefit from it. Yet with spiritual matters, the issue is different. A mitzvah is a Godly act; a spiritual demand translated into behavioral terms by our Creator. Rav Harlop tells us that a knowledge of the preciousness of the act and the importance of the behavior is indeed the key that allows for expression of the great potential inherent in a mitzvah. The extent that a mitzvah reveals Divine will depends on the extent to which we know and are invested in the idea of the mitzvah. Even though the only reason to carry out a mitzvah is because our Father and King commanded us; we must also be intellectually and personally invested in the act. The more sophisticated our understanding of the mitzvah, the more nuanced our personal connection to what we are doing – the greater the Divine impact of the act on all of creation.
Regarding our mitzvah today, the mitzvah of shofar, the Torah tells us (ויקרא כג:כד),
בחדש השביעי באחד לחדש יהיה לכם שבתון זכרון תרועה מקרא קדש. ‘In the seventh month, on the first of the month, you will have a Sabbath, a memorial of blowing, a holy occasion.’
Ramban, Nahmani, found this simple statement required some important explanation; and Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik found that the Ramban’s comments here also demanded attention. Let’s see some of what these holy sages spanning hundreds of years teach us, so that we can approach the mitzvah of this day with greater appreciation and nuance.
Ramban explains that זכרון תרועה, a ‘memorial of blowing’ means a memorial or commemoration before Hashem that comes about through our blowing the shofar. But this leaves some unanswered fundamental questions: why blow the shofar at all; and why do we need to be remembered before Hashem on this day more than any other days. The essential character of Rosh Hashanah as Yom Hadin, Day of Judgement, isn’t noted in the Torah explicitly. Ramban notes here that the Torah only hints at the matter, and it is known from the Prophets and our holy forefathers.
Ramban tells us, according to the kabbalah, that על דרך האמת תרועה היא שעמדה לאבותינו ולנו – the sound of the shofar, specifically t’ruah, is what has served or protected our fathers and us. Ramban continues and says that the Torah’s intent elsewhere of ויום תרועה יהיה לכם – ‘it will be a day of t’ruah for you’, means the day itself will be a t’ruah for you. And so in our verse, זכרון תרועה מקרא קדש – ‘a zichron/commemoration of t’ruah and a holy occasion’, means that the zichron/commemoration will be by means of the t’ruah and therefore a holy occasion or yom tov. What does this mean? What, exactly, is t’ruah? Why is it essential to Rosh Hashanah? And what is the zichron? Does it really mean commemoration? Rav Soloveitchik (Noraot Harav, vol. 9) delves carefully into the meaning of these two words and concepts, and shows us how essential they are to the Ramban’s explanation of the meaning of this day.
The word תרועה/t’ruah, which we use to simply mean a sound of the shofar, is a derivative of נרע or רעה – to break or shatter. Something רעוע is something unstable, something whose foundations are weakened or gone. (See ישעיה כ”ד:י”ט) The word t’ruah used this way relates to destruction. The prophet ירמיה/Jeremiah uses the notion of תרועת מלחמה (ד:יט), a t’ruah of war. At a time of judgement, we stand under the threat of destruction. The sound of t’ruah itself, a broken or wavering unstable sound, shows this idea. We shall see later how this compares importantly to the straight, simple sound of t’kiah.
T’ruah can also be a derivative of ריעות – friendship. A shepherd who watches over and tends his flock is a רועה צאן. We see this notion used by our father Jacob when he refers to Hashem as הא-להים הרועה אותי – ‘God who shepherds or befriends me.’ (בראשית מח:טו)
We see that like many words in the holy language of Torah, תרועה can have paradoxical, opposite meanings. The notion of t’ruah can be moved or transformed from one aspect to the other. Rav Soloveitchik explains that when t’ruah is transformed from destruction to friendship, judgement is changed to רחמים, to mercy. Shofar facilitates changing the semantics of t’ruah from something fearful to something nurturing. Sounding the shofar, the mitzvah from the Torah for this day; and reciting in davening the verses of מלכויות, זכרונות, ושופרות which dominate Musaf as enacted by our holy sages – these together are the tools for transforming judgement to mercy. Understanding that shofar and the verses of Musaf are the tools of transformation, we better understand how the Ramban said that ‘t’ruah is what served or protected our fathers and us.’
Ramban quoted in this context the verse from Psalms ( תהילים פט:טז ), ‘fortunate is the people who knows the t’ruah’. אשרי העם יודעי תרועה. Not just to passively hear the t’ruah. To KNOW it. To understand it, and be intimate with it; to identify with it. Like Adam knew Hava. Other cultures can also blow horns; but we have a mitzvah that when properly understood placates Hashem, draws us closer to Him, transforms the day from judgement to mercy. When the Torah says this is a day of t’ruah, that Ramban explained is a day that itself should be t’ruah – it means that through our mitzvah and identification with it, we make this a day of friendship, of ריעות. We move from a confrontation being judged by God, facing Him; to a confrontation of friendship, of joining Him. In this way Israel can proclaim Hashem’s kingship, and be a foundation for the שכינה, the revelation of Hashem’s presence in the world.
Ramban said when the Torah says that this day is זכרון תרועה, that the ‘zichron’ comes about through the ‘t’ruah’. We tend to simply translate zichron as commemoration or remembrance. Rav Soloveitchik, in explaining the Ramban, shows that this can’t be the case here. Refering us to the verse in Jeremiah (31:19), הבן יקיר לי אפרים… כי מדי דברי בו זכור אזכרנו, he explains that our simple translation is misleading. The verse is often read to mean, ‘is Efraim a darling child… that whenever I speak of him I remember him?’ But this doesn’t make sense. If זכור here means to remember, that should occur BEFORE speaking of him. One firsts remembers the person, then speaks of him. Rav Solovietchik explains that the usage in Jeremiah means fondness. Whenever I speak of Efraim, my fondness is awakened for him.
So, in our verse that Ramban explained meant that zichron should come about through t’ruah, the Torah is saying that *fondness* should be brought about through t’ruah from the shofar, and therefore this is a yom tov. As Rav Soloveitchik explains it, ‘the judgement should be mitigated through love of the t’ruah.’ Therefore, says Ramban explaining our verse, this day is a holy occasion – a yom tov. A day on which the mitzvah of t’ruah transforms דין to רחמים, judgement to mercy; a day when Israel acting through the t’ruah identifies with and awakens the bond of friendship with God – that is a very holy occasion indeed.
This is exemplified by the manner of blowing shofar. Ramban points out that our sages taught that every t’ruah always has a t’kiah before and after. This is a given. T’kiah is a simple sound, unwavering; and it symbolizes or expresses רחמים – mercy. Since t’ruah is undecided between judgement and friendship, we bracket it with mercy, with t’kiah, to express our desire and attempt at transforming judgement to friendship.
May Hashem bless us that we should truly desire only Him, only closeness to Him; and that our fulfillment of His commandments, especially shofar on this day, should strengthen the covenant and bond of friendship between Israel and Him, between each individual and Him, between all the creation and Him. May we merit to be the agents of this.