Rosh Hashanah is called “Yom Teruah,” the day of the blowing of the shofar. During the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah (except on Shabbat), there are three distinct sounds: Tekiah, one long, straight blast; shevarim, three medium, wailing sounds; and teruah, nine quick blasts in short succession.
As Jews, we celebrate different new years within the course of the calendar, including Rosh Hashanah, which is considered the birthday of the world and the start of a new spiritual year. Rosh Hashanah is the day on which we truly appreciate the essence of God’s creation — God as Creator, God as Sustainer. On Rosh Hashana, tekiah — the long, straight shofar blast — is the sound of the coronation of God’s glory as Creator.
When we think about the year gone by, we realize we often have failed to live up to our full potential. In the coming year, we yearn not to waste that opportunity again. The Kabbalists say that shevarim is the sobbing cry of a Jewish heart — yearning to connect, to grow, to achieve. Every person has the ability to reflect, repair, return and reach new heights. We should not be constrained by our shortcomings and the past. On Rosh Hashanah, we need to wake up and be honest and objective about our lives: who we are, where we’ve been and in which direction we’re headed.
The teruah sound resembles an alarm clock, arousing us from our spiritual slumber. God wants us to make an honest effort to maximize the gifts given to us. We aren’t expected to be anything we’re not. Nor are we to condemn ourselves for not being perfect. When we miss the mark of not living our truth, we have opportunities to reconnect with our deepest desires and essence during the High Holy Days. This reflective season calls on us to examine our goals and purpose. The curved shape of the shofar reminds us that we should bend our hearts toward serving God with sincerity and humility, and serving our families and community with genuine caring and love.
When we greet one another from the beginning of Elul through Yom Kippur, we say “Shana Tova.” Many mistakenly understand this as “Have a happy new year.” In actuality we are wishing one another a “good” new year — not just a year filled with happiness, but one that is filled with bringing goodness into the world. The derivation of the word “goodness” is taken from Old English for “god-ness.” Webster’s dictionary explains “goodness” means excellence, kindness, generosity and benevolence. When we act to do good we bring ourselves closer to God.
Our Jewish tradition teaches us that we should seek out every opportunity to perform acts of goodness — “haveh ratz lemitzvah kallah,” says Ben Azzai (Pirkei Avot, 4:2) — that we should run to perform even the simplest of mitzvot.
Contemporary trends might lead some to say, “The important thing is to feel good about what you’re doing.” Judaism says, “The important thing is to do good, regardless of what you feel.” Judaism would love for us to be passionate about giving charity, visiting the sick, avoiding gossip and telling the truth on one’s tax return. Judaism would be delighted if we performed those mitzvot from the heart. But what if our heart isn’t in it? What if we don’t really feel like doing one of them? What if we struggle with the whole notion of God, belief, faith and how to connect?
Judaism says: “Do it anyway.” Over-thinking draws energy away from action. We as Jews are much more driven by deed over creed. For us, the slogan, “Just Do It!” is a way of life. Jewish tradition teaches that kindness is what life requires of us. The sages taught that God is the original model of kindness: God clothed Adam and Eve when they were naked, visited Abraham when he was sick, comforted Isaac in his grief, remembered Hannah when she wept and buried Moses after he died. We, who are commanded to follow in God’s ways (Deuteronomy 13:5), must likewise clothe the naked, visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, have compassion for those unable to conceive and bury the dead.
We pray on Rosh Hashanah for God to treat us with righteousness and kindness — asei imanu tzedaka va’chesed — not randomly, but daily. The commandments in the Torah guide us to act legally, ethically and compassionately, to take steps toward achieving a “Shana Tova” — a “good” year, a “good” life.
We know it’s a new year. What we don’t know is just how good of a year 5781 will be. It is within our capacity to direct our year toward one that will fill the world with goodness.
When we hear the sounds of the shofar this Rosh Hashanah, let’s get energized about Judaism. Let’s create Jewish memories that weave us into the fabric of Jewish history. Let’s perform acts of goodness because it’s the right thing to do, not because it feels good. Let’s shed the doldrums of routine and make life meaningful and exciting again. Just like a good marriage or partnership, fresh and new ways of living life keep it interesting. Let’s find moments to express gratitude, fulfill a new mitzvah, participate more in the life of a synagogue or work to repair the injustices in our society. Opportunities to “do good” are all around us. Tekiah, shevarim, teruah, sounds good to me. L’Shana Tova Tikateyvu. PJC
Rabbi Cheryl J. Klein serves Congregation Dor Hadash in Pittsburgh.