Rosh Hashanah has a number of names in the Torah. Strangely, “Rosh Hashanah” is not one of them.
The association of this holiday with the new year does not occur anywhere in the Tanakh. The Torah places this holiday at the beginning of the seventh month of the year.
What are this day’s names?
In the maftir Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah, from the Book of Numbers, today is described as Yom Teruah. Teruah means “blasting,” as in the sound made by a shofar. So today is a “Day of Blasting.”
In the Book of Leviticus, a slightly different name is used, Zikhron Teruah, a “Remembrance of Blasting.”
No other significant practices or symbolism are attached to this holiday in the Torah, which means that Remembrances and Shofar blasts are the two central concepts of the day.
By the time of the Mishnah, almost two thousand years ago, Rosh Hashanah had become a two day holiday celebrating God’s creation of the world
The Rabbis articulated one other central mitzvah for Rosh Hashanah. In the Musaf service, which we will begin in a few minutes, we recite a series of ten verses on each of three themes.
The Talmudic Sage Rabah summarizes them succinctly:
The Holy Blessed One said: Recite before Me on Rosh HaShana Malkhuyot, Kingship, Zikhronot – Remembrances, and Shofarot – Ram’s Horns. Kingship, so that you will crown Me as King over you; Remembrances, so that your remembrance will rise before Me for good. And with what? With the shofar.Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 34b
As Rabbah describes it, these three themes are closely intertwined. They tell a kind of story. The sound of the Shofar carries the remembrance of us, Israel, to God, our King.
On this New Year’s Day, when we individually and collectively stand in judgment, the heavenward journey of the Shofar sound evokes God’s mercy.
We usually think of ourselves as the intended audience for the Shofar, but Rabah suggests that we sound the Shofar in order to get God’s attention. “Hey! Remember us?!”
The Shofar blasts are wordless outpourings of prayer. It is the worship of pure feeling. The three notes that we sound are said to express different, even contradictory emotions. The Tekiah is an unbroken note that represents wholeness and healing. The Shevarim, three disconnected sounds, symbolizes our sighing over our brokenness. Teruah, the nine staccato bursts, is the uncontrolled sound of wailing.
Yesterday, Shabbat, we did not sound the Shofar.
The Rabbis determined that whenever Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat, the mitzvah of blowing the Shofar would be suspended everywhere outside the Jerusalem Temple. Surprising, given that blowing the shofar is the only thing that the Torah tells us to do!
How can we have a Day of Blasting without any actual Blasting? In the absence of a physical Shofar on Shabbat, we still convey the essence of both the Shofar and Zikaron by every reference to it that occurs in the Mahzor, even though we are not blowing it.
The Talmud creatively suggests that the Torah even provides a hint. The phrase Zikhron Teruah in Leviticus, “a remembrance of blasting,” refers to Shabbat Rosh Hashanah. In this circumstance, without a shofar blast, the Zikhron Teruah, the memory of the blast, is enough
The Kiddush for Rosh Hashanah evening includes the words: Yom Teruah – “a Day of Blasting.” On Shabbat, we add an extra word. Instead of just Yom Teruah, we say Yom Zikhron Teruah, “A Day of Remembrance of Blasting.”
The memory of the Shofar is enough to carry our prayers to God.
Today is Sunday. Since hearing the Shofar is the core mitzvah of the holiday, it was a priority to find a way to fulfill it. After many back and forth conversations with the County—Thank you to our very own County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg—we figured out a way to hold four consecutive Shofar services in the parking lot this afternoon. We will not be forced to rely on the memory of the Shofar.
But there are many aspects of the holiday that we have had to rely upon as a Zikaron.
Back in June, when we began thinking about how to approach the High Holidays, we started with a foundational question. What are the essential experiences that we look forward to during the High Holidays? If we are not able to have those exact experiences, what can we do to capture the feelings that they evoke?
What do you look forward to during the High Holidays? What, if you did not get to experience it, would make the holidays feel incomplete?
Then, we began to consider creative ways, workarounds, that would enable us to have a Zikaron of those experiences and emotions.
First and foremost, people look forward to hearing the Shofar. Such a simple sound. The Shofar is truly one of the most primitive instruments – just a step up from banging two rocks together. And yet its clarion call penetrates our hearts and wakes us up.
For me, seeing everyone in the synagogue is one of the best parts of the holiday. I think about the crowds that fill our sanctuary during two particular moments: the Shofar service on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and Neilah at the end of Yom Kippur. At those two times, we reach standing-room-only numbers (which is ok, because those are moments in the service when we are supposed to be standing). I love seeing the children crowd up on the bimah to surround the Shofar blower. And I love observing individuals and families come up for a final personal moment in front of the open ark.
Instead, this year, I am standing here on the bimah in an empty sanctuary. You are sitting in your homes in front of a monitor. But, we see each other’s faces. Lots of faces. Thank God for Gallery mode. We will hear the Shofar in the Sinai parking lot later today and see each other in person, while remaining in our cars. And everyone will have a chance to spend some time in front of this ark between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We have the Zikaron, the memory, of what it is like under normal circumstances.
Seeing the ark and the Torah scrolls draped in their special white garments is another powerful image for us. That is why I am set up here in the sanctuary.
Of course, hearing once-a-year prayers sung to beautiful melodies is special to many of us. And after twelve years, Cantor Motti’s voice has become part of the core experience. His pre-Rosh Hashanah concert this past week was especially moving because we knew he was not going to be able to be with us for services.
I really look forward to the annual walk to the Los Gatos Creek for Tashlikh on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. We will have to do Tashlikh on our own this year, but the High Holiday Home Kit includes a special Do-It-Yourself Tashlikh service.
Some of our memories center on family meals and gastronomic gatherings with friends. Yesterday, we had a special Seder Rosh Hashanah at which we had a chance to eat together and (sort of) share the special foods of the day.
Almost every element of our Rosh Hashanah celebrations are different this year, but they are meaningful. Perhaps even more meaningful, given the circumstances.
Our tradition has always been practical. We have always found creative ways to preserve the essence of our traditions and our faith. That is what we have done this year for the High Holidays.
It is what we have had to do in so many aspects of our lives: find ways to continue living with meaning despite the limitations imposed on us.
It has demanded a lot of creativity and a whole lot of patience and we have risen to the challenge in so many ways.
Like the silent Shofar on Shabbat, we find a way to create a Zikaron, a memory, and the memory can be enough.
Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Techateimu. May we be written and sealed for a good year.
Until the day when we can once again be together in person, may we be blessed with creativity and patience to live with meaning.