The Call to Remember

A D’rash for Rosh Hashanah, by Rabbi Paul L. Saal

Congregation Shuvah Yisrael, Bloomfield, CT


If you look in Torah you will not see the name for this holiday as Rosh Hashanah. It is called Yom Teruah, or the day of the blasting of the shofar. This is altogether appropriate since the blowing of the shofar, many times over, is the liturgical highlight of the holiday.

But tradition has given this day several other names that express some of its important meaning. One of those names is Yom HaZikaron, or the Day of Remembrance. As the shofar blows, we are asked to recall several things of which the blasts are evocative, for the three major sounds of the shofar recall three big ideas that we are to remember.

Remember creation

The primary sound of the shofar is the tekiah, a long straight blast, nine beats long. It is a grand sound that was originally used for proclamation and for coronation. Tradition holds that Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of creation. The tekiah reminds us that the Holy One who himself laid out the heavens and the earth is sovereign over creation, so that we can be kept from idolatry, fear, and self-centeredness. The awareness that he sits upon the throne of the world means that we don’t have to bear the weight of that world on our own shoulders.

God remembers us

The second sound is the shevarim, a moaning sound expressed in three broken blasts, each three beats long. The modulated wail of the shevarim sounds almost like the bleat of a suffering animal. It serves as a reminder of the suffering in the world. The world is in a state of disrepair. Despite our very best efforts there is a potentially disheartening reality that the present state of the world does not seem to be improving. Our hope therefore is not in our own efforts and abilities alone, but rather in the faithfulness of the Sovereign. We cry out to him in all of our prayers to remember us, and out of our desperation comes the source of our hope. Our fervent belief that God will remember us ignites the spark of the divine deep within us.

Remember teshuvah

The third and final category of sounds from the shofar is teruah, a series of nine staccato beats that sound an alarm within us. The theme of Isaac’s akeida or binding comes to mind; the quintessential example of human sacrifice out of obedience to the greater and ineffable purposes of the sovereign God. Isaac’s trial reminds us of Yeshua’s akeida, and his ultimate sacrifice for us. We are also reminded of our own impending trial, whereby during the yamim noraim, the ten days of awe, not only our own fate hangs in the balance, but the fate of the entire world. According to Maimonides,

Everyone should consider himself throughout the year as exactly balanced between acquittal and guilt. So, too, he should consider the world as equally balanced between acquittal and guilt. For if he commits one additional sin he tilts the scale of guilt against himself and the world and brings down destruction. If he performs one good deed, he swings himself and the whole world into the scale of merit and causes salvation and deliverance to himself and his fellow men.

Teruah evokes a sense of urgency deep within, calling attention to the imminent danger that surrounds us. The world is not only in need of divine restoration, but the need is so immediate that we cannot help but get involved, we cannot help but follow the example of Yeshua. The sound of the teruah will not allow us to anesthetize ourselves with whatever idolatry du jour a debased culture wishes to throw at us. As a holy nation of priests we have the privilege and responsibility to partner with God in the repair of our world. We do not withdraw from the world and circle the wagons, but rather we recognize the common experience we share with all people, including the joy, sorrows, hopes, pains and delights. We uphold the worthiness of involvement in the spheres of medicine, the arts, politics, humanitarian endeavors and all such society building efforts. We of course want to be sensitive to the moving of the Ruach, and our spiritual gifting, but we want to avoid any superficiality or excess that would detract from the present reality of the Spirit’s supernatural disclosure.

We have a great hope that Hashem will restore all things to perfect order. This does not mean that we should sit back and fail to be concerned with the state of the world. Nor does it preclude any responsibility on our part; in fact it demands participation from us. In the words of rabbi Tarfon from Pirkei Avot, “You are not responsible to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Kefa even suggests that our righteous acts can hasten the day of God’s redemption (2 Peter 3:12).

The Great Remembrance

Remembrance is a two-way street. We remember the great deeds of God as well as his many promises to us. But we also cry out for him to remember us, not with the drone of pessimism and a whimper of defeat, but with the voice of expectation because we have a great and a faithful King, and the goodness of his Kingdom is quickly coming for those who pursue it diligently. The last blast of the shofar is the tekiah gedolah, or the great tekiah. If tekiah is the sound of coronation, the voice of pregnant expectation, then the great tekiah is the voice of assurance and confidence. It is the regal sound that announces the reality that is greater than our present reality, a time, a place, a world saturated in the glory of our Creator. This is not the fictitious utopia of frustrated existentialists, but a glimpse through the looking glass at a certain future, a perfect peace that we invite to invade our present world.

This Rosh Hashanah as we hear the shofar as we are commanded in Torah, let’s not fail to remember. Remember our Creator, and remember that he remembers us. May the God who remembered Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, remember each of us, and write us down for a good year!

Stephanie Escalnate