parasha

Rosh Hashana 5779

 

Praying without Words

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites


On Sunday evening, we will all celebrate Rosh Hashana, the two-day holiday (Monday and Tuesday) that marks the beginning of the new year in the Jewish calendar. The name “Rosh Hashana” comes from the book of Ezequiel where it refers to the entire month of Tishrei – the first month of the year. In the Torah, this holiday is called “Yom Tru’a” due to its central commandment: blowing the shofar.


There is a double significance to blowing the shofar. It adds a festive component while also signifying warning. These two facets convey the two central messages of Rosh Hashana as they are described in the literature of Chazal. On the one hand, it is a day on which we express loyalty to God, His values and His commandments; and on the other hand, it is a day on which we stand trial, and our fate for the upcoming year is determined.

 

But there is yet another significance to blowing the shofar that is revealed in the verses of a Psalm hymn recited on Rosh Hashana at the end of the service, and which was also recited in the Temple in Jerusalem on Rosh Hashana.


The poet instructs his listeners and readers as follows:


Sound the shofar on the New Moon…For it is a statute for Israel, the judgment of the God of Jacob.


And the reason given for sounding the shofar is historical:


As a testimony for Jehoseph, He ordained it, when he went forth over the land of Egypt, [when] I understood a language that I had not known.
(Psalms 81, 4 – 6)


As is often the case, complex verses in the Bible induce commentators to propose various interpretations. We will examine interpretations given by two of the important commentators of the Middle Ages: Rabbi David Kimchi (commentator and linguist, Provence, 12th century) and Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (commentator, poet, and philosopher, Spain, 12th century). They explained the name Jehoseph as a term for the Jewish nation with the reason being that God decreed that sounding the shofar was testimony for Israel of the historic event that occurred when they were in Egypt when God heard an unknown language.


Such an obscure reason demands clarification. In the biblical story of the Jewish nation being enslaved in Egypt, we find God’s response to the nation’s difficult circumstances:


Now it came to pass in those many days…and the children of Israel sighed from the labor, and they cried out, and their cry ascended to God from the labor…God heard their cry.
(Exodus 2, 23-24)


Note – we are not reading the description of the Israelites’ prayer in Egypt. We are reading the description of pain - sighs and cries – which God heard and responded to, ultimately redeeming His nation and liberating them.


This is what the poet is referring to in Psalms: “I understood a language that I had not known.” A new language was revealed in the Exodus from Egypt, a wordless language, one that was unknown and had no rules of syntax; the language that God hears: the language of the heart. God took the sighs and cries of the despairing and turned them into a new language – the language of prayer.
This is the language of the shofar. We sound a wordless shofar that expresses a cry emitted by our hearts, crossing all barriers, opening all gates, and wordlessly expressing the dependence of man on God, Creator of all.


The prayers of Rosh Hashana barely contain any personal requests. But, we blow the shofar and make a sound that is nothing but the cry of all our needs and desires. This way, we express the faith and confidence that God “hears the voice of the blasting of His nation with compassion”, as we recite on Rosh Hashana, and that He will bequeath to us a year full of joy, health, fulfillment, and redemption.


Shana Tova
Ktiva Vechatima Tova


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