Rosh Hashana is possibly the most complex day of our year, very different than Yom Kippur, that is a much more easily defined day. Yom Kippur is about tefillah and teshuva. The focus of Yom Kippur is clearly on the spiritual more than on the physical; it is certainly more serious than festive. We are happy to get atonement, but the mood is definitively heavy and somber.
Rosh Hashana, however, is multifaceted and conflicted.
Regarding the preparation for the day, the Shulchan Aruch (581:4) instructs us to shower and take haircuts in anticipation of the celebration of Rosh Hashana. At the same time, the Rama recommends that we visit the cemetery in preparation for this day. It is a chag, while at the same time it is Yom HaDin, Judgment Day, fraught with trepidation in its anticipation.
The essential tefillah of Rosh Hashana, and of every day, is the shmone esrei. In the shmone esrei we stand tall and straight, and offer a very organized, structured, and articulate formulation of a prayer. There is a beginning, middle and conclusion. It is said with confidence and with conviction. During this time of year, however, we integrate a different form of tefillha – slichos. Rav Soloveitchik explained that slichos represents the opposite of shmone esrei. It is less structured and less formal. It is more of a desperate, inarticulate plea for forgiveness.
This dichotomy manifests itself throughout the core observance of Rosh Hashana, including the shofar and the tefilos themselves.
The sound of the shofar, in shvarim and teruah, is fragmented into pieces in order to express the anguished sigh of crying, desperately yearning for forgiveness and at another chance at life. These cries are always surrounded by the straight, long, strong and confident sound of the tekiah, that conveying the celebratory mood of the day. (Rabbi H. Schachter)
The shape of the shofar is that it must be bent. Actually, there is a debate in the Talmud about this – one view is that the horn must be straight, while Rebbe Yehuda believes that it must be bent. The Talmud explains the rationale for each of their views – Rebbe Yehudah believes that the shape of the shofar should mirror the posture of the person while davening – bent over, head leaning towards the ground. The other view, that it must be straight, agrees that the shape of the shofar reflect the posture of the penitent prayer, however, he believes that this is straight, as a person who stands upright in tefillah. In other words, Rebbe Yehudah envisions the Jew who davens on Rosh Hashana to be bent over, covered by a talis, looking down at the ground, standing before God in trepidation. The Chachamim, however, conceive of the mispalel standing tall in prayer like in shmone esrei, looking heavenward with confidence and excitement on this celebratory day.
Interestingly, there is a parallel debate about prayer in general (Yevamos 105) where the rabbis of the Talmud debate the appropriate posture for prayer in general, whether we should stand tall and look heavenwards, or if we should look down to the ground. The gemarah resolves that we should try to merge the two opposing positions, and look down with our eyes, but up to heaven in our hearts:
The resolution is that we have to find a way to merge these two completely polar opposite positions and attitudes about davening and teshuva. We must attempt to synthesize these two opposing aspect of Rosh Hashana.
Throughout our lives, and particularly on Rosh Hashana, we vacillate between these two experiences and modes of relating to God. And this is not just about Rosh Hashana, but this is the heart of religious experience, and especially religious growth, that represents, hopefully, every day of our lives. It is only if we can internalize both of these motifs in our hearts that we will be able to experience a meaningful day, today, and a growth-oriented life throughout the year:
In order to effect change in ourselves, it is necessary begin with a profound feeling of dissatisfaction in ourselves. This does not sound like fun, but if you think about it, why would anyone change themselves if they feel like they are good the way they are? That is why the Rambam defines teshuva as
הלכות תשובה – ב,ה
מִדַּרְכֵי הַתְּשׁוּבָה לִהְיוֹת הַשָּׁב צוֹעֵק תָּמִיד לִפְנֵי ה’, בִּבְכִי וּבְתַחֲנוּנִים,
When doing teshuva, we should cry and plead to God
וְעוֹשֶׂה צְדָקָה כְּפִי כּוֹחוֹ, וּמִתְרַחֵק הַרְבֵּה מִן הַדָּבָר שֶׁחָטָא בּוֹ.
וּמְשַׁנֶּה שְׁמוֹ, כְּלוֹמַר שֶׁאֲנִי אַחֵר וְאֵינִי אוֹתוֹ הָאִישׁ שֶׁעָשָׂה אוֹתָן הַמַּעֲשִׂים;
And change our name, saying, I am a new person – different that the guy who did those sins
While it may be a bit extreme to do an actual name change every Rosh Hashana, the point is that true teshuva has to be motivated by a genuine feeling of dissatisfaction in our lives right now. If there is a major life change, this is major; if the teshuva is more minor, like modifying one isolated behavior or trait, like speaking less lashon hara, or coming to minyan more often, or adding in a few more minutes of learning into our days, it is the same principle, on a more limited scale. Because it is very hard to change even one habit. And in order to do that, we need to really decide that we are not happy with ourselves, as is. And that can be uncomfortable. And that is why people do not often make changes. That is the uncomfortable thing about Rosh Hashana. That is the part of us that looks down to the ground, in a somberly and nervously, in preparation for our judgments.
And lest you will say: Why does the Torah expect us to put ourselves into a depression, to become unhappy with ourselves, to desire a new name to reflect the feeling that we want to become new people? Shouldn’t we try to be happy with ourselves? Satisfied with who we are? Isn’t that healthier?
The answer is that this is actually healthy and necessary for a healthy life. We should be satisfied with what we get in life, but we should not be satisfied with what we have done with our lives. Our religion teaches that it is ok to be imperfect; our flaws should not be suppressed or ignored. On the contrary, we are all imperfect and that is why we are all here today. And we believe that mistakes can always be atoned for, and imperfections can and must always be worked on.
In fact, I believe that it is this very fact that is cause for celebration. We are fortunate to serve a compassionate, understanding God, who is forgiving, who gives second chances, and expects us to constantly improve ourselves. We hope to stand here today as people who are different than the ones who stood here last year, and next year we hope to be different than we are today.
May we constantly merit the gift of these Yamim Noraim, and take advantage the opportunity to reflect on ourselves and on our lives, and constantly Improve ourselves.
May the sound of the shofar help us break ourselves apart and enable us to become even stronger and better, like the sound of the tekiah gedola that will culminate today’s tefilos.
And may we all be blessed with a Shana Tova, full of only brachos, for ourselves, our families, our community, and all of Am Yisrael.
An Excerpt Of A Past Rosh Hashana Speech Delivered By Rabbi Schiowitz To His Congregation.
Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz is the founding rabbi of Congregation Shaare Tefillah. The Schiowitz family moved to Teaneck in the summer of 2003 in order to lead this fledgling community that was hosted in the Offenbacher home and that barely had a minyan on Shabbat. Under Rabbi Schiowitz’s leadership, Shaare Tefillah has grown its membership exponentially, has moved into a permanent building, and has developed as a supportive, cohesive and growth oriented community.
Rabbi Schiowitz also teaches at the Ramaz Upper School where he serves as Talmud Department Chair. As Talmud Chair he supervises the Talmud department and develops the curriculum. In addition, Rabbi Schiowitz holds the title of Rosh Beit Midrash. In that capacity, he supervises a YU-Kollel program and advances religious initiatives in the school. Rabbi Schiowitz also mentors new teachers and is participating in Avi Chai’s Jewish New Teacher training program. In addition, Rabbi Schiowitz is currently participating in the Lookstein Center Flipped Classroom Program. Video technology is integrated into his classroom and many of the videos can be accessed at the RamazTorah YouTube channel. Rabbi Schiowitz won the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education in 2009.
At Yeshiva University, Rabbi Schiowitz directs the “HSChinuch Project”. The goal of this initiative is to increase collaboration among teachers in different schools and to advance professional development in the field of High School Jewish Education. In this capacity Rabbi Schiowitz manages and develops a website for high school teachers to share educational resources. In addition to cyber-collaboration, conferences are organized to bring teachers together to learn from each other and from experts in the field.
Rabbi Schiowitz studied at Yeshivat Kerem BeYavneh and at Yeshiva University. After earning a BS in Accounting and passing the CPA test, Rabbi Schiowitz completed smicha as a participant in the Wexner Smicha Honors Program. He then earned an MS in Jewish Education from Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School and studied for four years in YU’s post-smicha Kollel Elyon.
Rabbi Schiowitz is the author of Sefer Shiurei HaRav al Meseches Challah Ve’Inyanei Mitzvos Hateluyos Ba’aretz. It was published by the Mesorah Commision of the Orthodox Union in 2003. This is a volume that presents Rav Soloveitchik’s lectures on the topic of the halachot that relate to the Land of Israel. Working from class notes, these lectures were transformed into an edited and footnoted book.http://www.ou.org/oupress/item/65159