The birth of a new year is a time of reflection and resolution, where hope and inspiration fill the air. We dream about what this upcoming year holds in store for us, how we can make the rest of our life the best of our life. We all have ideas, ambitions, and aspirations that we yearn to bring to fruition, and the new year gives us “permission” to revisit these goals and breathe new life into them. For a brief moment, everything is crystal clear; we see our purpose and our path with vivid clarity. However, there is an unspoken sadness that comes with this time period, as well. If we are honest with ourselves, we often realize that our new year’s resolutions are awfully similar to those of last year, and the year before. We have brief moments of inspiration, but this soon fades into oblivion, only to be resuscitated next year for a few more days with the hope that somehow this year might be different. The only way to make this year different is by delving deeper into this powerful time of year and exploring the deeper themes of Rosh HaShanah. In doing so, we can turn what was previously fleeting inspiration into lasting and eternal consciousness.
The Deeper Themes of T’shuvah
The theme of Elul and Rosh HaShanah are unquestionably linked to t’shuvah. Parshas Nitzavim, as well, is inexorably tied to this theme, whereby many of its p’sukim discuss the importance of choosing life and connecting ourselves back to Hashem. The question then becomes, what is the meaning of t’shuvah, and how can we accomplish it? T’shuvah can be literally defined as “return”; who, or perhaps what, are we returning to?
Additionally, the Gemara in Kiddushin (39b) explains that before Hashem created the world itself, He created t’shuvah. Is this a history lesson or does this serve to explain a more fundamental point regarding the spiritual nature of t’shuvah?
Furthermore, the Rambam, in discussing the laws of t’shuvah, states that someone who removes himself from the Jewish community has no share in Olam HaBa – the World to Come. In other words, even if this person keeps all of Torah and mitzvos and is an upstanding Jew, as long as he disconnects himself from the community, he loses his eternal existence. This requires explanation. After all, this person didn’t commit a heinous or evil act; he merely chose a life of isolation. Why should this warrant such an extreme punishment?
Finally, we need to explore the themes of the Rosh HaShanah t’filah. The three themes of the Rosh HaShanah davening are Shofaros, Zichronos, and Malchiyus. Judaism is a holistic religion, whereby everything is interconnected, expressing an underlying oneness. How do these three themes connect into a larger unifying theme, and what is the underlying theme of Rosh HaShanah?
The Practical Form of T’shuvah
The Rambam (Hilchos T’shuvah) discusses the three-step process of t’shuvah. First, one must go into the past and acknowledge that a problem exists. Second, he must transition into the present and strongly feel the pain of his mistake and regret it wholeheartedly. Finally, he must move towards the future and commit to never committing this mistake again.
While this form of t’shuvah is absolutely essential, there is a deeper layer, as well.
Returning to Your Higher Self
Genuine t’shuvah is not only about self-transformation; it’s about self-expression, returning to your true and higher self. The Gemara (Nidah 30b) explains that when you were just a fetus, you were in a perfected and transcendent state of being. While in utero, a mal’ach taught you kol haTorah kulah, all of Torah, and you understood all of reality with a crystal-clear lens. However, just before you were born, the mal’ach struck you on the mouth, causing you to forget everything you learned.
The Vilna Gaon explains that you weren’t simply learning Chumash and Rashi. Rather, it means that you were learning your Torah; you were being shown your unique purpose in the world, and how your unique role fits into the larger scheme of the human story as a whole. You were given a taste of your own perfection, of what you could, should, and hopefully will become. But most importantly, you didn’t lose it; rather, you lost access to it. Instead of it disappearing completely, this state of self became buried deep within your subconscious. The reason is as follows: What you received in the womb wasn’t real, it was merely a gift; something unearned and undeserved. The goal of life is to come into this world and resurface all that you once were in the womb. However, this time, it will be real, since you’ve built it yourself. In essence, your job in this world is not to create yourself, but rather to recreate yourself; to re-attain your original state of perfection, as you were shown by the mal’ach. This time, however, it has to be done through free will, by choosing to become great. Only by overcoming challenge and difficulty, and asserting your willpower, can you fulfill your true potential. In essence, our entire life is a story of t’shuvah – returning to our original, higher, and true self.
This is the goal of blowing the shofar: We yearn to awaken ourselves to return to our source, to our higher selves. Shofar comes from the same word as l’shapeir, to go back to the root and perfect, to beauty. It also comes from the same word as mei shafir, the amniotic fluid that surrounds the fetus during pregnancy. In other words, we blow shofar to awaken ourselves to return to our fetal selves, to our true selves.
The Three Stages of T’shuvah
There are three stages of genuine t’shuvah. The first is individual t’shuvah, whereby we return to our higher selves, our fetal selves, our true selves.
The second stage requires transcending our limited sense of self, and becoming part of something bigger than ourselves, becoming part of klal Yisrael. We start our experience life as an ego, perceiving ourselves as separate and disconnected from everyone else. As we progress through life, we need to break down those walls and psychological barriers, recognizing that we are part of a bigger self, a collective self, a higher consciousness, klal Yisrael. At root, all of klal Yisrael is one, an interconnected self. We are all individual neshamos that are part of a bigger whole, like individual cells that make up a single functioning human body.
This explains the abovementioned Rambam. Part of the experience of Olam HaBa is experiencing yourself as part of klal Yisrael, as part of your true reality. If, however, one disconnects himself from klal Yisrael, he has uprooted himself from reality itself, and cannot exist. Just as if you unplug a light bulb from its electric circuit, the light will go out, if you disconnect a soul from its root, it ceases to exist. This is not a punishment, merely a consequence. Therefore, we not only need to return to our higher individual selves, we must also return to our collective selves as well.
The third stage of t’shuvah is returning to our absolute root and source, the source of all sources, Hashem Himself. This is why the Nefesh HaChayim refers to Hashem as the “Neshamah shel Neshamos” – the soul of souls – because Hashem is the absolute root of our souls, He is the root of our existence. Our entire journey through life is about sourcing our existence back to Hashem; this is the ultimate form of t’shuvah.
We can now explain the Gemara (Kiddushin 39b), which states that t’shuvah precedes creation. This not merely a chronological phenomenon, this is a fundamental principle: T’shuvah is the root of this world; all of existence is yearning to return to its source, to fully reflect its absolute root, Hashem Himself.
Let us now briefly display how the three themes of the Rosh HaShanah t’filah reflect this theme.
As we’ve already shown, the shofar represents our existential and spiritual yearning, a deafening and wordless cry to return to our higher self, our fetal self. This is why the brachah of shofar is phrased as the “kol shofar,” the “sound” of shofar. To understand the concept of “kol,” we must first understand the nature of dibur, speech.
Regular speech is always a limited expression of one’s inner thoughts. It is the process of taking your abstract and spiritual thought, that which is beyond words and finite form, and giving it concrete form and expression.
Kol, however, is the root form of verbal expression, a speech that has not yet been expressed into words. It is beyond words, beyond finite expression. As such, it is not a limited form of expression, and manages to loyally convey the full force of “self” within it.
This is also why the concept of kol is always connected to crying. When does one cry? When the clear path ahead loses its clarity and expression. When one hears the doctor’s report and finds out that instead of 50 years, one has only weeks left to live, he or she cries. Or, when one thinks that he only has days left in this world, and he receives the news that he has been cured of his illness, he cries. When the clear and expressed path breaks down, we cry. This is because the spiritual concept of crying is the breakdown in expression. This is why the Hebrew word for tears, dim’ah (in the singular), is also the Hebrew word for “mixture,” something that is unclear and confusing. This is also why the Hebrew word for crying, bocheh, also means “confusion.”
On Rosh HaShanah, we cry out with a deep kol, showing how deeply we yearn to return back to our source, to Hashem. The concepts of kol and crying reflect the concept of focusing on the root and source without focusing on the expression. On Rosh HaShanah, we take a step back from the expressed physical world and return back to our source.
Zichronos refers to the concept of memory, which builds upon this same theme. Remembering something requires one to trace his or her way from the present, back into the past, all the way back to the source of that which is being remembered. It is an exercise in sourcing ourselves back to our root.
The Gemara states that on Rosh HaShanah, we must recall the memory of the Akeidah, where Avraham was willing to sacrifice Yitzchak. Chazal not only state that the Akeidah occurred on Rosh HaShanah, but they attribute the very source of shofar to this event as well, from the ram that Avraham sacrificed after he passed his test.
During the Akeidah, Yitzchak was willing to give up his life. The very willingness to give up your life for Hashem reflects the belief that one is not merely a physical being, but a spiritual consciousness that transcends his body. This is why Chazal note that Yitzchak’s name also spells keitz chai – he who lives (chai) while paradoxically also existing beyond life (keitz). During the Akeidah, Yitzchak rooted himself beyond space and time, while still living within it. On Rosh HaShanah, we remember this, we go back to the root of our unique nature as a collective nation, as klal Yisrael, a nation that transcends this world, while paradoxically fully living within it. The root of our ability to do so stems from Yitzchak and the Akeidah.
On Rosh HaShanah, we crown Hashem as our melech, our king. We declare Hashem as the source of everything, and our ultimate root. This is our mission in this world, to become a walking kiddush Hashem, fully connecting ourselves back to Hashem, our creator. It is for this reason that we don’t mention Viduy or any of our sins on Rosh HaShanah. Our singular goal on this day is to source ourselves back to Hashem, declare Him as our king, and to root ourselves within reality, connected to Hashem.
While all three of these themes are connected to all three forms of t’shuvah, Shofaros most deeply reflects our individual t’shuvah, Zichronos most deeply reflects our collective t’shuvah back to our collective self, and Malchiyus most deeply reflects our ultimate t’shuvah, sourcing ourselves back to Hashem Himself. May we be inspired to fully actualize all three forms of t’shuvah this Rosh HaShanah, and seal ourselves in the Book of Life, the book of true existence.
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.