The Simple Sound of Truth

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Based on a sicha by Harav Yehuda Amital

Adapted by Aviad Hacohen

Translated by Kaeren Fish


The nature of Rosh Ha-shana in the Torah is somewhat mysterious. In one place (Bamidbar 29:1) it is referred to as "a day of sounding the shofar," while elsewhere (Vayikra 23:24) it is called "a remembrance of sounding the shofar," but the essence of this remembrance remains unclear.

What is this "remembrance"? Is it the remembrance of Israel before the Holy One, as suggested by the verse (Bamidbar 10:9), "And you shall be remembered before the Lord your God," or is it the remembrance of the Holy One before Israel, as arises from the words of the prophet (Amos 5:60), "Seek out God and live"?

A hint at the answer to this puzzle is provided by the prophet Yechezkel (40:1):

In the twenty-fifth year of our exile ON ROSH HA-SHANA, ON THE TENTH of the month…

Clearly, the prophet connects Rosh Ha-shana to Yom Kippur. This indicates a dual nature to Rosh Ha-shana. Let us examine another verse (Tehillim 81:4):

Sound the shofar at the beginning of the month, in the covering of our festive day (ba-keseh le-yom chageinu).

One interpretation of this verse would yield an exact parallel between its two parts: the "covering" refers to the time the moon is covered, i.e., the new moon or beginning of the month. However, Ibn Ezra claims that the the two parts of the verse are not equivalent, again indicating duality.

"In the covering of our festive day" - not only is the nature of Rosh Ha-shana hidden, but the sounding of the shofar on this day is also mysterious. According to the literal reading of the Tanakh, the "great sounding of the shofar" will take place only "on that day" – at the end of days, when "God will be One and His Name One." However, the startling innovation of the "U-netaneh Tokef" prayer is that the "great shofar" that will be sounded refers not only to the future, to the days of the Mashiach, but also to the present.

Moreover, a study of the "shofarot" section of the mussaf prayer reveals something interesting: the verses that we quote from the Torah and from the books of the prophets speak of the sounding of the shofar on the part of God, not on the part of man.

You appeared to them in the sound of the shofar, as it is written in Your Torah, "And it was on the third day when it was the morning, that there was thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud upon the mountain, and the sound of the shofar was very loud."

It is only in the verses from the Ketuvim that we mention the sounding of the shofar by man: "The Lord is elevated in the blast (terua); God in the sound of the shofar." Likewise, we read: "Sound (hari'u) the trumpets and the shofar before the King God."

According to this, we can understand why the verses from Ketuvim are recited prior to those from Nevi'im – i.e., not in the order of Tanakh. One of the laws pertaining to the shofar is that "a simple blast (tekia) is sounded before it (the terua), and a simple blast follows it:" the terua is sandwiched in the middle of two tekiot. And just like the order of the blasts, so we find in the order of our prayers: the sounds of God's shofar are heard before and after, with man's terua sounded in between.

Man, with his broken and downtrodden heart, with his inhibitions and frustrations, is unable to sound a "simple" blast. A person's beginning and end are simple. The moment he is born, he cries from the bottom of his heart. Likewise at the time of death, his true voice is revealed, devoid of any mortal considerations or calculations. But the situation during majority of his lifetime is quite different. Chazal interpret the verse (Shir ha-Shirim 4:9), "You captured my heart, my sister–bride; you captured my heart with ONE of your eyes," as hinting at the giving of the Torah: even at that great and elevated hour, God discerned that only "one of the eyes" of Israel was really concentrating on the glorious declaration, "We shall do and we shall hear." The other eye was glancing outwards, at the voice emanating from beyond Mt. Sinai – the sin of the golden calf.

The Maharal explains, in the Gur Aryeh, why the words, "Stop your voice from crying" were said specifically to Rachel. She had a very strong claim against God, saying to Him, as it were: "Why do You come complaining to Your nation Israel that they brought idolatry into their houses? Did You Yourself not create a world of duality, did You not bring my rival Leah into my house?" Ultimately, there is no harmony in this world; it is a world of strife and division.

We may understand in a similar way the controversy among the Sages concerning the "oven of Akhnai" (Bava Metzia 59a). This oven was constructed from many pieces:

They cut it into segments and placed sand between them; R. Eliezer declared it pure, while the Sages declared it impure.

To R. Eliezer's view, an oven that is not all a single unit is not to be considered a vessel at all, and therefore cannot contract impurity. Even though sand was placed between the segments in order to join them, this was insufficient to change its status into a single vessel, a whole entity. R. Eliezer lived in an utopian world, in which wholeness is absolute.

Not so the Sages, who maintain that if the oven is joined together in any manner – even by means of segments connected by layers of sand – then the oven may be considered a "vessel" that is capable of receiving impurity. They admitted that we live in a world of complexity and imperfection.

A person tends to become entangled in complexities – by choice, not by force of circumstance. "God made man straight, but they have sought many calculations" (Kohelet 7:29). "The foolishness of man perverts his path, and his heart complains against God" (Mishlei 19:3).

Truth is different. "The higher the truth of something," wrote Rav Kook, "the more simple it is, and the more vital to all." He adds:

Man's narrow-heartedness attempts to analyze the truth into parts, to diminish it. He is afraid of truth's greatness, and thinks that by diminishing it, it will be more popular, more acceptable to all. But actually by doing so he makes it more difficult, and holds back from everyone what is most vital for them… After his great efforts to analyze the truth, to curtain it in order to diminish it, and to make it suitable for the masses, he must return to its greatness and its purity. [As we pray on Rosh Ha-shana,] "And every individual will know that You are its Mover, and every creature will understand that You are its Creator, and every person with breath in his nostrils will declare: 'The Lord, God of Israel, is King, and His Kingship extends over all.'" (Orot ha-Kodesh, part I, p. 4).

"Every individual will know" – this is the great purpose of Rosh Ha-shana. To return to simplicity, to a natural weeping, the cry of an infant, before man becomes involved in the intricacies of life.

As "bnei Torah," we hold onto the "elixir of life" – life for the whole world. Despite this, we fail to arouse the faith and confidence of others. It is specifically the infant, with his clear and simple voice, who is able to arouse salvation. The Midrash teaches that at the time of the parting of the Red Sea, infants dropped their mothers' breasts and declared, "God will reign for ever and ever!"

The same idea is brought in another midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Va-etchanan): "'With all your heart' – that your heart should not be divided before God." When a person is praying, he must have only one simple, upright heart, not "two hearts," full of complexity and duality.

"The Lord is elevated in the blast (terua); God in the sound of the shofar." The shofar blasts have two dimensions: judgment and mercy, signified by the two names of God in the verse (E-lokim and Hashem). The Holy One responds to us to the extent that we reach out to Him. If we hold out our finger towards Him, He will hold out His finger, as it were, towards us. But if we extend a whole hand, He will stretch out Hiswhole "hand" towards us.

If we are not worthy, then God will be "elevated in the terua" – through an undulating sound, a sound of sobbing and sighing. May we merit, through the simple shofar blast, to turn the attribute of judgment into the attribute of mercy: "God – in the sound of the shofar." And then His great and holy Name will be elevated, made great and sanctified through the attribute of mercy.

(This sicha was delivered on Rosh Ha-shana 5746 [1985].)