Rosh Hashanah: The awakening of repentance

by | Sep 5, 2014 | Torah Thought

My teacher, Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, noted that our prayers on Rosh Hashanah do not include any references to sin or forgiveness. Selichot (penitential prayers) and Viduy (confession) are absent from the liturgy. Yet we know that Rosh Hashanah is a Day of Judgment, ushering in the Ten Days of Repentance that culminate with Yom Kippur. There is a widespread custom to omit the first verse of the Aveinu Malkeinu (“Our Father, Our King”) prayer, “Our Father, Our King, we have sinned before You” on Rosh Hashanah. How do we account for the lack of any mention of sin and confession in the Rosh Hashanah prayers?

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested that Rosh Hashanah is a time for us to begin the process of repentance with Hirhur Teshuvah (lit., the “awakening” of repentance, usually understood as the “thoughts” of repentance). Unlike the formal process of repentance, Hirhur Teshuvah is amorphous and ill-defined. In another context, the Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested the sound of the shofar itself is a non-verbal expression of this as-yet-undefined process of Hirhur Teshuvah. Despite its raw form, Hirhur Teshuvah is an important milestone on the road to repentance.

Rabbi Soloveitchik illustrated the idea from a sad personal experience:

“On the seventh day of Pesach 1967, I awoke from a fitful sleep. A thunderstorm was raging outside, and the wind and rain blew angrily through the window of my room. I quickly jumped to my feet and closed the window. I then thought to myself that my wife was sleeping downstairs in the sunroom next to the parlor, and I remembered that the window was left open there as well. She could catch pneumonia, which in her weakened physical condition would be devastating.

“I ran downstairs, rushed into her room, and slammed the window shut. I then turned around to see whether she had awoken from the storm, or if she was still sleeping. I found the room empty, the couch where she slept neatly covered.

“In reality, she had passed away the previous month.

“The most tragic and frightening experience was the shock I encountered in that half second when I turned from the window to find the room empty. I was certain that a few hours earlier I had been speaking with her, and that at about 10 pm, she had said good night and retired to her room. I could not understand why the room was empty. I thought to myself, ‘I just spoke with her. I just said goodnight to her. Where is she now?’”

The required response to the shofar, which according to the great codifier of Jewish law Maimonides symbolizes an awakening from our spiritual slumber to face G-d’s judgment, is the abrupt, tragic realization that the false assumptions upon which we build our lives have come crashing down before our eyes. We are jolted with the sudden awareness of the grievous extent to which our actions have alienated us from G-d. Amidst the panic of this experience, we have neither the intellectual nor the emotional fortitude to adequately express remorse, resolve, confession or even prayer. We find ourselves alone, bereft of our illusions, terrified and paralyzed before G-d.

The arousal of fear on Rosh Hashanah is not meant to leave us permanently paralyzed.

The Talmud records (Brachot 60a): “There was a certain student who was following Rabbi Yishmael son of Rabb Yose in the marketplace of Zion. Rabbi Yishmael noticed that the student was anxious. Yishmael told him, ‘You are a sinner….” One of my teachers noted that we can infer from this incident that there is “a fear that makes us and a fear that breaks us.”

The powerful and ultimately destructive emotion of fear must be transformed during the Ten Days of Repentance into a mobilizing, constructive force of reverence and loyalty. This joyful acceptance of G-d as our King reflects a process of spiritual maturation in the penitent. Reverence is not based on visceral fear, but rather reflects a cognitive understanding of G-d’s power. Reverence in turn prompts introspection through the repentance period.

Let us dedicate 5775 to introspection and to revitalizing our relationship with G-d and with Judaism. May He bless our country, the United States of America, the State of Israel, the Jewish people and the entire world with peace and prosperity. Amen.

—Rabbi Mordechai Wecker, head of school, Hebrew Academy of Tidewater