Standing together at the foot of Mount Sinai, as the Israelites and the Holy One prepared to meet each other, the Torah teaches that “The blare of the shofar grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in a Voice.”
As we celebrate the New Year this coming week, we embark on a journey through what is called עשרת ימי תשובה – Aseret Yemei Teshuvah – The Ten Days of Repentance.
Rosh HaShanah has many names – but one that sticks out for most of us is Yom Teruah – the Day of Loud Blasts.
Maimonides understood the sounding of the shofar to be a wake-up call: “Awake, you sleepers from your sleep. Arouse you slumberers from your slumber and ponder your deeds; remember your Creator and return to God in repentance. … Look well to your souls and consider your deeds; turn away from your wrong ways and improper thoughts” (Maimonides Mishneh Torah Laws on Repentance 3:4).
Life can be so busy, and our external obligations can seem all consuming. Responsibilities at work or school, the tasks required to manage a household or care for loved ones, all the outside business and busy-ness of life completely captures our consciousness. And then at the end of the day, we lose ourselves in someone else’s world on TV or Netflix, until we drift off to sleep, only to wake up and start again on the daily grind.
The Aseret Yemei Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Repentance – begin with the call of the shofar. For just as the sound of the shofar drew us together at Sinai to hear God’s voice, so the shofar calls us back, to return to the path our covenant with God obligates us to follow.
In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, Moses brings the people to stand together once again. Now, forty years later, a new generation stands before him – a generation that never knew slavery but for the stories their parents told, a generation that only hears the echoes of what God spoke at Sinai. And what does Moses ask of this generation? Teshuvah – repentance and return.
Moses explains that their covenant with God rests on a simple proposition – if you turn toward God, then God will turn toward you. “And you will turn [Tashuv] and you will hear the voice of God, and do all the commandments which I have commanded you this day … And God will turn [Yashuv] and rejoice over you again … if you turn [Tashuv] to YHVH your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 30:8-10).
The commanding voice of the shofar we hear each Rosh HaShanah is the same commanding voice that called us to stand together at Sinai. It is the call to turn – to return – and to listen to the voice of YHVH our God.
The Ten Days of Teshuvah call us to turn inward, to take a good hard look at what we chose to write on our page in the Book of Life, and to ask ourselves if we’re proud of what we’ve written.
These days invite us to turn toward each other, to repair broken relationships, to ask forgiveness from those we’ve hurt, and to offer forgiveness to those who hurt us.
And these days ask us to turn toward God, to restore God’s teachings to the forefront of our priorities, to ask God for a fuller awareness of ourselves and the holiness of the world in which we live.
Rabbi Alan Lew writes: “The Ten Days of Teshuvah are days of renewal, days when we are not only concerned with change and transformation, but also with reinvigorating, refreshing, and reimagining our lives.” They are days, he teaches, for us to ask how we can more deliberately choose to be more thoughtful and careful in how we use the gift of life.
As we enter the New Year 5783, let us use these holy days for Teshuvah – turning inward to discover our truest selves, turning outward to nurture the bonds of love we share in family and community, and upward to draw ourselves nearer to God and to ask God to draw nearer to us.