Genuine t’shuvah is not just about self-transformation; it’s about self-expression, returning to your true and higher self. As we have previously explained, there are three stages of genuine t’shuvah:
The first is individual t’shuvah, where we return to our higher selves, our fetal selves, our true selves.
The second stage of t’shuvah goes beyond the limited self, turning the focus from individual to community.
The third stage of t’shuvah is returning to our absolute root and source, to the Source of all sources, to Hashem Himself.
We will now display how these three stages parallel the three themes of the Rosh HaShanah t’filah.
The Rosh HaShanah T’filah
The three main themes of the Rosh HaShanah davening are Shofaros, Zichronos, and Malchuyos. Shofaros relates to the blowing of the shofar. Zichronos relates to remembering seminal events from Jewish history and Hashem’s covenant with the Jewish People. Malchuyos is the process by which we crown Hashem King. Judaism is a holistic religion, in which everything is interconnected, expressing an underlying oneness. What then is the underlying connection between these three themes?
The shofar represents one’s individual spiritual yearning. It is a haunting, wordless cry that brings us back to our higher self – our fetal self.
The brachah we recite on the shofar refers to the “kol shofar” (voice of the shofar). This is because blowing the shofar is meant to draw our attention to the unique depth of the shofar’s role in our t’filah. We blow the shofar as a part of the Rosh HaShanah prayers, but it is unique amongst the t’filos. While all the other prayers utilize words, the shofar is a wordless cry. What is the meaning behind this?
Speech is always a limited expression of one’s inner thoughts. Formulating ideas and feelings into words requires taking that which is abstract, beyond finite form, and giving it concrete form and expression. By doing so, one limits that infinite potential into just the words that are spoken. This is why words often fail to describe and convey that which is most important. Words are a limited form of expression; they cannot convey the full force of “self” contained within them. Kol, however, is the root form of verbal expression, a speech that has not yet been formed into words. The wordless cry of the voice is not limited to specific words; it is beyond words and beyond finite expression.
On Rosh HaShanah, we cry out with the resounding “kol of the shofar,” expressing our deep yearning to return to our root selves – a yearning that cannot be expressed in words. As the blast of the shofar jars us from our stupor, we join in its cry as our souls beg to return to their root.
This is also why the concept of kol is 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, he or she has only weeks left to live, he/she cries. Or, on the flip side, when people receive the news that, instead of having a couple of days left in this world, they have been completely cured, they cry. When the clear and expressed path breaks down, we cry. This is why the Hebrew word for tears, “dim’ah,” is also the Hebrew word for “mixture,” something that is unclear and confusing. The spiritual concept of crying is the breakdown in expression. This is also why the root of the Hebrew word for “crying” (bocheh) is the root of the Hebrew word for “confusion” (mevuchah), as well.
[When the M’raglim (Spies) delivered their negative report about Eretz Yisrael, klal Yisrael cried. Chazal (Taanis 29a) note that this was an inappropriate form of crying (b’chiyah shel chinam – a baseless cry). In klal Yisrael’s eyes, the road to Eretz Yisrael was broken, and the path toward their destiny was shattered. But, in reality, this was not true. As punishment for inappropriately crying – for incorrectly viewing the clear path as broken, Hashem made that day, i.e., Tish’ah B’Av, a day of genuine crying (midah k’neged midah – measure for measure). Tish’ah B’Av became the day of all breakdown and crying, and it became the day where we actually lost our place in Eretz Yisrael – not by choice, but by exile (both in the midbar and later on in Jewish history).]
On Rosh HaShanah, we cry out with a resounding kol, expressing how deeply we yearn to return to our source, to Hashem. The concepts of both kol and crying focus on the root and source instead of the expression. Kol is the root of speech, and crying brings us back to a formless, root state where no outward expression is clear. On Rosh HaShanah, we take a step back from the expressed physical world and return back to our transcendent source.
Zichronos refers to the concept of memory, building upon this same theme. Memory represents tracing something from the present back into the past, of sourcing something back to its root. On Rosh HaShanah, as we discuss the Akeidah and other seminal moments in Jewish history, we connect back to our collective self, the root soul of all of klal Yisrael.
The Akeidah holds infinite layers of depth and meaning, and it has striking implications for us as we trace ourselves back to our collective self. At the Akeidah, Yitzchak was willing to give up his life. The willingness to give up one’s life for Hashem reflects the belief that one is not merely a physical being, but a spiritual consciousness that transcends his or her physical body. This is why Chazal note that the letters of Yitzchak’s name spell “keitz chai” – he who lives (chai) while paradoxically also existing beyond life (keitz). At the Akeidah, Yitzchak rooted himself beyond space and time while still living within it. On Rosh HaShanah, we remember this; we tap into our unique nature as klal Yisrael, a nation that transcends this world while paradoxically living fully 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 (King). We declare Hashem to be the source of everything, 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 vidui (prayer of confession) or any of our sins on Rosh HaShanah. Our singular goal on this day is to source ourselves back to Hashem, crown Him as our King, and root ourselves within reality, connected to Hashem. [On Yom Kippur, we focus on the details of our past year and the quality of our upcoming year. On Rosh HaShanah, however, our goal is simply to root ourselves within reality, connecting ourselves to Hashem, our Melech. Before we discuss the quality and nature of our existence (Yom Kippur), we need to ensure that we exist in the first place (Rosh HaShanah).]
Our Three-Stage Ascension
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; and Malchuyos 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.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.