The Teshuvah of Rosh Hashanah

The Teshuvah of Rosh Hashanah

The major theme of the month of Elul and the High Holiday season is teshuvah - repentance and return to God. Yet if we examine the Rosh Hashanah prayers, there is no mention of sin or penitence. We do not recite any confessional prayers, nor do we make any promises to improve. Instead, the Rosh Hashanah prayers deal with a completely different theme: the entire world accepting God's sovereignty. How does this aspiration fit in with the overall seasonal theme of teshuvah?

Before blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we say:

"From my straits I called out to God. He answered me, and set me in a wide expanse." [Psalms 118:5]

The verse begins with narrow straits, and concludes with wide expanses. What are these straits? These are our troubled, perhaps suffocating, feelings of oppression and failure. With God's help, however, we are able to escape to "wide expanses." Our emotional binds are eased, and our physical constraints are released.

This progression from the narrow to the wide is also a good physical description of the principle mitzvah-object of Rosh Hashanah: the shofar, which gradually expands from a narrow mouthpiece to a wide opening.

From the Individual to the Community

Rav Kook, however, did not explain this narrow-to-wide progression psychologically. Rather, he likened it to the distinction between the prat, the individual, and the klal, the community. There are the narrow, private issues of the individual. And there are the broad, general concerns of the community and the nation.

Teshuvah takes place on many levels. Each individual tries to correct his personal faults and failings. The nation also does teshuvah, as it restores itself to its native land, its language, culture, and beliefs. And the entire world advances, as it learns to recognize divine morality and rule.

The shofar, with its gradually widening shape, is a metaphor for these ever-expanding circles of repentance and spiritual progress. The order, however, is significant. Our individual teshuvah must precede the universal teshuvah of the klal. During the month of Elul, we are engaged in rectifying our own personal faults and mistakes. On Rosh Hashanah, our outlook broadens. We pray for the repentance of the entire nation that recognizes God's sovereignty, and we yearn for the ultimate repair of the entire universe.

[adapted from "Celebration of the Soul", p. 36]

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