Some of my friends find challenge in running marathons while others play competitive tennis. I’ve also got friends who struggle to achieve and maintain musical proficiency. Others work on their digital dexterity for sleight of hand magical illusions. Yes, I am blessed with very interesting friends and I haven’t even come close to exhausting the list. My point is that unlike animals, God created human beings with a desire to prove themselves and improve themselves. Animals seem to need nothing more than survival, whereas some successful people, who seem to have it all, risk their lives scaling perilous mountain peaks.
Unlike animals, we humans revel in the struggle itself; and perhaps no challenge is ultimately as satisfying as that of trying to make oneself a better person. Perhaps this is why in those quaint old stores that used to sell books more shelf space was devoted to what was called the ‘self-help’ category than to any other. Becoming more self-disciplined; losing weight; being a more loving and considerate spouse; becoming more honest; becoming a more consistent parent; spending less of one’s life staring at a screen; these challenges are all as difficult as climbing Everest or learning to play the violin. Each demands fighting a furious war with one’s own resistance.
Rosh HaShana is the time of year assigned by the Hebrew calendar for rigorous self-judgement and for deliberate decisions to improve. One of its names is even the Day of Judgement. It is the Biblical festival during which we challenge ourselves more than at any other time. It is when we remind ourselves that God created us with two competing components. One part of us knows what we ought to do while the other attempts to seduce us into self-indulgence, otherwise known as sin. Rosh haShana is when we commit ourselves to the triumph of the better side of our natures. And it is a war.
Let’s look at the only two places in the Torah that Israel is instructed to observe Rosh HaShana.
Speak to the Children of Israel saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion blowing blasts [TeRuAH] on the shofar in commemoration.
In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when blasts are blown [TeRuAH] on the shofar.
Other than the date, the common feature is the word TeRuAH describing an attention-getting blast on the shofar, the ram’s horn. The shofar was an early warning alarm system and a call to confront an emergency. In much the same way that the sound of a siren warns of the possibility of a tsunami in Indonesia or Thailand, causing terrified tourists immediately to flee coastal areas, the sound of the shofar, the TeRuAH has always galvanized Israel.
Whether it was for the assault on Jericho (Joshua 6:20) or Gideon’s army preparing an attack (Judges 7:16) the TeRuAH of a shofar always signaled a military assault or a response to one. Even today, that sound possesses the same sense of urgency heard in a siren. The same sound, the TeRuAH calls us to both spiritual and physical war. This drives home the message that our lives are as much at stake when we face an opposing external army as when we face an internal army composed of our own weaknesses.
The Torah’s emphasis on the TeRuAH blast on Rosh HaShana reminds us that this festival is all about the internal war we wage with our lower selves. It is thrilling for anyone to complete a year knowing that last Rosh HaShana fired one up to become more in tune with God’s expectations for us; more generous, more trustworthy, more loyal, and more diligent; in other words, a better human being.