Although Rosh HaShanah is described in the Torah as a yom teruah, nevertheless, the Rabbis (Yoma 33b-34a), based on verses discussing the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:9) and the sounding of the trumpets in the desert (Numbers 10:5-6), say that each time a teruah is sounded, it must be preceded by and concluded with a tekiah.
What is a tekiah? – It is a drawn out, uninterrupted sound. The Torah tells us (Numbers 10:10) that we are to sound a tekiah with the trumpets when we bring the festive sacrificial offerings in the Temple and thereby be remembered before G-d. The tekiah is a call to attention; it is inspirational; it is triumphal. It exudes yearning, rejoicing and confidence. It invites us to acknowledge the unique moment and place that we are in and to embrace G-d.
On Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year, we sound the tekiah throughout the land, proclaiming liberty and freedom to all of its inhabitants. We acknowledge G-d as the owner of the Land [of Israel] and as the Master over our lives – “Go back to your ancestral plots of land; go back to your families.” The call to freedom is a call to responsibility – to guard and nurture the legacy of the past, to take control of one’s current reality, and thereby bring about a redemptive future.
On Rosh HaShanah, when we blow the tekiah, we acknowledge G-d as the Creator of the world; we crown G-d as the Sovereign of the universe and declare ourselves to be His faithful servants. We express our joy and thanks for having been invested with the lofty and weighty role of being “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6).”
There is a very poignant passage in the book of Nehemiah (ch.8:1-12), which describes how all the people gathered on Rosh HaShanah, for a public reading of the Torah on the Temple Mount. At one point (v. 9-10), Nehemiah and Ezra say to the people: “Today is a holy day to G-d; do not mourn and do not cry…go, eat fatty foods, drink sweet beverages and give portions of food to those who are lacking, for today is a holy day to our Master; do not be sad because the rejoicing in G-d is your strength.”
When the people hear the words of the Torah, with its graphic descriptions of what will happen to those who violate the covenant, they cry and mourn because they are terrified and trembling before the G-d of Justice, Who sits in Judgment on that day. That may have even been the hidden agenda underlying the public Torah reading! But Ezra and Nehemiah educate the Jewish people to another dimension of Rosh HaShanah –the rejoicing and the celebration; the optimism that G-d is also a G-d of Compassion, who loves his people and desires life.
If the teruah evokes trembling, the tekiah signals celebration. The teruah is a call to each individual to take responsibility for his/her actions; the tekiah is a ceremonial call to the people/community to crown G-d as King, to declare that we His “holy people and kingdom of priests.” To paraphrase Nehemiah – the path to making this a holy day to our Master, is by rejoicing together as a community and supporting those in need.