There are two places in the Torah where Rosh Hashana is discussed – Leviticus 23:23-25 and Numbers 29:1-6. In the former, Rosh HaShana is described as a zikhron teruah, remembrance of the teruah, whereas in the latter it is referred to as a yom teruah, day of the teruah (Numbers 29:1). Interestingly, what is highlighted in both sections is the sound, the teruah, and not the instrument.
What is a teruah? – It is a trill, a wavering and broken sound, which is contrasted with the tekiah, a prolonged, flat and unbroken sound. In Numbers 10:9-10, the Torah discusses these two sounds and connects them with specific occurrences. In times of war, the teruah is sounded throughout the land, resulting in our being remembered before G-d and being delivered from our enemies; on festive occasions, the tekiah is sounded in the Temple accompanying the special sacrificial offerings, also resulting in our being remembered before G-d.
The teruah is an alarm, which makes us aware that we are in a state of crisis. It expresses trembling, agitation and sobbing. It calls us to go out and fight our enemies, and alerts us to cry out to G-d, who we ultimately need to help us bring about our salvation.
These verses would seem to imply that Rosh HaShana is a time of war/crisis. But who is the enemy and what is the nature of the danger? In rabbinic tradition, Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgment, commemorating each year the original judgment of Adam and Eve when they ate of the Tree of Knowledge. In the words of the Mishnah (Rosh HaShana 1:2), all creatures come before G-d as sheep [one by one] to be reviewed. The enemy is Satan, the Accuser, the Prosecutor, the Divine Attribute of Justice that holds us accountable for all of our actions, including our many misdeeds.
The sounding of the teruah is an alarm, a wake-up call, to make us aware of the gravity of our situation. Today is the Day of Judgment – each one of us will pass before G-d and have his day in court. The stakes are very high – who will live, who will die, who will be tranquil, who will be agitated, etc.
As mentioned above, when the teruah is sounded in a time of war, it is not meant to be an alarm that demoralizes us and brings us to despair; rather, it is a call to action that ultimately should lead to our salvation. This is the case on Rosh HaShana as well.
In the words of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:4): “… It is as if [the shofar’s call] is saying: Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth … throughout the entire year, devote their energies to vanity and emptiness …- look to your souls, improve your ways and your deeds and let every one of you abandon his evil path and thoughts.”
But the sounding of the teruah is not only calling us to repent; it is also telling us to directs our cries and sobbing to G-d to help us bring about our salvation. All of our efforts will not succeed unless G-d intervenes on two levels by: 1) invoking Compassion and Mercy in the face of Justice, which gives us the opportunity to repent and be given a second chance, 2) supporting and empowering us in our journey of transformation, thereby enabling us to transcend our human frailties.
The Torah, by saying that Rosh HaShana is zichron teruah, a remembrance of the teruah. ensures us that the teruah will, in fact, bring our favorable remembrance before G-d.