Jewish Life

A Rosh Hashanah Message: What is the essence of our faith?

By Shlomo Riskin

What is the essence of our faith, the purpose for which the Jewish people have been placed in the world? The answer is found within the central prayer of our Rosh Hashanah liturgy: the three blessings of Malchuyot (kingship), Zichronot (remembrances) and Shofarot, that are found within the Musaf prayer. These blessings are each punctuated by the sounds of the shofar and, according to the 14th century theologian Rabbi Yosef Albo and the 19th-century Franz Rosenzweig, contain the essence of our faith.

The first of these blessings, Malchuyot, begins with the familiar Alenu prayer. This prayer teaches that the God whom we now accept as the one Lord of the Universe, the God of love, morality and peace, will eventually be accepted by the entire world. This blessing affirms that it is the God of compassionate, righteousness and moral justice who will emerge supreme. Our broken world will eventually be perfected under the Kingship of the God of righteousness; through the teachings of Abraham “all the families of the Earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3) with a world of peace.

The second blessing, Zichronot, which is a Hebrew term for history, opens with: “You remember the activities from the beginning of the world, and you are mindful of the deeds [or the potential functions, from the Hebrew tafkid] of every creature from earliest times.” Here is a ringing declaration of faith in the process of history; the clear sense that historical time is on the side of humanity, and that individuals and nations have a unique role to play in the cumulative march of history toward redemption. This blessing guarantees that there is an overarching purpose to history, which is not a cyclical, repetitive cycle leading nowhere, but rather a linear pathway leading to peace. Redemption will come about in the fullness of historic time as a result of the cumulative merits of all preceding generations.

The third blessing, Shofarot, reminds us of the revelation at Sinai, the 613 commandments which God presented to Israel and the seven commandments of morality, centering around “Thou shalt not murder,” which God presented to the world. Maimonides insists that just as God commanded Moses to bequeath 613 commandments to Israel, “similarly did He command Moses to coerce the nations of the world to accept the seven laws of morality” (Laws of Kings 8:10).

This is an immensely significant message, especially in our postmodern, relativistic, “everything goes” society, which denies any absolute concept of morality. “Situation ethics” dominates our conventional wisdom, and the most heinous crime can become transformed into a sacred act “when seen from the perpetrator’s point of view.” (Hence a suicide bomber who murders innocent children is called a “freedom fighter.”) Shofarot tells us that the Seven Laws of Morality must be accepted by the nations — the lives of all humanity hang in the balance of their acceptance.

Hence the Rosh Hashanah Musaf Amida teaches that the nation of Israel must and will teach fundamental morality, or ethical monotheism, to all the nations of the world. Only when this message is accepted, when “this Torah comes forth from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem,” only then will “nation not lift up sword against nation and humanity not learn war anymore”(Isaiah 2:4) and “everyone will sit under his vineyard and fig tree and no one will have reason to fear” (Micah 4:4).

Each of these blessings is punctuated by the shofar sounding. After God’s kingship we sound the shofar, the means by which the king in the ancient world was crowned. It is we, the Jewish people, who must bring God down into this world and crown Him.

After Zichronot, we sound the shofar as a reminder of the aborted sacrifice of Isaac in favor of the ram whose horns were caught in the thicket. Isaac, the future of the Jewish people, was slated for slaughter, but was set free. The shofar sound after Zichronot reminds us that the Jews will continue to live despite exile and persecution, so that we may remain God’s witnesses and “a light unto the nations of the world” (Isaiah 42:6).

Finally, we sound the shofar after Shofarot since the method by which we must reach out to the world is by teaching our Torah – a teaching revealed at Sinai amid the sounds of the shofar.

It will ultimately be that when the Almighty Himself will sound the shofar that all of the dispersed will return to Israel, the Temple will be rebuilt and the nations will come to learn from us to beat their swords into plowshares and to live together in peace.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor emeritus of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

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