Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779

September 9, 2018

It’s wonderful to see all of you here tonight, but I know what you’re all really waiting for as far as Rosh Hashanah is concerned: The spectacle of the sounding of the shofar tomorrow morning.  Maureen O’Brien will surely do a great job with that important role as she does each year.  And we also look forward to Gerry Wallace doing the honors on Tuesday during our Second Day Rosh Hashanah morning service.

There are many complex thoughts and emotions that arise in us when we observe the mitzvah of “lishmoa kol shofar”/ “hearing the sound of the shofar”.

In the signature verse for the Rosh Hashanah Amidah from Psalm 81 that we sang earlier tonight we declared:

תִּקְע֣וּ בַחֹ֣דֶשׁ שׁוֹפָ֑ר


Tik’u vachodesh shofar

From that imperative verb form “tik’u” we get the noun “tekiah,” which is why our machzor translates the phrase “Tik’u vachodesh shofar” into English as “sound teki’ah on the shofar on the New Moon.” The rabbis of old interpreted the verse to refer to the new moon of Tishrei.  And --- fun fact --- the Zohar, the main text of the Jewish mystical tradition, notes that when spelled in Hebrew,  בראשית

(“Bereshit”) --- the first word of the Torah --- meaning “in the beginning” – is an acronym for בא  תִּשׁרִי    (“Ba Tishrei”) --- Tishrei comes….

Well the month of Tishrei is here, and with it, our celebration of Rosh Hashanah on the 1st and 2nd days of Tishrei.

Oddly enough, this holiday is never referred to as “Rosh Hashanah” in the Bible.

And, although we highlight the verse in Psalm 81 that says “sound Tekiah on the shofar on the New Moon” --- this holiday is never referred to as “Yom Tekiah”

But there IS another name for Rosh Hashanah right there in the Torah that refers to the sound of the shofar.

As it says in the Rosh Hashanah maftir Torah reading that we will read from the second of two scrolls tomorrow:

“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. It shall be “Yom Teruah” for you.”   (Num. 29:1)

And in Psalm 47, which in some machzorim is included as part of the shofar service, it says:   

עלה אלהים בתרועה ה' בקול שופר

(“alah elohim bitruah, adonai vekol shofar”)

“God ascends with a “teru’ah”; Adonai, to the sound of a shofar.”

What is this “teru’ah” of which Scripture speaks?

The sages debated what a “teru’ah” on the shofar should sound like.  Some said it should sound like sighing --- an interpretation reflected in what we now call “shevarim”  -- three notes whose total length adds up to the length of one “tekiah” blast.  That word “shevarim” means “broken” --- and thus it reminds us of the brokenness of our world and of God’s call to us to work together to heal and repair it.  

Other sages said that “teru’ah” was a crying sound – an interpretation reflected in the series of nine short notes to which we do indeed now give the name “teru’ah”. 

In Tractate Rosh Hashanah of the Talmud we learn that the teruah sounds should remind us of the distressed wailings of Sisera’s mother as she awaited her son’s return from battle. 

Sisera was a bitter Canaanite enemy of the Israelites who was killed in battle by Ya’el, and the image of Sisera’s weeping mother comes from the Song of Deborah in the Book of Judges.  It’s all portrayed very much as a just war.  And yet, in this most charged ritual of Rosh Hashanah we are supposed to remember the tears of the mothers of our enemies.[1] 

What a profound model of empathy and compassion that is for us – the shofar reminding us to remember the human cost of war.

But tonight I’d like to highlight a more joyful understanding of the concept of “teru’ah”.

The new Jewish Publication Society translates the word “Teruah” in Psalm 47 verse 6 as “acclamation” ---

עלה אלהים בתרועה

(“alah elohim bitru’ah”)

“God ascends with acclamation”. 

The word “teru’ah” is derived from the verb להריע (lehari’a),  which, in my dog-eared copy of the Oxford University Press Hebrew-English Dictionary is defined as “to cheer, shout for joy, applaud or acclaim.”[2]

One particularly well-known use of the verb “lehari’a” ----  is found in Psalm 100 – well known in the sense that this Mizmor Letodah/ Psalm of Thanksgiving is part of the traditional weekday morning liturgy throughout the year.

There we find these words of acclaim:

הריעו לה' כל־הארץ

(“Hari’u ladonai kawl ha’aretz”)

The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translates this as: “Raise a shout for the LORD, all the earth.” But we could also translate it as “Make a TERU,AH sound to Adonai all the earth….

If the verb lehari’a means to acclaim – and “teru’ah” (the noun derived from that verb) is an acclamation, a shout for joy, a cheer…

What is it that we are acclaiming? What is it that we are enthusiastically praising when we hear those rapid notes of the “teru’ah” on this Jewish New Year – on this “Yom Teru’ah?”

At the most basic level, we acclaim the simple joy and miracle of being alive --- as it says in Psalm 146:  “Halleluyah – Praise the Eternal O my soul.  I will praise the Eternal all my life, singing hymns to my God while I exist.” 

Or, to put it another way, as we heard in the passage that we read earlier in tonight’s service from the writings of the physician and poet Lewis Thomas ---- “The probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise…. You’d think we’d never stop dancing”[3]

You know, when we go through our Torah reading cycle each year there are always new lessons to learn in each and every go-around.  And a few months ago, in our Shabbat morning Torah study group we encountered another possible definition for “Teru’ah”  -- which I have been thinking about ever since.

It comes in Torah portion Balak.  That’s the parasha in which a Moabite king named Balak hires a pagan prophet named Balaam to curse the Israelites, but Balaam finds himself compelled by God to bless the Israelites instead.  The most famous verse in Balaam’s various speeches is the line that we know well from our morning prayers – Mah tovu ohalekha ya’akov, Mishkenotekha yisrael”   ---   which our “On Wings of Awe” machzor translates as “What goodness fills your tents, O Jacob, The Places where you dwell, O Israel.” (Num. 24:5)

The verse in Parashat Balak that mentions the concept of “teru’ah” comes earlier in that Torah portion:  In Numbers 23:21 Bilam blesses the Israelites with these words: 

“No harm is in sight for Jacob, no woe in view for Israel; Adonai their God is with them, and the teru’ah of the sovereign is in their midst.”

And what is this “teru’at hamelekh” this “Teruah of the sovereign?”

The Jewish Publication Society translation, consistent with its translation of “teruah” in Psalm 47 as “acclamation,” translates it here in Parashat Balak as “their King’s acclaim”. 

We had previously seen “teru’ah” translated as “acclamation”.  However, the 11th century commentator Rashi , commenting on Numbers 23:21, says teruah is לשון חבה ורעות,  (leshon chibah vere’ut) --- “an expression meaning love and friendship.”

Rashi cites the example of  2 Samuel 15:37, where a character named Chushai is described as “the רעה (re’a) of David’ — “the friend of David.”

It’s all a lovely Hebrew word play.  For my fellow grammar nerds in the hall – the word “teru’ah” is derived from the root letters resh-vav-ayin --- but Rashi wants us to understand it as coming from the root letters resh -ayin – hey.

For my fellow music theory nerds in the hall, I’d suggest he’s treating the word like a pivot chord in a piece of music that is modulating to a new key.

Rashi, through this play on words, is saying that the word “teruah” can be seen as being related to the words “re’a” (friend) and “re’ut” (friendship)

For me this brings to mind a beautiful passage from the Sheva Berachot—the seven blessings of the Jewish wedding ceremony:

“same’ach tesamach re’im ha’ahuvim kesameychakha ytzirkha began eden mikedem”

“May you, O God, bring great joy to these re’im ha’ahuvim/ these loving friends as you brought joy to your creations in the Garden of Eden.”

So, this Rosh Hashanah, each time we hear those teru’ah acclamations on the shofar, or read about them in our machzor, we might think about love, about friendship, about companionship ---- about the miracle of human connection that goes back to the dawn of humanity.

And, amid all of this --- as it says in Psalm 81

עלה אלהים בתרועה

(“alah elohim bitru’ah”)


“God ascends with a teru’ah”. 

Meaning – I would suggest – that we experience the infusion of Godliness in the world when we cultivate “teru’ah” --- which stands for friendship – love – companionship and fellowship --- with one another.

That is what enables us to find that sense of gratitude and shalom that we seek, even amid the inevitable challenges and hardships of daily life and even amid the painful evidence all around us of a world still filled with injustices to be rectified and sufferings to be assuaged.  

As we learn in the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a)

או חברותא או מתותא

(O chevruta, o mituta)

“Friendship or Death”

which Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explains is an expression meaning that one who has no friends is better off dead.

Indeed, elsewhere in the Talmud, in Tractate Berachot 58b we learn –

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who sees his or her friend after thirty days have passed since last seeing that friend recites:

ברוך שהחיינו וקיימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה

(Barukh shehecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigiyanu lazman hazeh)

Blessed…Who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this time.

And one who sees his or her friend after twelve months recites:

ברוך מחיה המתים

(Barukh mechayey hametim)

Blessed…Who revives the dead.

Or, as my friend and colleague Rabbi Lina Zerbarini expresses it, “true friendship brings a piece of you alive.”

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this can get challenging as we get older.

Work responsibilities and family responsibilities can have the effect of distancing us from friends.

Social media can create virtual ties with friends old and new, near and far ----  but if we live too much “on line” and not enough “in real life”   --- those computerized interactions will still leave us hungry for more substantial connections.

Our regular Shabbat evening siddur, Mishkan Tefila features a beautiful reading by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg that opens with these words:

May the door of this synagogue be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship….

Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teru’ah – The Day of Friendship.

May we be blessed in this New Year with good friends who support us and encourage us and care for us – and, even more importantly, may we be blessed with the wherewithal and the generosity of spirit to be able to be a good friend to others.

Getting involved in the life of our congregation is a good way to start!

And so ---

HIney mah tov u mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad – How good it is!  How sweet it is! To be together on this day.

And may this day be the start of shanah tovah u’metukah – a good and sweet year to come for one and all.



© Rabbi David Steinberg (2018/5779)

[1] Rosh Hashanah 33b

[2] Kernerman – Lonnie Kahn Oxford University Press English-Hebrew Hebrew-English Dictionary, Ya’acov Levy, editor, 1995, p. 72 [Hebrew to English section]

[3] Machzor Mishkan HaNefesh for Rosh Hashanah (CCAR Press), p. 127

Posted on September 20, 2018 .