Rosh Hashana, Personal Change, and the Future of the Planet
By: Yonatan Neril
Tekiah, teruah, tekiah: the central commandment on Rosh Hashanah is to hear the shofar blasts. What is so special about these three blasts? How do they relate to this being a period of tshuva-repentance-and self-reflection? How do they relate to the world we live in?
Rabbi Moshe Teitlebaum, z'l, the previous Satmar rebbe,1 likens the three notes of the shofar to three stages of a person's actions. The first note– tekia- hints at a simple sound, without distortion, because a person is born righteous, a Divine part from above. The second teruah sounding is comprised of three short blasts and nine staccato notes. When a person sins, something internal breaks. The teruah is also evocative of the groaning and wailing of a person repenting and doing tshuva. The return of tekiah-an unbroken, whole sound, symbolizes a person returning to their elevated state.
What occurs at an individual level also occurs on a global scale. As Rabbi Herzl Hefter teaches,2 the three shofar blasts of tekiah, teruah, and tekiah correspond to three stages in human history. The first tekiah symbolizes consistency between the ideal for the world and the reality of human actions. That consistency stems from God's original conception of the world as one of perfection, without any tolerance for human flaws. The Garden of Eden represents that ideal, where people live according to the Divine Plan.
The second note of teruah represents the shattering of that ideal through the sin of Adam and Eve and the disharmony that resulted. We live in that broken world today-one in which striving for the ideal is often forgotten or at least neglected. The third note-tekiah again-corresponds to the return to the ideal, the redemptive state after the repair of the world. But how do we get from brokenness to wholeness, at both the individual and global level?
The first step is recognizing the need to change and improve oneself. Rosh Hashanah is supposed to spur us to move in this direction. It reminds us that we can live the way we want to if we only have the will. The time to start making personal changes is now, in what can be a period of real self-reflection. This Rosh Hashanah, we should ask ourselves: do I have the desire to change? Am I willing to confront ingrained habits and patterns of behavior?
Personal change on Rosh Hashanah can refashion a person into a new being. As the Jerusalem Talmud (Masecet Rosh Hashanah p. 21) states, "God said, since you all came for judgment before me on Rosh Hashanah and you left [the judgment] in peace, I consider it as if you were created as a new being." Rabbi David Frankel of Berlin (the Korban HaEda on that statement) suggests that people become a new being when they individually struggle to transform themselves.
It may be cliché to say but it is true– the little things we do on a daily basis make the big difference. Speaking kindly to others, donating 10% of our daily income to charity, laying off that second cookie, and taking five or ten minutes a day for self-reflection-over a lifetime-can have a serious impact on other people and ourselves. So too with how we use oil, water, wood, and other natural resources. Most global environmental problems stem from overuse of resources by individuals-multiplied by a few hundred million or a few billion.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA),3 a recent international project to assess our global ecosystems, provides a vivid reminder of the broken teruah blasts of a world out of balance. The report concluded that over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history. These changes stem from human resource use to meet our rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth, and, unless altered, will substantially decrease the resources available for future generations. In fact, the study concluded that our demands are growing while at the same time human actions are diminishing the capacity of many ecosystems to meet these demands. As a society, we are actually destroying the very resources that we rely on for ourselves and our children.
The future of human societies on this planet depends on peoples' ability to change their behavior. Take, for example, our ability to change how we use energy. Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy will be important, but more important will be changing how much energy we use. That is an individual choice, made countless times daily regarding transportation and lighting and appliance use. How much energy billions of individuals decide to use will largely determine how severe global climate change will be, and how significantly it will impact human civilization and the planet.
We can begin to change the world by changing ourselves. Rosh Hashanah is the ideal time to change our inner world and outer actions, which will inevitably lead to change in the world around us. Rosh Hashanah can be a new start, to make changes and confront negative aspects of our daily lives, to return to alive, dynamic living after perhaps having become complacent or stagnant. And what a better way to celebrate the birthday of the earth, 'yom harat haolam,'4 than to rededicate ourselves to living in balance with it.
As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches, "If you believe that it is possible to damage, believe that it is possible to repair."5 That indeed is one of the central messages of Rosh Hashanah. Our self-transformation should help move us from the brokenness of teruah to the harmony and balance of the final tekiah.
This Rosh Hashanah, may we be blessed to internalize a deeper meaning of the shofar blasts, and embrace the opportunity to become truly new beings. Our self-transformation at the individual level can and indeed will help to return the world to a more perfected state.
Yonatan Neril is the founder and director of Jewish Eco Seminars. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. In Yismach Moshe, Parshat Kedoshim, 32b, section Gimel, based on the Shnei Luchot Habrit
2. Based on a series of classes on Masecet Rosh Hashanah, taught at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva in Elul 5765.
3. Available online at http://www.millenniumassessment.org
4. Said in Musaf prayer of Rosh Hashanah
5. Likutei Moharan Tinyana, teaching 113
Originally posted in "On Eagles' Wings" September 16th 2006
This content originated at Canfei Nesharim.org.