Part 3: Kingship, Memories and Shofar
It is the longest single prayer of the year.
In place of the usual one central blessing (for Shabbat and festival prayers) there are three. Each of the three takes a core theme - God’s Kingship (‘Malchiyot’), National Memory (‘Zichronot’) and the Shofar Blowing (‘Shofarot’) and each one takes ten Biblical verses to help express the core of each blessing. What is each trying to do? And how does each one help us to find inner growth?
The Holy One says: say before Me [the verses of] Malchiyot in order to coronate Me King over you; say before Me [the verses of] memories, so that your memory should arise before Me for the good; and with what? With the Shofar!
(Talmud, Rosh Hashana 16a)
This cryptic Talmudic basis for our prayers suggests that they answer God’s call to us. At first, it sounds like it is claiming that God Himself might have some kind of a need to be coronated, but an infinite Being has no needs. It also sounds as if it is saying that God needs us to remind Him of the best national memories; but God does not have memory failure. What, then, does it mean?
God’s ‘Malchut’ - ‘Kingship’ - is the primary theme of the prayers not just in the Musaf, but throughout the day. Monarchy has a decidedly anachronistic ring to it. In modern democratic politics, we aren’t very into the dictatorial model of a king. Regarding humans, Lord Acton’s dictum rings true: power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. But for the Infinite Creator nothing could be more appropriate. We would love a world where everything worked ‘to plan’. Where human beings love and respect one another. Where good prevails, and evil and suffering disappear. On Rosh Hashanah, we affirm our commitment to live according to the purpose of creation. We long for a world in which good, meaning and purpose govern. A world in which the Creator is King.
In actual fact, the term ‘malchut’ is not primarily about political power. The Hebrew word for political rule is ‘moshel’ or ‘memshala’ (as in the Modern Hebrew word for ‘government’). ‘Malchut’ connotes something different: the integration of many different parts into one whole that is far more than those parts.
The three and a half centuries of scientific discovery have revealed a pattern at every level of physical organisation. From Robert Hooke’s discovery in 1665 that living things are made up of cells, through John Dalton’s discovery in 1803 that elements are composed from different atoms, to Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig’s discoveries in 1964 that protons and neutrons come from combinations of quarks, the pattern has repeatedly been that when smaller things combine in the right way they build new entities with new properties that did not exist beforehand.
Take cells - the fundamental unit of life. The vast majority of all the cells on planet earth belong to single-cellular organisms. Yet as far as we can tell, between quadrillions upon quadrillions of them, they lack even a shred of consciousness. They are incapable of performing a cognitive function as simple as ‘two plus two’. Yet a miniscule fraction of them - just a few trillion - in a human body, each one given a slightly different and specialised role, all operating to the same genetic code, and all of a sudden there is the emergence of a human being. Those cells generate a mind that is aware of being aware, and is capable of understanding the mathematical structure of the entire universe. It can recognise that the universe has a Creator, and can visualise a completely new social structure in accordance with moral or other ideals.
All of these exhibit the nature of ‘malchut’ - of an integrated ‘kingdom’ in which the whole builds something greater than the sum of their parts.
As Jews, we believe that there is one more level of organisation still to come, and it is this that we pray for throughout Rosh Hashana:
Help [the whole world] come together as one single union, united in wanting to perform Your Will, wholeheartedly.
(Rosh Hashana Amida)
This vision, first of Israel, and ultimately all of humanity, coming together as one, is the Malchut we pray for. In the first essay, we pointed out that Rosh Hashana commemorates the day Adam lived in the Garden of Eden. In that Edenic state, humanity was one. After the sin, the soul of man is no longer one, but innumerable broken fragments. You, I, and everyone else is one of those fragments. Our job, ever since, is to rectify the world one relationship at a time. The ultimate dream is the day when the Oneness of God is revealed fully. Behind the broken fragmented world is one unified Will and vision - the Will of the One God.
“On that day Hashem Will be One and His Name [i.e. Revelation] will be One.”
The oneness of God will be manifest because humanity will have come together as one. And when that happens, we will collectively produce a shared consciousness that is qualitatively greater than that which we can currently imagine. It is a world where each of us deeply values one another; a world without jealousy and hatred; a world without death. ‘A world filled with the knowledge of God’.
That is the dream that we pray for on Rosh Hashana, every time we ask God to be King over world.
So Malchuyot - the verses of God’s Kingship - articulate God’s own vision for the world. What we say, in effect, is: God, Your goal is our goal, Your vision is our vision, Your dreams for creation are our dreams for creation. We are living for You.
It is of course easy to say the words. But to show God that we really mean them we turn to the next phase of prayer: Zichronot or Memories.
Zichronot - Memories
The blessing of ‘Memories’ takes centre stage. We open with a reference to the fact that God recalls everything and on Rosh Hashana scrutinises and judges everything. We then bring up memories of great moments in Biblical history, recalling heroic acts and commitments from Noah through Abraham and Isaac to the entire nation marching through the desert.
Why do we say this? It is not as if God would forget. And how are memories of ancestors relevant to judgement of us as individuals today?
The Hebrew word ‘zikaron’ means more than memory. We make kiddush on Shabbat and festivals to fulfil the Torah telling us to ‘Zachor’ that it is Shabbat. Clearly the Torah is not telling us not to forget that it is Shabbat. If it were, then Kiddush would hardly solve the problem (we could forget a few hours later). Rather the Torah is telling us to be conscious and aware that this day is special. So ‘Zikaron’ means a state of consciousness and awareness. Memory is part of that - taking events in the past and bringing them to the awareness of the present. But the essence of ‘Zikaron’ is not so much memory, as it is identity.
The British historian Paul Johnson wrote of the history of Israel that:
“Certainly, the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the human intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they had been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption. Of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews it might have been a much emptier place.”
Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, Epilogue
When we stand before Hashem and articulate memories of the history of Israel, what we are doing is articulating our very identity. We are saying: ‘do not look at me and judge me as a little homo-sapien who was born a few years ago and will live a few decades and die. Don’t look at me that way because that is not how I look at myself. I see myself as part of the great 4000 year journey to bring Godly values to the whole world.’
If the Malchuyot verses articulate what we dream of, the Zichronot verses articulate who we have been and who we are to this day. The dreams God has for the world are our dreams. And our identity is at one with the people whose very mission and essence has always been to live to bring these dreams to reality.
These are high ideals, but what if we feel that we are not really ‘on that level’? What if we feel that our real goals and aspirations are about smaller, more self-oriented things? What if we do not measure up?
Put it differently: if the point of prayer is to judge ourselves as to how we measure up, what if we find that we fall short? All year round we pray for personal things, but on Rosh Hashana the heights of the dreams we articulate can seem to be out of reach…
When a goal seems too far there are two approaches. One is to lower the bar. Often that is appropriate. But not on Rosh Hashana. Instead we opt for a second approach: to uncover the resources to reach the heights we thought were out of reach.
On Rosh Hashana we have a tool to do so: the Shofar.
We read verses about the Shofar and discover that whenever God’s Presence is coming into the world, it comes with the sound of the Shofar. Why is this so? What is special about its sound?
The shofar sound is so simple that it cannot say words and it cannot even play a tune. It expresses a cry and a calling that is deeper than words and deeper than music. It resonates with a pure, pristine essential self and longing that lies deep within.
The words used to describe its different blasts are words used for different types of crying. Crying is a very primal behaviour. The first mode of communication a child has is crying. It is a way of communicating that something is wrong. There is nothing sophisticated about crying; to the contrary, the more sophisticated someone becomes the more they are expected not to cry.
Rosh Hashana is a day that asks us to be a bit less sophisticated. It invites us to get in touch with something very deep and very primal - with an inner voice that is still crying to this day. There is a child’s voice that looks at our broken world and still cried deep tears: Why can’t we all get on? Why can’t people all love each other? Why doesn’t Hashem make this world back into the Garden of Eden? Why don’t we?
Those are the cries and tears that really do dream God’s dreams for the world, and that really do identify with the journey of Israel throughout history. The call of the shofar pierces our self-centred layers and unlocks the deep Godly soul within. It invites - cries for - the Return of the King to perfect His world.
The prayers of Rosh Hashana take us on the deepest journey of all - back to who we really are. In the Garden of Eden God called out to Adam and asked ‘where are you?’ That question is asked of all of us. We all lie suspended on the scales determining whether we are living a self-centred life or a God-centred one. The prayers invite us to discover the inner yearning to decisively tilt the scales in favour of true life. The further we tilt those scales, the more deeply we touch dreams for the year ahead, and the more the year ahead can be one of meaning, purpose and total fulfilment.
That is true blessing. That is true life. That is Rosh Hashana.
May we all be inscribed in the book of true meaningful life, and may we be blessed with all the health, resources and peace to be able to live that life to the maximum.
- September 16th 2020