In the Torah, Rosh HaShana is called yom teru‘ah “a day of sounding the shofar” (Num. 29:1) and zikharon teru‘ah “a remembrance of sounding the shofar” (Lev. 23:24), yet no reason is given for why we blow the shofar. If it is a day of remembering what are we compelled to recall? Is the shofar meant to arouse our own memory or God’s? For us, memory is an act of re-collection, reassembling past events in our mind into a new narrative. It works associatively rather than linearly. Just as the Shofar’s bell can be looped and curved, its wail rising from low to high pitch, so memory is curved.
Remembering is a means of re-constructing ourselves as we stand in the present. Is this true for God as well? Can one really speak of God remembering when there is no forgetting for the Omniscient One? As it says in the introduction to the Zikhronot in the Musaf liturgy: “There is no forgetting before Your throne of Glory, nothing is hidden from Your sight [אין שכחה לפני כסא כבודך ואין נסתר מנגד עינך].” When God remembers, it is a calling to Mind, a focus of divine attention. The verb z.kh.r. (to remember) refers to the intervention of the Divine Presence in history according to the Zikhronot verses cited from the Torah. It can be a universal re-call, as in the preservation of the world after the Flood (Gen. 8:1), or a particular one, as in the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt (Exod. 2:24); or God “remembers” through forgiveness in aftermath of Divine Wrath, as in the promise of return for the Exiles to their homeland (Lev. 26:42 and 45).
Yet the most striking model for the way God remembers is not cited in these verses, but is found in the Torah and Haftorah readings of the first day. The opening verse reads: “The LORD took note of Sarah [paqad et Sarah] as He had promised, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken” (Gen. 21:1). The term paqad (translated variously as to “take note”, “call to mind”, “remember”, or “visit”) is synonymous with the verb zakhar, specifically in terms of conception, as in “And God remembered Rachel [va-yizkor elohim et Rahel]; God heard her and opened her womb” (Gen. 30:22), and “For the LORD took note of Hannah [ki paqad HaShem et Hannah] and she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters…” (2 Sam. 2:21). For me, this intimate act of creating a child after years of barrenness speaks more movingly of God’s memory than great sweeps in history. According to the Talmud, Sarah, Hannah, and Rachel were all conceived on Rosh Hashanah (b. Rosh HaShana 11a). Their decades of barrenness came to an end on “Yom Harat ‘Olam – the Day of the World’s Conception.”
In all these three examples of healed barrenness, what happens is the natural conception of a child, but in the Divine Eye, the mind of God, it is the fulfillment of a promise. I think of it metaphorically as the focus of dispersed light into a beam, like a laser, the focal point being the mother through whom the covenant is born, in the case of Sarah, as it says “through Isaac the promise of seed will be fulfilled” (Gen. 21:12). God’s act of remembering, then, is like an arrow, which gathers momentum from the past and directs the promise towards some point in the future, as desire pinned in the conception of a child. Time, for God, does not travel along a linear line, as we humans feel time’s arrow. Rather, God enters time and opens up portals to eternity for us in the fulfillment of the promised future. One such portal is Rosh HaShana. As we stand in the presence of God, hearing the wail of the Shofar on Rosh HaShana, we become the focal point of that beam of light within the Divine Eye – in judgment and in the promise of hope.
The conception of the barren matriarchs symbolically represents our return and God’s forgiveness most poignantly in the Haftorah of the Second Day. According to Jeremiah, Rachel cries out from her grave as the Israelites are driven into exile. In her lifetime, she never settled in the Promised Land, never mothered her children to adulthood, dying prematurely in child-birth by the road. From that burial place on the border between the land of Israel and exile, God hears “lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jer. 31:14). And God answers her cries:
Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country” (Jer. 31:16-17).
Israel is called, in this passage, “Ephraim” (Joseph’s son; Rachel’s grandson) – the “dandled son,” and God reassures her (and us): “I do remember him still [zakhor ezkarenu ‘od], therefore my womb murmurs [hamu me‘ai] within me. I will surely have compassion [rahem arahmenu] on him, says the Lord” (Jer. 31:20). Memory here is preserved in the murmuring womb, once barren, and then filled with child; that very womb now yearns for the lost child – the banished Ephraim (qua Israel). The emphatic expression of God’s remembering, zakhor ezkarenu ‘od, is aroused through identification with the matriarch, resonant with the doubling “rahem arahmenu” (root: r.h.m.), suggestive of the Hebrew term for womb, rehem. Just as God remembers the barren woman (z.kh.r. and p.q.d.), so God’s memory is stirred through compassion for the lost child, Israel/Ephraim, promising to bring the people back from exile.
Following the sounding of each series of shofar blasts we break out in song, reminding God that this is the Day of the World’s conception (ha-yom harat ‘olam), and that we stand before the Almighty, pleading for mercy – if, as children, for God then to have compassion upon us like a father [rahmenu ka-rahem ’av ‘al banim]. The model for that divine compassion (“like a father”) comes from the barren women, the mothers Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah who were healed, and know the longing within their wombs as the memory of a lost child that must be found and brought home once more. May we merit the return to that divine embrace!