The story is told that Rav Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev once summoned all of the Jews to assemble in the town square the next day because he had an announcement of the greatest importance to make. He ordered that the merchants close their shops, all nursing mothers were to bring their infants, and that everyone, with no exceptions, was to be there to hear the announcement. The people wondered what the announcement could be. Was a pogrom imminent or a new tax? Was the Rebbe going to leave? Or was he perhaps seriously ill? Did he know the time when the Moshiach would come and was he going to reveal it? The entire community was assembled the next day with no exceptions, and everyone waited with baited breath to hear what the Rabbi would announce.
Precisely at twelve the Rebbe rose and said: “I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah, have gathered you here today in order to tell you that there is a Ribono Shel Olam, there is a God in the world!” That was it? Yes, that was the important announcement. Something so basic and yet so easily and regularly forgotten.
The holiday we call Rosh Hashana is never called that in Chumash. In Parshas Emor, the Torah refers to Rosh Hashana as zichron teruah and we therefore refer to it (for example, in our davening kiddush, and bentching) as Yom HaZikaron. The Day of Remembrance. What does memory have to do with the New Year? The simple understanding is that on this Day of Judgement, Hashem invokes the memory of all we have done, for good and for bad. We describe Hashem as zocheir kol ha’nishkachos, He remembers all that is forgotten; indeed, one of the central components of our Mussaf, Zichronos, is dedicated to this idea.
But perhaps there is a deeper meaning to the aspect of zechirah and zikaron on Rosh Hashana and in the Teshuva process.
Zichron teruah, yom ha’zikaron. What Teruah is the Torah commanding us to remember?
וַיְהִי בַיוֹם הַשְלִישִי בִהְיֹּת הַבֹּקֶר, וַיְהִי קֹּלֹת וּבְרָקִים וְעָנָן כָבֵד עַל-הָהָר, וְקֹּל שֹּפָר, חָזָק מְאֹד; וַיֶחֱרַד כָל-הָעָם, אֲשֶר בַמַחֲנֶה… וַיְהִי קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר, הוֹלֵךְ וְחָזֵק מְאֹד
It came to pass on the third day when it was morning, that there were thunder claps and lightning flashes, and a thick cloud was upon the mountain, and a very powerful blast of a shofar…The sound of the shofar grew increasingly stronger; Moshe would speak and God would answer him with a voice.
Rosh Hashana is a day of remembering but it isn’t Hashem who is remembering us, it is a day for us to remember Him. For us to remember the day that we heard the unadulterated voice of Hashem at Har Sinai. Hashem spoke to us then through the sound of a shofar and He speaks to us again through the sound of the same shofar, an echo reverberating from that great day of revelation, a day when we received our mission from headquarters. A mission to be a Mamleches Kohanim v’Goy Kadosh. And this mission is more important now than ever.
On Rosh Hashana, we blow the shofar to coronate Hashem as our King and proclaim that we are His loyal subjects. But we need to connect with the shofar on a personal level as well. The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva Perek 3) famously states:
אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁתְּקִיעַת שׁוֹפָר בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה גְּזֵרַת הַכָּתוּב רֶמֶז יֵשׁ בּוֹ כְּלוֹמַר עוּרוּ יְשֵׁנִים מִשְּׁנַתְכֶם וְנִרְדָּמִים הָקִיצוּ מִתַּרְדֵּמַתְכֶם וְחַפְּשׂוּ בְּמַעֲשֵׂיכֶם וְחִזְרוּ בִּתְשׁוּבָה וְזִכְרוּ בּוֹרַאֲכֶם
Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashana is a decree, it contains an allusion. It is as if [the shofar's call] is saying: Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator.
Many know the beginning of the Rambam that the Shofar wakes us up, but to what? The Rambam continues, it wakes us up to remember something, something that we can easily forget, someone we can easily be lulled to sleep about. In our day-to-day slumber of life, we can forget perhaps the most important thing of all, that we have a Creator.
The Rambam uses this language in describing teshuva gemura, complete teshuva too (Hilchos Teshuva 2:1):
אֵי זוֹ הִיא תְּשׁוּבָה גְּמוּרָה. זֶה שֶׁבָּא לְיָדוֹ דָּבָר שֶׁעָבַר בּוֹ וְאֶפְשָׁר בְּיָדוֹ לַעֲשׂוֹתוֹ... וּפָרַשׁ וְלֹא עָבַר זֶהוּ בַּעַל תְּשׁוּבָה גְּמוּרָה. הוּא שֶׁשְּׁלֹמֹה אָמַר (קהלת יב א) "וּזְכֹר אֶת בּוֹרְאֶיךָ בִּימֵי בְּחוּרֹתֶיךָ".
Who has reached complete Teshuvah? A person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned when he has the potential to commit…nevertheless, he abstained and did not transgress. This is a complete Baal-Teshuvah. This was implied by King Solomon in his statement "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the bad days come and the years draw near when you will say: ‘I have no desire for them.’”
The Rambam quotes a pasuk to prove tshuva gemura and what is it? “Remember Hakadosh Baruch Hu, remember there is a Ribono Shel Olam.” Rosh Hashana ultimately is really as simple as that, it is a day of going back to the basics and making the main thing the main thing: that there is a Creator, He brought us into this world for a reason and to make a difference. When we remember Him, we live a mission-driven life, we ask how we can serve Him. When we forget Him, we get confused, we show poor judgment, and we make mistakes.
To be clear, we daven for ourselves today, for our families’ health, wellbeing, livelihood and more. There is nothing wrong with that, and in fact, that is our responsibility. But why are those things important? What is our argument to have them? Because we remember there is a Ribono Shel Olam, because we want to fulfill His vision and mission for us, because we think we can be most efficient and productive, we can accomplish the most for Him and His vision if we have them.
Sometimes it feels like momentum is carrying us. We continue to keep Shabbos, we daven daily, we pay the tuition and buy the expensive Kosher food. We are running on a religious hamster wheel, but why, why are we doing those things? Do we remember there is a Ribono Shel Olam? Are we in a relationship and ongoing conversation with Him? Do we talk to Him and do we interpret events in our lives as His talking to us? Do we talk to our children and grandchildren about Him, sharing when we see Him in our lives, modeling for them when we lean on Him and turn to Him?
Mark Twain once said, "The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Rosh Hashana is the birthday of man, and we pause annually at this critical juncture to ask and to try to provide the answer to why.
Rosh Hashana is Yom Hazikaron, it is the day we give a big klop, not on the bimah but on our hearts, and like R’ Levi Yitzchak, we announce, there is a Ribono Shel Olam, there is a Creator, we are here to serve at the pleasure of the King.
In February 2008, Esquire Magazine published an article entitled: “10 Who Tasted Greatness (and Choked on It).” The column mockingly counted down “the people who nearly reached the Heavens only to have hubris or plain bad luck trigger an unexpected return to the muck.”
Number 10 on the list was Thomas E. Dewey - The “Almost President” who is most remembered for the Chicago Daily Tribune headline that published "Dewey Defeats Truman” before the full election returns were in. Others on the list included athletes who came close to historic achievements and music groups that just missed their moment. Who might you ask is number 1 on the list? None other than Steven Hill, who was described by a legendary theater instructor as “one of the finest actors America has ever produced." Hill, born Shlomo Krakovsky, was one of only 50 actors to be accepted to the newly created Actors Studio in 1947, landed his first Broadway role in 1948 and for the next two decades Hill was busy in theater, motion pictures and the so-called "Golden Age" of live TV drama. As a contemporary of his, another well-known actor put it, “When I first became an actor, there were two young actors in New York: Marlon Brando and Steven Hill. A lot of people said that Steven would have been ‘the one,’ not Marlon.”
Yet, despite being well on the way to success on Broadway and in Hollywood, Steven was still looking for something more in life. Appearing as Sigmund Freud in the play A Far Country in 1961 had a profound effect on Hill. In one scene, a patient screams at Freud, "You are a Jew?!" Freud would answer, “Yes.” Over time, Hill found that exchange echoing in his ears for hours after every performance. “Yes,” he would say to himself, “Yes, I am a Jew.” He described, “I slowly became aware that there was something more profound going on in the world than just plays and movies and TV shows. I was provoked to explore my religion."
In another interview, Hill said: "I used to ask myself, 'Was I born just to memorize lines?' I knew there had to be more to life than that. I was searching—trying to find the answers—to find myself—and I did." Hill said that he had gone home to Seattle ten years earlier and was "feeling depressed because I seemed to be leading an aimless existence. Oh sure, I was a star with all the glamour and everything. But something was missing. My life seemed empty—meaningless."
In 1966, he landed the starring role on Mission: Impossible. While the show would become an international hit and run for seven seasons, Hill was fired after the first season because he refused to work on Shabbos.
Hill began to study Torah with the Skverrer Rebbe, Rav Yaakov Yosef Twersky, and became shomer mitzvos. While Rav Twersky encouraged Steven not to give up on his acting career, Hill's Shabbos observance made him unavailable for Friday night or Saturday matinee performances, effectively ending his stage career. He lost many film roles to actors like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. Hill ltimately left acting for about a decade to focus on learning Torah and building a Jewish home with his second wife Ruchi, daughter of Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Shenker of Baltimore, and great-granddaughter of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld.
Hill re-entered acting in 1977 and for the next 13 years he continued to struggle, landing some voice-over work and bit roles in movies. Then, in 1990, his agent called him and said: “I have the perfect role for you.” It was starring role in a new show called Law and Order. The role would accommodate his Shabbos observance and his requirement that his wardrobe had to be checked for Shatnez. If he was walking more than 4 cubits outdoors he could wear a hat. And he generally appeared on the show for 5-10 minutes each episode which gave him plenty of time to learn in his trailer during breaks. He finished Shas three times.
Unlike Steven Hill many, but not all of us were born into observant homes, we were privileged to receive Torah educations. We have been keeping mitzvos our whole lives and yet, like him, we must become aware that there is something more profound going on in the world than just plays and movies and TV shows. We too should be provoked to explore our religion, to stop and remember Hashem, to be grateful He has placed us in His world and to be dedicated to fulfill our purpose.
The Sfas Emes writes: כי הנה עיקר התשובה הוא לתקן השליחות שנשתלח האדם לעוה״ז, the core of teshuva is returning to fulfilling our mission in this world. On Rosh Hashana, listen to the sound of that shofar and ask yourself, what is your mission? Steven Hill, or Reb Shlomo as he was known in Skver, fulfilled his mission… It was hard, it required great courage and sacrifice. But it was not impossible, and neither is ours once we make the effort to discover it.
Zichron teruah, yom ha’zikaron – as we celebrate the birthday of humanity, let us pause to find out why. Let us be zocheir boreinu, remember our Creator, remember that there is a Ribono Shel Olam and use these ten days to ask, how can we be better, better husbands and wives, better mothers and fathers, better children, how can we be better ovdei Hashem.