When I was ten years old, we took a drive from New Jersey to Baltimore. Along the way, we made a short stop in Philadelphia where we decided to explore Independence Hall, the US Mint, and, finally, the Liberty Bell. As we approached the iconic, cracked bell, I couldn’t help but notice the inscription:
“You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10)
This verse seemed like a fitting connection between the Hebrew Bible’s idea of liberty and that of the founding fathers. Surprisingly, this verse also holds a central place in understanding the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).
The highlight of Rosh Hashanah is the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn. The verse instructs us:
“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the shofar is sounded” (Number 29:1).
Though the English translation explains the verse to mean that it is a day when the shofar is sounded, the word shofar does not actually appear in the verse. The verse actually says that it should be a day of teruah, referring to a sound or blast, but does not specify which instrument to use to make that sound. It is the Jewish sages who deduced that a shofar is needed, based on a verse about the Jubilee year which specifies that a shofar should be sounded to make the teruah sound:
“Then you shall sound the shofar loud (shofar teruah); in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month—the Day of Atonement—you shall have the shofar sounded throughout your land” (Leviticus 25:9).
This verse immediately precedes the verse above inscribed on the Liberty Bell. The full verse reads:
and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family. (Leviticus 25:10)
On Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) of the Jubilee year, the shofar was sounded, slaves were set free, and liberty was declared throughout the land.
The sages understood that just as the teruah blasts emanate from a shofar on the Jubliee year, a shofar must be used to make the teruah sound on Rosh Hashanah as well. But is this connection merely a textual inference, or is there a deeper link between the Jubilee and Rosh Hashanah?
According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah serves as a day of judgment. Since we are undergoing judgment, it is essential to repent for our sins and commit to self-improvement. Maimonides explains that this system of judgment and repentance hinges on a fundamental concept: free will. Only if we have the freedom to choose between right and wrong can we be held accountable for our mistakes and rewarded for our successes. Only when we possess agency can we be expected to repent and grow.
This is the connection between Rosh Hashana and the Jubilee year. On the Jubilee, a time when we blow a shofar, our slaves go free. Similarly, on Rosh Hashanah, the shofar reminds us that we are free to choose lives of good over evil, right over wrong, and life over death.
Some individuals tend to view their shortcomings with a deterministic outlook, thinking, “This is who I am.” This perspective can be convenient because it absolves us of responsibility. However, when standing in judgment on Rosh Hashanah this viewpoint is not an option. We hear the resounding blast of the shofar and it seems to scream at us, “You are free! You are not bound by any predetermined fate!”
Liberty is a beautiful concept, but it comes with its share of responsibilities. Being free means shouldering the weight of responsibility, embracing agency, and being held accountable. At times, these burdens may seem heavy, but in the long run, they infuse our lives with meaning. They empower us to take ownership of our lives, celebrate our achievements, and inspire others.
This Rosh Hashanah, let’s strive to internalize the call of the shofar: we are free!