Days of Fear and Trembling:
A Yamim Nora’im Reflection on the Yom Kippur War
BY RABBI REUVEN TARAGIN
Fifty years ago, Yom Kippur and the Yamim Nora’im took on new meaning.
The term “Yamim Nora’im” connotes the awesomeness of the high holiday period and the fear that our lives hang in the balance. This feeling was especially palpable on Yom Kippur fifty years ago – both personally and nationally.
In just its third decade of existence, Israel and its citizens faced an existential threat. The surprise Yom Kippur morning attack caught Israel off-guard. The Egyptian and Syrian armies made significant headway in both the north and south. People feared the worst.1 Though Israel rebounded, almost three thousand soldiers lost their lives and nearly 10,000 were wounded.
The miraculous Six-Day War had given Israelis a false sense of security. They felt that the victory would deter future attacks and that expanding their borders created a safe buffer zone. The Yom Kippur War shattered these illusions.
The fear and vulnerability of war
During a time of war, people feel incredibly vulnerable. No one knows which side will win and who may be killed, wounded, or captured in the process.2 But the wars of the State of Israel are even more terrifying. Israel’s enemies threaten to obliterate the State and kill or drive out its populace. In addition, the state’s army is a “citizen’s army.” Everyone has a son, brother, parent, or cousin at the front, making the war and fear deeply personal.
The wail of sirens in Israeli cities expresses and reinforces the terror. In the words of Amos, “Does the shofar sound in the city without the people trembling?” (Amos 3:6).
The Torah teaches us to direct these feelings of fear toward prayer. We should realize that war and other suffering really emanate from Hashem, Who orchestrates them behind the scenes, and we should respond by blowing chatzotzrot (horns) to “remind” us of Hashem and ask Him to “remember” and save us (Bamidbar 10:9).3
The Rosh Hashanah connection
The shofar we blow on Rosh Hashanah is also connected to the emotions of war. Because the shofar was blown at times of war,4 hearing it conjures associated feelings of fear and vulnerability.5
The sounds we blow also connect to the emotions of war. The teru’ot resemble the cries of Sisrah’s mother, who waited by the window for her son to return from war (Rosh Hashanah 33b). Expressing and identifying with these feelings of fear and distress remind us that on Rosh Hashanah, our lives also hang in the balance.6 Like the chatzotzrot blown at a time of war, Rosh Hashanah’s shofar calls upon us to respond to distressing circumstances by remembering Hashem and doing teshuva.7
If we respond to the shofar by remembering, returning, and committing ourselves to Him, we merit His “remembering” us and judging us favorably.8
A year-round reflection
Though the Yamim Nora’im should also be a time when we draw close to and strengthen our love of Hashem, they begin with the recognition that He is judging us and determining our fate for the upcoming year.
May the memory of the trauma of the Yom Kippur War help us feel the vulnerability we are meant to feel during this period – both this year and in the future.
1 Defense Minister Moshe Dayan feared what he called “Churban Bayit Shlishi.”
2 See Kohelet 8:8, which points to war as reflective of man’s lack of control over his own life.
3 Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Ta’aniyot 1:1–2) categorizes blowing the horns as a form of prayer which inspires teshuva, an outgrowth of remembering Hashem (Teshuva 3:4). This merits Hashem’s “remembering” and saving us. See also Ibn Ezra (Bamidbar 10:9), who mentions the two forms of memory (ours and Hashem’s).
4 Yehoshua (6:4–5), Shoftim (3:27, 7:16), Shmuel I (13:3) mention that the shofar was blown during wars. See also Sotah 43a, which interprets a verse mentioning chatzotzrot at a time of war as referring to a shofar, and Ta’anit 16b, which mentions they would recite verses of the Shofarot prayer at a time of war. In ancient times, enemies attacked Jews when they heard the shofar blown on the morning of Rosh Hashanah, thinking the Jews were about to attack them (Talmud Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 20b).
5 Pesikta Rabbati 40. See also Ran (Rosh Hashanah [3a in Rif]) who associates the Rosh Hashanah shofar with the verse in Amos that describes the blowing of the shofar at a time of war.
6 Rav Shlomo Elyashiv, He’arot L’Masechet Rosh Hashanah (33b).
7 Rambam, Teshuva 3:4. Rambam understands the “memory” the Torah mentions in reference to the Rosh Hashanah shofar (Vayikra 23:24) as referring to our memory. He explains the goal of blowing chatzotzrot at a time of war in the same way (Ta’aniyot 1:1–2). The Rosh Hashanah shofar’s goal of getting us to remember Hashem explains why the Mishnah about the “hands of Moshe” (which had a similar goal during the war against Amalek) is included in the chapter dealing with the laws of shofar. The prophet Yechezkel (33:1–9) compares his call to teshuva to a shofar blown to warn a city of an approaching army. Like the watchman who warns the people by blowing the shofar, so Yechezkel warns the people of their need to do teshuva.
8 Sefer HaChinuch (331), based on Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot 137. For this reason, Rosh Hashanah is referred to as Yom HaZikaron, the “Day of Memory.”
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is Educational Director of Mizrachi and Dean of the Yeshivat Hakotel Overseas Program.