Sound the shofar on the New Moon,

in concealment for the day of our festival.1

This is a verse of transparent allusion. Anyone who reads it knows that it refers to Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the festive month of Tishrei. Yet, the Midrash tells us that this conclusion can only be confirmed if each of its words is accounted for and scrutinized:

Is the moon not renewed every month?

Therefore it says, “in concealment.”

Is the moon not concealed at the outset of every month?

Therefore it says “for the day of our festival.”

Is it not so that Nissan is a month at whose outset the moon is concealed, and it also has a festival of its own (i.e., Passover)?

Rather, in which new month is the moon concealed with the festival occurring on that very day?

None can be found other than Tishrei.2

The Talmud gets to the point more straightforwardly:

Which is the festival upon which the New Moon is concealed? That’s Rosh Hashanah.3

The Midrash, however, seems disinterested in the plain meaning of the verse. After all, what can be stated plainly need not be alluded to. This is the characteristic of Midrash; lidrosh, “to seek” additional meaning, to reveal that which is otherwise concealed, that which can only be communicated through encryption.

The unending depth encoded in this verse is further disclosed as the Midrash proceeds. The word “bachodesh” relates not only to the renewal of the moon and to the renewal of the year, but also to the renewal of human activity. The word “shofar” relates not only to the horn whose resonant blast heralds renewal but also to the word le’shaper—meaning to mend, improve, or beautify. Furthermore, the shofar is itself turned into an analog of G‑d’s merciful response to the people of Israel:

In this new moon (bachodesh), renew your deeds … Said the Holy One to Israel: If you have mended (shapartem) your ways I will become for you like this shofar; just as the air goes in one end of the shofar and out of the other, so I will rise from the throne of judgment and sit on the throne of mercy.

This is a striking image indeed! G‑d’s passage from the constraints of discipline and judgment to the expansive generosity of abundant mercy is mirrored in the blasting passage of air from the shofar’s narrow mouthpiece to the wide opening at its other end. The shofar is a call to renewal, and that renewal is enacted by ourselves and by G‑d. When we answer the shofar’s call—mending, improving, and beautifying our deeds—the Holy One reciprocates in kind, rising from the throne of judgment and sitting instead upon the throne of mercy.

There is another unarticulated allusion here: The new moon is not only a symbol of renewal, but also a symbol of the dynamic relationship between G‑d and Israel. As the darkened moon calls yearningly for the renewal of solar illumination, so we call out for divine mercy on the day of judgment. As assuredly as the moon will again reflect the radiant sun, so are we assured that G‑d will answer the shofar’s blast with abundant mercy and renewal.

These intertwined layers of literary allusion and religious meaning exemplify the Midrashic mix of textual and experiential interpretation that is a seminal foundation of Chabad teachings. Going back to Chabad’s founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813), each of the Chabad rebbes delivered mystical discourses concerning the meaning of Rosh Hashanah that begin with this verse. These discourses draw deeply on the Zohar and on Lurianic Kabbalah, and weave in Midrashic and Talmudic readings of many other related verses and liturgical formulations. But again and again they come back to this verse:

Sound the shofar on the New Moon,

in concealment for the day of our festival.

It is impossible to summarize the accrued riches of all these discourses in a single article. Instead, I will isolate one central idea, a single penetrating shift that completely upends our most fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality and our relationship with G‑d.

The prismatic word here is “concealment,” which in the Chabad context is understood not only to refer to the moon—which is concealed at the start of each month—but also to G‑d’s own self. Rabbi Schneur Zalman taught that the divine self-disclosure that occurs on Rosh Hashanah is prefaced by the deepest form of concealment. Divine desire and pleasure are withdrawn from the world, and need to be reignited, elicited anew from the essential source of all revelation.

On Rosh Hashanah eve it is as if nothing exists and nothing matters. The cosmic mood is one of existential darkness, as if being itself has been hollowed out from the inside.

Why so?

Because G‑d does not want a one-way, top-down, relationship with humanity. Because G‑d is disinterested in unilateral rule. What G‑d desires is the dynamic of sovereignty and citizenship, a relationship in which the monarch is endowed with power by dint of the people who desire that G‑d shall be their king.

At the beginning of time G‑d took the initiative to create the world, motivated by an utterly autonomous spirit of essential pleasure, desire, and grace. But now, as the previous year comes to a close, all of that motivation expires and will not be autonomously regenerated. Instead it is up to us, the embodied souls of Israel, to reach up through the murky concealment of the cosmos and to penetrate the most intimate point of divine essentiality. It is up to us to inspire G‑d anew, to reignite divine pleasure, to rekindle divine desire, to motivate G‑d to begin again, to accept the crown of sovereignty that is offered by the people.

As Rabbi Schneur Zalman puts it in one of his classical Rosh Hashanah discourses:

The general vitality of the past year departs and ascends at the onset of Rosh Hashanah eve, and therefore Rosh Hashanah is the “day of judgment” … each individual is judged for his actions in the year that has passed. For in order that supernal pleasure and desire shall be revealed … we need to seek something that shall be the object of pleasure … And as a result of the prayers and the sounding of the shofar an unprecedented new vitality is elicited … 4

As Rosh Hashanah begins an existential absence pervades the universe. We feel bereft of everything except the indelible point in the heart that is never alone and from which everything can be replenished. This solemn atmosphere is sweetened by the heartfelt blasts that pierce through the cosmic gloom, transforming the day of concealment and judgment into a day of revelation and festivity. The piercing simplicity of this blast transcends rational and eloquence, expressing a desire that is as inexplicable as it is indelible, and which alone can elicit a reciprocal desire on the part of the divine: we want G‑d to be our king.

Sound the shofar on the New Moon,

in concealment for the day of our festival.

This dynamic—whereby the citizenry make G‑d king, bridging the poles of concealment and festivity with the shofar’s sound—is further unpacked as the month of Tishrei continues to unfold. The intensity and solemnity of Yom Kippur segues directly into the equally intense joy of Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Indeed, the joy is directly commensurate to the solemnity:

The joy-in-G‑d will be all the greater, with more intense manifestation of divine desire, by virtue of the “concealment,” that is, the departure and ascent at the onset of Rosh Hashanah eve. And this is analogous to someone released from captivity, whose joy is all the more intense, and doubly so.5

The task before us on Rosh Hashanah is nothing less than to release G‑d from self-enclosed captivity, to renew the entire cosmos through renewing ourselves.

How is this done?

With the shofar, whose piercing blast heralds the transition from unilateral rule to reciprocal sovereignty; from discipline, constraint and judgment to infinitely expansive generosity.6