Because Rosh Ha-shana is a day of judgment, it is called “yom teru’a” (Bamidbar 29:1). While teki’a expresses joy and stability, teru’a alludes to brokenness, dread, crying, and radical change (4:1 below). Thus, Onkelos translates the phrase “yom teru’a” as “a day of wailing.”
Similarly, God instructed the Israelites in the desert to blow a teki’a on the trumpets when they needed to gather the people, as a teki’a expresses joy and togetherness. In contrast, when they needed to go out to war or leave their encampment and move on, they were instructed to blow a teru’a (Bamidbar 10:1-7), for a teru’a represents brokenness and crying over that which is finished but imperfect, and apprehension about what comes next. If this is the feeling that results from physical dislocation, how much greater is the apprehension surrounding Rosh Ha-shana – a time when a person’s allotted life for the past year has run out, and his life for the next year has yet to be allotted. It has yet to be determined who will live and who will die, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer. All is dependent upon the judgment.
Furthermore, intense apprehension fills the heart of all who are aware of the tremendous responsibility God tasked us with – sustaining and repairing the world. With fear and dread, each person takes stock of his internal landscape, evaluating whether he has carried out his mission or fallen short. Therefore, even though the sound of a teru’a is of short duration, the day in its entirety is referred to as yom teru’a – a day of brokenness and tears, fear and apprehension.
We are commanded to blow a shofar rather than a trumpet because the sound produced by the shofar better expresses the teru’a. It is a cri de coeur, a primal sound, a sound that precedes words and articulation, more primal than standard sighs or tears. Its sound has the power to express tremendous pain for all the lies, thieving, neglect, and wantonness; for the awful distance which separates a person from the Creator; for the vast chasm between our lofty aspirations and our mundane lives (Shlah, Masekhet Rosh Ha-shana, Torah Or §55).
This is the great mitzva that God commanded His people – to blow the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana, to express, with humility and modesty, their recognition of His kingship. It is precisely through the pain and wailing hinted at by the shofar blasts that all claims against us are annulled, and we are judged favorably. This is the meaning of the Sages’ statement: “Any year that starts impoverished (rash) will end with wealth, as the verse says, ‘From year’s beginning (me-reshit [spelled defectively]) to year’s end’ (Devarim 11:12)” (Rosh Ha-shana 16b). However, we are also commanded to surround each teru’a with teki’ot, which allude to stability and happiness, since judgment and punishment at their root are meant to perfect and correct.
It is said in the name of Arizal that one should cry on Rosh Ha-shana, and that if one is not overcome with weeping, it indicates that his soul is indecent and imperfect (Sha’ar Ha-kavanot 90a). Tears are an expression of yom teru’a, a day of wailing and tears. True, Rosh Ha-shana is also a holiday and a sacred occasion, on which there is a mitzva to rejoice. Evidently, the tears of Rosh Ha-shana are not tears of despair and depression, but tears of longing to ascend higher, tears of sorrow for all that we have not yet been privileged to repair, tears of overwhelming joy over the privilege to stand before Him, the immensity of the mission He gave us, and the holy soul with which He has endowed us. This weeping on the day of judgment causes inner joy and pleasure, because it expresses the truth, and leads to improvement and blessing. These two aspects of Rosh Ha-shana – holiday and teru’a day – are expressed through the teki’ot and the teru’ot.