The Mussaf of Rosh HaShanah, by dint of its extraordinary middle section, is unique among all Tefillot of the year. Shemoneh Esrei on a Yom Chol contains nineteen Berachot, and on Shabbat or Yom Tov, seven Berachot; the only exception to this rule is the nine-Berachah Mussaf of Rosh HaShanah. The three special Berachot of Rosh HaShanah speak of God’s kingship, God’s memory, and the Shofar, respectively.
The Berachah of Shofarot begins with Divine revelation upon Har Sinai. Noted in the description is the terrifying nature of the event: “Gam Kol Ha’Olam Kulo Chal MiPanecha,” “Even the entire world shook before you.” Indeed, Bnei Yisrael were mortally afraid, saying to Moshe, “Im Yosefim Anachnu Lishmo’a Et Kol Hashem Elokeinu VaMatnu,” “If we continue to hear the voice of Hashem, our God, then we shall perish” (Devarim 5:21). Shofar is identified with Matan Torah; it is the aural accompaniment to God’s appearance in this world.
But a radical shift occurs by the end of the Berachah. Instead of concentrating on the frightening Shofar emanating from heaven, the Machzor turns to the Shofar of human prayer. The final Pasuk of Shofarot states, “UTekatem BaChatzotzrot… VeHayu Lachem LeZikkaron Lifnei Eloheichem,” “And you shall blow on the trumpets… and they shall be for you a remembrance before you God.” This is followed by the line, “Ki Atah Shomei’a Kol Shofar UMa’azin Teru’ah,” “For you listen to the sound of the Shofar and hear the Teru’ah,” and the Berachah then concludes, “Baruch Atah Hashem Shomei’a Kol Teru’at Amo Yisrael BeRachamim,” “Blessed are You, Hashem, who listens to the sound of the Teru’ah of his Nation, Israel, with mercy.” The focus is now on our Shofar blasts and prayers, and our assurance that God indeed will listen to us.
The same exact development characterizes the Berachah of Zichronot. It begins with the terrifying prospect of God remembering and weighing every action and thought of ours: “Atah Zocheir Ma’asei Olam… HaKol Galui VeYadua Lefanecha Hashem Elokeinu… UVriyot Bo Yipakeidu Lehazkiram LaChayim VeLamavet,” “You remember deeds of old… all is revealed before you, Hashem our God… and [on this day] creatures will be remembered to mention them for life or death.” Taking a positive tack of God’s memory, the Berachah delves into the story of Noach and Hashem’s remembrance, and deliverance, of him and his family.
But the gears then shift, from God’s memory of all events to His specific memory of the covenant between Him and Bnei Yisrael. The next Pasuk is representative of the rest of the Berachah: “VaYizkor Elokim Et Berito Et Avraham Et Yitzchak Ve’Et Ya’akov,” “And Hashem remembered his covenant with Avraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Shemot 2:24). The final Pasuk, “VeZacharti Lahem Berit Rishonim,” “And I shall remember for them the covenant of the early ones” (VaYikra 26:45), is cut from a similar cloth. And while the Berachah swerves momentarily back into its original focus, saying, “Ki Zocheir Kol HaNishkachot Atah,” “For You are the Rememberer of all forgotten things,” the Berachah returns immediately to the covenant angle, mentioning Akeidat Yitzchak and concluding, “Baruch Atah Hashem Zocheir HaBerit,” “Blessed are You, Hashem, who remembers the covenant.” While the Berachah begins with the fearful prospect of a thorough, complete investigation of our pasts, it concludes with a confident reliance on the covenant of our forefathers.
The shift which occurs in both of these Berachot1 powerfully conveys the dual nature of Rosh HaShanah, as expressed in multifarious Halachic discussions (Tzidkatecha on Rosh HaShanah, Aveilut on Rosh HaShanah, fasting on Rosh HaShanah, etc.); perhaps the clearest articulations of the opposite sides of this dialectic are Ezra’s instructions on Rosh HaShanah, “Ve’Al Tei’atzevu Ki Chedvat Hashem Hi Ma’uzchem,” “And do not be saddened, for the joy of God is your stronghold” (Nechemiah 8:10), and Rabbi Abahu’s reasoning for the lack of Halleil on Rosh HaShanah, “Efshar Melech Yosheiv Al Kisei HaDin VeSifrei Chayim VeSifrei Meitim Petuchin Lefanav VeYisrael Omrim Shirah Lefanai,” “Is it possible
that the King would be sitting on the Throne of Judgement with the Book of Life and the Book of Death are open before him, and Israel would be saying Halleil before me?” (Arachin 10b). Thus, the tension between the frightening and joyous components of the day, which is manifest in the Berachot of Mussaf, is indeed an integral part of Rosh HaShanah.
1 Shofarot and Zichronot both utilize this topical shift. But Malchiyot appears to be the odd one out. No transition occurs in the theme: The beginning of Malchiyot speaks of Hashem’s dual kingship over the world and over Bnei Yisrael, and ends on that note, with the Pesukim holding to these themes consistently. Perhaps this is due to its nature as a hybrid Berachah, sharing space with Kedushat HaYom, which emphasizes the special nature of Am Yisra’el; a terrifying beginning would have been undercut by the very first words of the Berachah, “Atah Bechartanu MiKol Ha’Amim,” “You have chosen us from all of the nations.” It is, however, worth noting the irony inherent in the status of Malchiyot as the least ‘scary’ of the middle Berachot.