There is no surer symbol of the Jewish High Holidays than the shofar. And as we approach the days of awe this year, let’s consider how the blasts of the shofar reflect our lives and our world. Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria spoke of G-d, creation and the path towards redemption and a better future. His story of creation provides a vivid image of the world in which we live: When G-d was preparing to create the world, G-d contracted, in order to make space. In that space, G-d crafted ten vessels meant to hold the Divine light, and to separate goodness from evil. Many of the vessels were incapable of doing so, however, and shattered and sparks of the divine light mixed together with shards from broken vessels. As a result, evil was no longer separate from good, and entered into the world. Tikkun olam, repairing the world, was seen as mending the defect in creation. Centuries later, tikkun olam became a more encompassing term and reflects the Jewish concept of (l’asot) being in partnership with G-d in creation.
In this sense, Jewish mysticism is both realistic and optimistic. It is realistic because it does not ignore calamity and catastrophe, sadness and sorrow, or distress and difficulty. Yet Jewish mysticism is also optimistic because the possibility of a return to wholeness is ever-present. This is also a lesson of blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
In his book “Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology” Rabbi Arthur Green, writes: “Each series of shofar blasts begins with teki’ah, a whole sound. It is followed by shevarim, a tripartite broken sound whose very name means ‘breakings.’ ‘I started off whole,’ the shofar speech says, ‘and I became broken.’ Then follows teru’ah, a staccato series of blast fragments, saying: ‘I was entirely smashed to pieces.’ But each series has to end with a new teki’ah, promising wholeness once more.”
Luria spoke of a brokenness dating all the way back to creation. The truth is, there are many kinds of brokenness. There is brokenness that affects the whole world or large parts of it. There is unrest and violence in the world. Communities experience their own brokenness, as do families and individuals. Poverty is widespread and doesn’t just happen to someone else in some other place. But Judaism offers a positive response for as we heal the broken world with tikkun olam, we become partners in creation.
We are the ones who can repair the brokenness in our world—not by complaining and blaming, not by isolating and relegating responsibility to any one person or organization. As Rabbi Tarfon taught, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either” (Pirkei Avot2:16).
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.