I RECENTLY RETURNED from an extended sabbatical, marking my 30th year with my synagogue. My wife Linda and I travelled extensively, enhancing our awareness of the world’s physical beauty housing a diversity of distinctive cultures. We also witnessed tensions caused by political division and a longing for human dignity and greater opportunity. The High Holidays is a collective destination where we gather to review what each of us has seen, done and understood during our past year. A prompt for such reflection is the sound of the most primal of musical instruments.
The American writer Cynthia Ozick linked the physical mechanics of producing the shofar’s call with our Jewish communal mission. Rosh Hashanah itself is universal rather than tied to a specific event in Jewish history. After the sounds of the shofar we traditionally chant hayom harat olam, “today the world was called into being.” The holy day celebrates the gift of life and seeks the completion of creation. The sounds that emerge from the shofar proclaim a universal message of hope for a better world. To produce the shofar sounds requires a small aperture on which the lips are placed. The person who holds the instrument represents the entire Jewish people, as does that small opening. Jewish belonging is a privilege and provides duties. We are an extended family tasked by a covenant with G-d to craft a more just and compassionate world. When the breath is channelled, it is amplified to produce a mighty sound. In Hebrew, breath is ruach or neshamah, which are also synonyms for soul. For the blower to enable the sounds of the shofar requires channeling G-d’s ever-present spirit. The resulting blasts are purposeful.
Tekiah: The long initial sound prompts attention for self-examination. The 12th century philosopher Maimonides stated that the shofar is intended to “wake us from our slumber” to effect personal and communal improvement.
Shevarim-Teruah: The middle sounds are broken, respectively as a grouping of three or nine short notes. Those sounds represent crying, because the Rabbis of the Talmud emphasize as the psalmist (51:19) that G-d hears the broken-hearted. Change only comes from fully felt regret of wrong-doing.
Tekiah gedolah: The final note is whole and elongated. We are a people of hope. G-d is in the business of forgiveness. We believe in improvement, both individually and collectively. The final blast points toward the promise of an entire world redeemed into its intended harmony.
Each of us is like the shofar, an instrument for change. And yet, the smell of the shofar is often that of a sweaty ram or its entrails. The shofar’s rough, odorous interior represents our own inner workings. Even a healthy body may produce a stench. By analogy, we are prone to hurtful overreaction or selfishness prompted by exaggerated fears, fatigue or false assumptions. Like the shofar, we are beautiful, powerful and well-polished and yet, unseemly parts of us are often hidden or even manifest. A final physical detail: a shofar traditionally must be bent in shape, symbolizing the need for flexibility and humility for change.
On the High Holidays the pulsating Shofar sounds are directed both upwardly and inwardly. We are called to reach toward G-d with our higher self by acknowledging our shortcomings and the willingness to improve. The piercing sounds remind us that all breath emerges from one source, as does creation. Let us take in those sounds as a prayer of hope: the hope that the shofar’s reverberations will prompt reflection and refinement of our personal, communal and universal goodness.
Rabbi Spitz is a caring mentor to his congregants at Congregation B’nai Israel, a scholar, and a member of the Rabbinical Assembly Committee of Law and Standards. He lives in Tustin, California with his wife, Linda; they are the parents of Joseph, Jonathan and Anna Rose.