With Rosh Hashana fast approaching we can all get ready for hours of sitting and standing, letting our minds wander, counting how many pages are left in the service, and probably a sermon about how it’s time to “wake up” that you swore you heard the year before.
Okay, I kid the Rosh Hashana service. But years ago that was my experience. For all the hours praying, eating apples and honey, begging to be inscribed in the book of life, etc., the fact of the matter is Rosh Hashana actually only has one mitzvah. To hear the sounding of the shofar.
The first day of the seventh month shall be a sacred holiday to you when you shall not do any work of consequence. It shall be a day of sounding the ram’s horn. (Bamidbar 29:1)
Now the text goes on to list sacrifices which we now use prayer in the place of, so don’t think you can pop into shul hear the shofar and peace out. But where other holidays have specific actions to accomplish (Sukkot has sitting in a sukkah and shaking the lulav/esrog, Pesach you have to eat matzah and drink wine) Rosh Hashana’s only specific mitzvah is the shofar.
Clearly, shofar is deeply connected to the essence of the holiday. But we’ve all heard shofar blasts before. Have any of us felt anything transcendent or inspiring each year as we listen? Maybe? I know I just always listened to how long the blower could sustain a tekiah gedolah. But perhaps if we have the right mindset or outlook when we hear it, it just might resonate with us on a level to transform us the way Rosh Hashana is supposed to. So with that framework, here are some ideas to contemplate as the shofar is sounded.
Call to Wake Up
There’s nothing that wakes you up to life like visiting a mourner. We know we are going to die some day, but despite that knowledge we don’t really believe it. When death is in front of us, God forbid, because of someone we know, life suddenly gets real. We finally have to deal with the fact that we have limited time.
On the other hand we have the mitzvah of mezuzah. Most of us think a mezuzah is something to kiss as we walk by so it’ll protect our house. But it’s actually about remembering the Shema so that we can engage in our lives with purpose.
Rabbi Ari Berman says that the shofar wakes us up to both of those goals. Hashem is writing names in the book of life for the next year. None of us have any guarantees we’re making it into that book. Limited time. Now standing before God in judgment, what have we been doing with our lives? Do we deserve another year? If our judgment came down that we weren’t going to make it into the 2019/5779 edition, but God said he’d still consider one more revised draft… what reason would you give Him to get another year? That’s purpose. The sounding of the shofar is supposed to put us in touch with that.
Call for Judgment
At the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and at the revelation of Sinai, both events were accompanied by the sounding of the shofar because both events were demonstrations of God’s judgment. The very notion of being judged is unsettling. We think of punishments and being “sized up.” But a judgment from God we should be thrilled to receive. Why? Because unlike the judgment from our peers or enemies, the judgment from God is just. Who else knows all your baggage, all your struggles, all your disappointments, and all your potential? It’s the only fair judgment possible.
You might think, “That’s great, now I get to hear how really badly I messed up!” I’m not going to lie. A rejection letter sucks. I sent a script off to a show runner of a TV show recently and the response was not what I was hoping for. But what would have been worse? No response at all. Yes, the show runner’s notes were hard to take, but now I at least have some alignment of reality. I have notes that I can focus on. And also I have the connection.
When God judges us it is proof that He cares. Rabbi Noach Weinberg likes to use the story of a kid playing in the street. The first car is driving down and honks at the boy to move. The kid does and the car drives away. Then the kid goes back to the street playing. A second car comes, almost hits the kid. The driver screams, “Hey, you trying to get yourself killed?” The kid shrugs his shoulders and the car drives away. But then the dad’s car drives up and the kid freaks out. Why? Because the kid knows he’s in trouble. When we face judgment it not only shows us that God cares, but that we matter. The shofar instigates that judgment.
Call for Worth
When we hear the shofar we hear them in the following pattern.
There’s tekiah, a long unbroken sound, which comes before and after either teruah, shevarim, or a combination of both. The Rabbis say that the teruah and the shevarim are supposed to resemble crying. The shevarim are three broken sounds that remind us of wailing, while the the teruah are nine short broken sounds that resemble sobbing. It is these sounds in particular we are supposed to hear as the teruah’s short bursts symbolize our smaller mistakes while the longer shevarim blasts resemble our bigger ones. But then what are the tekiah sounds about?
According to Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, the unbroken tekiah represent sounds of joy and victory, like what one would hear at the coronation of a king. The sound of the way the world should be. But in relation to the teruah and the shevarim, the tekiah has a very specific purpose. The first tekiah is to remind us that we are all intrinsically good, that a place of shalom (or wholeness) is our starting point. The second tekiah blast is to reassure us that we can always return to that place of goodness.
There’s a story of a Rabbi and his young students. One day he pulled out a $20 bill and asked them, “Who among you wants this?” Every child in the class raised their hand. So the Rabbi crumpled it up and threw it on the floor. “Now who among you wants it?” Every child still raised his hand. The Rabbi stepped on the money, dragging it through the mud, then tossed it in the garbage. Same question, same answer. Finally the Rabbi asked ,”Why do you still want it?” To which the children replied, “It’s still 20 dollars.”
The tekiahs of the shofar blast are there to instill in us that no matter what we do, no matter how far off we go, our worth to God will never be destroyed. If we believe that we are good and have value, then there is always hope that we can turn things around.
The sounds of the shofar are a cry, an explosion of emotion. But as much as a cry can be a lamentation, it can also be an expression of joy. When someone comes to mend a relationship with open arms, if we can let go of all the pettiness and trivialities that hold us back, there is a profound joy in the reunification. The shofar is that cry of return from Hashem. The reasons listed above are just dimensions of that relationship. With the clarity and the closeness only available on Rosh Hashana, you have “a limited time offer,” as it were. Are you going to let yourself go back to sleep? Or are you going to seize on the opportunity of the new year?