The Shofar's Stirring Message for Today.
Tragedy has its powerful language which transcends words and alerts us to the kind of pain experienced by so many during the global pandemic.
There was a young man in my community who, because of a terrible accident, went into a coma that resisted medical intervention. For months he responded to nothing in his surroundings.
On Rosh Hashanah the hospital chaplain, making the rounds to extend the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar, almost passed him by. What would be the point, he initially thought to himself. The doctors told the rabbi that the patient “isn’t really here.”
But upon reflection, the rabbi decided that even if the man’s mind was incapable of responding to God's mystical notes, perhaps the shofar might reach his soul. After all, the soul was brought into existence by God blowing into the physical form of Adam "the breath of life," investing in him some of His divine spirit. It is the soul which defines us as sharing “the image of God.”
Immediately after the sounds of the shofar the young man’s eyelids began to flutter. His lips started to move. He recognized those around him.
How was that possible? The answer is both simple and profound. The wavelength on which the shofar operates is on a different level than the one that communicates with the ears and the mind. Our neshamah, our soul, hears what we do not hear – or what we do not choose to hear. Our soul is more attuned to reality than all of our other organs. Our soul is who we really are – because it is the closest link we have to our Creator.
It is no accident that when we speak of someone who died we say he expired. The word expired comes from the Latin “ex” and “spiritus.” “Spiritus” means breath; “ex” refers to its leaving. Death is the moment when the original breath of God returns to its source. It is the disappearance of God’s presence which we refer to as dying. It is acknowledgment of God’s continued sharing of our existence that is the true meaning of living.
After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.
Whenever we acknowledge that truth we are “inspired” – “in” “spiritus” – filled with the awareness of the divine breath which defines our partnership with God.
The mitzvah of shofar shows us that there is a level of divine communication that transcends the rational. It demonstrates that a mitzvah can accomplish its goal in a moment, that the emotion of a musical note can mean more than a brilliantly expounded message.
Perhaps Aldous Huxley said it best: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
The Three Sounds of the Shofar
The rabbis of the Talmud revealed the meaning of the musical messages. Yes, they need to be felt. But they also need to be understood because they convey some of the deepest truths of our lives’ experiences.
Each of the three sounds of the shofar has a role in preparing the mind and soul of the listeners to the spiritual process they are about to go through – and the theological meaning of our ongoing encounters with God.
The first sound is the tekiah. Its long, uninterrupted and straight blast is stability. It is discipline and consistency. It was used as the sound of the coronation of the King. It is a note of joy and of hope, of belief in the ultimate goodness of the universe and its inhabitants. On Rosh Hashanah God is crowned as King of the universe. The tekiah was blown to call the people together for joyous occasions and the sharing of good news.
If only our lives would always be filled with “the sound of music” that encourages us to sing and to dance, to celebrate and to rejoice. But we also need to acknowledge that life invariably also brings in its wake moments of pain, sadness and desolation. These moments are expressed by shevarim and by teruah, the two other sounds of the shofar.
Shevarim means broken. They are the sounds of sickness, the musical sighs of what Yiddish so aptly calls a krechtz. Oy, oy, oy! Tragedy has its powerful language which transcends words and alerts us to the kind of pain experienced by so many in these past two years of global pandemic. This broken threefold expression is followed by the nine gasps of the broken teruah, emphasizing the test of faith we've had to endure as we witnessed the horrors of sickness and death exceeding anything we ever could have imagined.
After expressing our recent travails, we maintain our hope in the final blast of the shofar that signals an end to the cycle of tragedy, ushering in the long-awaited era of universal peace and joy.
After the wail of the shevarim and the staccato blasts of the teruah, giving expression to our recent travails, we still maintain our hope in the final tekiah gedolah – the long straight blast of the shofar that will not only bring an end to the cycle of tragedy but will usher in the long-awaited era of universal peace, tranquility and joy.
That is the shofar's musical message that seeks to speak to our souls. I can’t help but believe that the young man who was brought back to life from his nearly fatal coma by the sounds of the shofar managed somehow to hear far more than the music. His soul heard the message.
My prayer for this for Rosh Hashanah is that we all grasp the message of the shofar as well – and that our lives finally pass beyond the notes that bespeak tragedy so that we may at long last be blessed with the tekiah gedolah, the final great blast of divinely promised redemption.