Linda Hirschhorn
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The Shofar Calls (5764)
© 2003..2009 Linda Hirschhorn

Delivered at Temple Beth Sholom - San Leandro

A story. It takes place during the time of the Inquisition, and it's called The Shofar of Don Fernando Aguilar. Each year at the Jewish New Year, many Conversos (Spanish Jews who officially converted to Christianity but many of whom secretly held on to Jewish practices) yearned to hear the sound of the Shofar. Throughout the centuries, the Shofar had come to be the quintessential symbol of Judaism and the Jewish people, so this yearning was not surprising. Such was the case for Don Fernando Aguilar, a conductor of the Royal Orchestra in Barcelona. But how could one sound the Shofar without provoking the ire of the Inquisition? Don Fernando devised a risky plan: Before Rosh HaShanah, he announced a public concert that would present the instrumental music of diverse cultures, to be held on a certain day (Rosh HaShanah happened to fall on that day). The concert featured various compositions, among them the Shofar was "played", complete with teki'ah, shvarim-teru'ah, teru'ah, and teki'ah gdolah. The clergy and the inquisition authorities, who were sitting in the audience, didn't suspect a thing. But many conversos got to hear the Shofar thanks to Don Fernando's subterfuge. The Rabbis tell us that if a person has to decide whether to go to a synagogue where there is someone who knows how to pray wonderfully, but not hear a proper shofar; or to go to a different synagogue where she can only hear a proper shofar, but the prayer service is lacking, he should go to hear the shofar. That is because the shofar is the central most important and dramatic mitzvah of the day.

So why do we blow the shofar at this time of year? The sages of the Gemara [Rosh Hashanah 16b] consider this question, and offer a peculiar answer - another kind of tale if you will: The shofar is blown so as to confuse Satan. Rosh Hashanah is Judgment Day, and on that day Satan acts as accuser. Having seduced us to sin, he then returns to accuse us of the very sins which he incited. But when he hears the sounds of the shofar, he becomes so confused that he loses track of the proceedings and is unable to prosecute effectively. And the reason he loses track is because each of the sounds represents different types of Jews: the teki'ah - the whole pure note - is the upright Jew; the shevarim-tru'ah - the 3 broken notes - is the broken Jew, the one who commits sins; and the teru'ah - defined here as the torn-apart Jew, is the Jew who is pulled this way and that. Since the sounding of the shofar sequence starts each time with the sounding of the pure teki'ah, Satan cannot separate out the good Jews from those who aren't, and thus at this time of year he is foiled.

Along with the harp, the shofar is the most spoken of musical instrument in the Bible, and it is the oldest surviving form of wind-instrument. The shofar was not primarily a musical instrument. Its purpose had more to do with the making of an announcement. It is mentioned frequently in the Bible, from Exodus to Zechariah, and throughout the Talmud and later Hebrew literature. The first time we hear of it was the voice of a shofar: "exceedingly loud," issuing from the thick cloud on Sinai that made all in the camp tremble" (Ex. xix. 16, xx. 18); The shofar has never varied from that time.

A shofar should be made from the horn of a ram, because it was a ram that was offered as a sacrifice in the place of Isaac when his father Abraham bound him up on an altar. A classic understanding is that by recalling the ram, we are reminded of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, and this great act of faith by our ancestor gives us some sort of 'credit', an ongoing protection against God's wrath for the sins we have committed.

The shofar should not be made from the horn of a cow or rather a bull, since it recalls the building of the golden calf. The shofar should be curved - symbolic of the contrite and bending heart repenting on these days. It should not have a crack or a hole in it.

No improvements or modifications that might affect the tone are permitted: no gold-plating of its interior, no plugging of holes, no alteration of its length (the minimum permissible length of a ritually approved horn is 3 handbreadths); The custom is not to embellish or add decoration to the shofar. We are careful that we hear the sound of the shofar only, making certain that there is no echo.

These are some of the occasions in which the bible tells us the shofar was sounded:

  • As an instrument of proclamation of God's kingship announcing God's presence praising God;
  • As an early warning siren;
  • When you go to war in your land against the enemy;
  • To assemble the people;
  • To assemble the troops in the midst of battle;
  • To announce the beginning of festivals;
  • And finally, it is said that the shofar will usher in the age of redemption.

Apart from its liturgical uses, the shofar was closely connected with magical symbolism. Its blast was said to have destroyed the walls of Jericho, and in the Dead Sea scrolls we read that during battles, shofar blowers sounded a powerful war cry to instill fear into the hearts of the enemy. Historically, the shofar has also served in a number of popular usages: It was sounded during rites to bring rain, and in the event of local disasters, and so on. In our times its liturgical use is restricted to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The sounds of the Shofar are:

  • teki'ah, a 3-second sustained blast which sets up every shofar blowing series; It is a plain deep sound that ends abruptly.
  • shevarim, 3 1-second notes rising in tone; The word shevarim comes from the word shever, meaning "broken" - thus giving us broken sounds;
  • teru'ah, a trill of 9 short, staccato sounds that resemble an alarm.
  • and finally
  • teki'ah gdolah, literally, "big teki'ah" - the final blast, which lasts 10 seconds minimum.

The custom is to hear a total of a hundred shofar blasts each day, though in the conservative prayer book, these have been cut down to about 1/3 the number. The sequence is usually teki'ah + shevarim tru'ah + teki'ah, etc.

There are numerous interpretations about the broken, crying sounds of the shofar. Scholars have most commonly referred to the tru'ah as the moaning sobbing cries of Sarah when she heard about the near-sacrifice of Isaac.

But let us look at another commentary on the cries of the shofar. In the Gemara, in the Tractate Rosh Hashanah, the Rabbis discuss not Sarah and Isaac but, remarkably, Sisra, a Canaanite general, and his mother. The story of Sisra, told in the fourth and fifth chapters of Judges, is that after he is defeated by Deborah and Barak, he flees the battlefield and takes shelter in the home of Ya'el, who then kills him and decapitates him. Deborah, in her song of victory, describes the wailing of Sisra's mother, as she vainly awaits her son's return from battle. It is this wailing that the Rabbis in the Talmud refer to in order to describe the sound of the Shofar. What a paradox! Inside the ritual is a teaching that is its very opposite: The teru'ah - the sound of the shofar that calls the troops to assemble, is - the Gemara tells us - the sound of a mother's cry: a battle cry --a mother's cry.

This leads us to understand then that when we go to war we do so with great sorrow in our heart. The prophet Zachariah who says that the shofar will be blown in the midst of battle ultimately teaches us that we must lead our lives not by might, not by power, but with the spirit; (and this, by the way, is the teaching that we read during Chanukah when we celebrate a military victory.)

But back to Sisera and his mother: The obvious question is: Why, of all the crying mothers that our tradition could have chosen as examples of wailing and moaning, do the Rabbis choose a Canaanite, and not a Jewish one, such as Rachel weeping over her sons.

According to Rabbi Shimon Felix, the shofar sound comes from a pre-verbal, deeper place, in our being. With words, we take sides, we categorize, we accuse. With the moan of the shofar we simplify, and strip down to essentials. With the Shofar, we defend ourselves against the structures that speech has created. When we use words, we are forced to categorize Sisra's mother as a Canaanite, an enemy, the mother of my adversary, and she, using words, would categorize us in a similar way. The pure, non-verbal sounds of her cries, however, transcend those categories created by speech, and speak to us from, and about, her basic humanity.

The Rabbis choose the weeping of Sisra's mother's as the model for the shofar precisely to teach us that the non-verbal sounds that she, and we, make with the shofar, defeat the specificity of her nationality, and leave us, instead, with her as simply, and deeply, human. It is precisely in that way, from our deepest, simplest, most human place, that we want to speak, on Rosh Hashanah. We want to subvert all of the categories we use to understand our world, all of the explanations of who we are and what we think we are supposed to do and believe, and stand instead, in the barest and most basic way we can.

When we blow the shofar, we are asking to be seen not as Jews or non-Jews, good people or bad people, but as simply human: in pain, moaning, crying, and asking to be understood, and judged, as such.

And now we can understand the phrase which the chorus sings every year: Tik'u vachodesh shofar bakeseh beyom chagenu - "Blow at the new month the shofar in the hiddenness of the day of our feasting."

The hidden part of our holiday is the hidden part of ourselves that we uncover after we have cleansed ourselves by means of self-evaluation and forgiveness - without which we cannot arrive at full authentic joyousness. The shofar becomes our means to enter those hidden parts of ourselves: It is pure sound; It has not been divided or changed over the centuries; It is not separated into the broken cadences of speech. On this day that celebrates the birthday of the world, the shofar brings us back to the moment just before creation - and creation speech separated our universe into distinct categories - and it helps us to connect to our essence of being before time and form, and return us to our essential humanity. It helps remind us of the way we should strive to live during all the rest of the year.

Our shofar sequence is teki'ah, shevarim tru'ah, teki'ah. In biblical times, the teki'ah called the people to attention to Moses. The shevarim/teru'ah was a signal for striking tents and breaking up camp. And then the final teki'ah gedolah, after packing up, called them forward to their new resting place. For us the teki'ah is the summons to listen deeply to ourselves; The shevarim/ teru'ah gives the order to break up camp, to leave everything that is worthless behind, to give up those things that keep us from our connection to a greater consciousness and unity around us. The teki'ah gdolah calls us to a new standpoint, a new attitude of connectedness and meaning.

Whole notes followed by broken notes followed by whole notes: We all start out from a place of wholeness; Along the way we are wounded and broken, and cry out in pain; and then we move towards wholeness again. This is the spiral of life.

And finally, one last teaching from the Seer of Lublin, who says that teru'ah is a word-play on the Hebrew word re'ut, meaning "friendship". It is a statement that says we best repair the brokenness of the world by combining hands and hearts with each other in personal friendships and in loving kinship with humanity.

And so as we hear the final teki'ah gdolah at the end of our holidays, let us hear the call of courage and compassion, strength and vulnerabilty, determination and openness, hope and possibility.

Shanah Tovah.

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