In just a few weeks we will arrive at Rosh Hashanah with anticipation of many of the sights and sounds we have come to expect from the High Holy Days. The white robes, the choir and cantor’s sweet sounds, the organ; but also the chatter that fills this room and the next, the crowds and the bustle of another Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe. We dress up a bit, and plan on the same seats we always select for the High Holy Days, not because they are assigned, but because it is our “tradition.”
We perhaps look forward to services not as much for the sermon or liturgy, but to see our friends and reconnect with our community. Like the old joke goes, “Zimmerman goes to shul to talk to God. I go to shul to talk to Zimmerman.” But in reality we do enjoy the sermon, we do feel the effects of the liturgy and music, it lightens our burdens, it helps us feel at home. These components bring us back to many years together, and to those who were here, whose memory we carry in our hearts.
Perhaps no other sound quite marks the day the way the shofar does. We immediately enter a sacred space when we hear those notes – they are not sweet or soothing. The notes startle us; they stir up memories, but also conscience and resolve. The shofar awakens in us a kind of power, it penetrates our defenses. If we get nothing else out of the service, the shofar still manages to cut through the noise, to allow us to fully enter these days.
And yet, the shofar is, of itself, only noise. It is entirely possible to hear the sounds, and miss the open door they represent. The Maggid of Dubnov used to tell this story. “Years ago, when a fire broke out in the village, all the people would drop everything they were doing and band together to carry water from the well to put out the blaze. Once when one of the villagers came to the big city, he suddenly heard bells ringing and horns blowing. “What is this noise?” he asked. “Whenever there is a fire, we ring the bells and blow the horns to put out the fire,” came the reply. When he returned to the village he told the elders about his great discovery. “From now on,” they said, “whenever there is a fire, we too will blow horns and ring bells, like in the big city and this way put out the fire!” The next time there was a fire, the town elders started blowing their horns and ringing their bells. But the fire only got worse. Before long, half the village was gone. When the villagers returned to the big city and asked the people, “How come when we rang the bells, the fire didn’t go out?” And they explained…
Rabbi Alan Lew wrote, “When the shofar sounds one hundred times (which it does in the traditional service), it blows open the gates of heaven. When the shofar sounds one hundred times, it forms a bridge between heaven and earth, and we enter heaven on that bridge. When the shofar sounds one hundred times, it cracks the shell of our awareness wide open, and suddenly we find ourselves in heaven. When the shofar sounds one hundred times, we hear the voice of heaven in it. We experience Revelation.”
The challenge is to allow the notes to enter. It is a reverberation in the sternum, in the solar plexus, it is visceral. If you close your eyes when the shofar is sounded, you are transported, the effect can be dizzying. And if you grew up with these sounds, if you’ve been here listening to Patti blowing the shofar for years, then you have been given a key to access the shofar’s power.
For the ancient rabbis, the shofar spoke to Majesty, of God’s sovereignty over the Earth. The shofar also spoke of Remembrance, calling to us from a distant time and place. And the shofar called to us directly, the horn of a ram to remind us of the sacrifices made and almost made the reasons why we are here.
Rabbi Arthur Wascow adds yet another layer. He points out that the month of Elul, leading up to the New Year, is thirty days long, and that Yom Kippur is the tenth day of the next month of Tishrei. So there are forty days from the first day of Elul until Yom Kippur. And he summons an ancient rabbinic commentary that suggests that Moses himself repented for forty days at the top of Mt Sinai as he prepared to receive Torah. The question is: what is the ritual for preparing oneself for Yom Kippur? What to do on each of those forty days that would truly open one’s heart to repentance, grief and growth?
The shofar, traditionally blown every morning of Elul except for Shabbat and the last day of contemplation, stirs our souls and sends the alarm. Tekiah – one long blast of alarm. Shevarim – three wailing cries of the same length. And Teruah – nine short blasts like broken sobs, shattered as we are shattered.
The shofar’s blast was the sound heard directly by our people at Mt Sinai, later reflected in our call to arms, and our call to announce the beginning of festivals. It was not a musical instrument, but rather an alarm, an assembly, a warning siren.
With the moan of the shofar we simplify, we strip down to essentials. It’s crying cannot be described or analyzed, only felt deeply and responded to. When we blow the shofar, or hear its sobbing, we are asking to be seen not as Jews or non-Jews, good people or bad people, but simply as human beings: in pain, moaning, crying, asking to be understood as we judge ourselves.
Rambam, Maimonides wrote about the shofar: Even though the sounding of the shofar is a Biblical commandment, it has modern psychological resonance. The shofar says: “Arise from your slumber, you who are asleep; wake up from your deep sleep, you who are fast asleep; search your deeds and repent. Remember Your Creator.” (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4)
Once the great Chassidic Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov taught his student Rabbi Zev the deepest mystical meanings of the shofar blasts to prepare Rabbi Zev to blow the shofar that year. Rabbi Zev, ecstatic, wrote down every word the Baal Shem Tov gave him, all of the shofar’s secret meanings, to study and concentrate on those words as he blew. But when it came time to blow the ram’s horn, the paper had disappeared, and Rabbi Zev did not remember most of what he had learned. As he blew the shofar, he wept the bitter tears of his broken heart.
And the Baal Shem Tov came to him afterwards and told him this story: See, in the King’s castle there are many, many rooms, closets and basements, and there are different keys for each and every lock. But there is also the ax, which can open any door, and get through any lock. The same is true for the shofar. Each secret meaning is another key to open the shofar’s many, many doors. But the master key is the broken heart. Come to the shofar’s blasts with a broken heart, and you can enter into all the rooms of the castle of the King above all kings.
It is not easy to open one’s heart in a true fashion for the Days of Awe. I have heard congregants tell me that their tears feel out of place or uncomfortable. And yet I know that, in the moment of the shofar’s calls, all our distractions and justifications and excuses fall away, and we are left, naked and bare, before Judgment. This year may we enter that room, in the castle of the King of kings, with a humble and broken heart, and may we be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life.