The Haunting Sound of the Shofar
Rabbi Ari and Laura Silbermann are shlichim from OTS’s Straus-Amiel Emissary Training Institute, currently serving as Rabbi and Rabbanit of Mizrachi UK in Manchester, England
The piercing sound of the shofar is our way of enthroning God, and is meant to inspire us to do teshuva (reflect on our actions, and literally, “return”). Jews around the globe, whether religious or secular, are struck by the sound. The Gemara (b.Rosh Hashana 33b) famously learns the nature of a teruah (one of the shofar blasts) based on the Aramaic translation in Bamidbar 29:1, of the word, yevava. This term refers to the sobs (vateyabev) of Sisera’s mother. Sisera was an enemy of Israel who in The Book of Judges (5:28) dies at the hands of Yael. His mother awaits his triumphant return, only to realize he has died, and begins sobbing. By connecting the shofar’s blast to that of an enemy of Israel sobbing upon her son’s death, rabbinic commentators strike at the heart of the shofar’s haunting sound. It is the sound of a mother’s – any mother’s – cry for her son. It is a sound that none of us ever wants to hear, but in Israel as elsewhere, we hear too often. It is a sound that turns the order of creation upside down. Mothers, creators of life, should not have to mourn their children. In this way, the cry of Sisera’s mother reflects the universality of the shofar’s cry, the striking sound that everyone feels deep down.
How can this help us to understand Rosh Hashana and properly experience the shofar and its call to repent? Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s insight into the meaning of hirhurei teshuva (thoughts of repentance) offers us part of an answer:
On the seventh day of Pesach, 5727 , I awoke from a fitful sleep. A thunderstorm was raging outside, and the wind and rain blew angrily through the window of my room. Half-awake, I quickly jumped to my feet and closed the window. I then thought to myself that my wife was sleeping downstairs in the sunroom next to the parlor, and I remembered that the window was left open there as well. She could catch pneumonia, which, in her weakened physical condition, would be devastating. I ran downstairs, rushed into her room, and slammed the window shut. I then turned around to see whether she had awoken from the storm or if she was still sleeping. I found the room empty, the couch where she slept neatly covered. In reality, she had passed away the previous month. The most tragic and frightening experience was the shock that I encountered in that half-second when I turned from the window to find the room empty. I was certain that a few hours earlier I had been speaking with her, and that at about 10 o’clock she had said good night and retired to her room. I could not understand why the room was empty. I thought to myself, “I just spoke with her. I just said good night to her. Where is she”?
Rabbi Soloveitchik is describing what the shofar should awaken within us. The raging storm of emotions, the sudden shock that our perceived reality has deceived us. Hirhurei teshuva is the realization that our world is actually upside down, not right. Added to this realization is the feeling of loneliness and distance from the purity and holiness which embodies the natural relationship with God. As Rabbi Kook explains (Orot Hateshuva 7:3), it is through hirhurei teshuva that we hear the voice of God calling to us. Truly, the experience of hirhurei teshuva begins with a window flying open and an estrangement from what we think to be normal but ends in a reunion with our true selves. Rabbi Soloveitchik also uses the imagery of a mourner to explain the process of teshuva. The sinner banishes God from within his midst, but like some mourners, may not feel the magnitude of the loss immediately. Like mourners, Jews will eventually realize the emptiness and disorder of the lost connection. Yet, unlike with a loved one who has passed, at any moment we can realize our longing for Hashem, and return to Him.
The haunting cry of the shofar embodies this. It urges us to wake up and feel how distant our true selves have strayed from He who gave us life. We are shaken to the core because the Shechina (God) cries over her sons who have strayed so far and reminds us that such actions run against the universal order.
However, it is precisely during Rosh Hashana that we can sense Hashem’s closeness. Metaphorically, the King is in the field (המלך בשדה); but He is also our father waiting for his children to come home. We certainly need to do our part to return, but we should know that Hashem is waiting with His arms wide open for us to come running into them.
This article was written as part of the “Journeys” series for Tishrei 5782