Hearing the piercing sound is the only biblical commandment on Rosh Hashanah, the climax and most significant moment of the prayers. But what is it about? What should we be thinking as we hear those sounds?
Jewish tradition is filled with numerous meanings behind blowing the shofar, some of which teach life lessons that can transform hearing the blasts into a life-changing experience.
The first lesson relates to the choice of instrument which we choose: a ram’s horn. This evokes the memory of our forefather Abraham, who began to obey God’s command to slaughter his only son, Isaac, until God stopped him at the last moment and commanded him to slaughter a ram instead.
Abraham grew up in a pagan society that lacked the most basic morals and values. He rose above that to discover God, and introduced monotheism and the Judeo-Christian ethic to the world. The ram’s horn reminds us of Abraham’s greatness and about the makeup of our national DNA. We all have greatness within us, with the capacity to go way beyond what we think our potential may be. As we hear the shofar blasts, we should reflect upon the potential for greatness that our ancestor bequeathed to us, and to not only give thought to how much more we can be doing – for our families, for our communities, for our state and for the world – but to commit to tangible acts working toward that potential.
The second lesson can be learned from the way the shofar is blown. This is not an instrument that one simply blows into to create a sound. It takes significant effort and hard pressure from the lips to generate and fulfill this most significant of biblical commandments. The message is clear: Nothing meaningful comes easily. It takes hard work and effort to achieve the important things in life. While the shofar is blowing we must remind ourselves not to give up when we face life’s challenges, but to rise to the occasion and work hard.
This lesson applies to each and every one of us individually level, but also must be implemented on a national level. We face security challenges from without and societal challenges from within. It would be very easy to throw up our hands and say, “It’s too difficult” or “Nothing will ever change.” The shofar reminds us that the most meaningful of goals – a secure and safe democratic State of Israel – can only come through hard work and continued effort.
We can glean the third lesson from the sequence of sounds we blow: tekiya, shevarim, teruah, tekiya. The first sound, tekiya, is just a long, simple sound. That relates to the way we come into this world. As babies, life is not complicated. We have doting parents who take care of our every need, and it’s a long, smooth introduction to life – just like the tekiya.
Then challenges begin. They aren’t completely overwhelming, but they do come steadily. That is captured by the shevarim – which comes from the root shever, or “broken.” It consists of three midlength sounds, one after another. They are challenges. They are difficult. They are consistent. But they manageable.
Then comes teruah, which means “cry,” a staccato of at least nine short blasts that come one after another without reprieve or time to breathe. That relates to adolescence and early adulthood, where we seem to go from one crisis to the next – just a series of cries. But then we end with another tekiya – that long, solid, steady sound – representing peace and tranquility.
While life’s challenges never end, the goal is to weather the storm of the shevarim and teruah stages and reach a point where we are mature enough to tackle life’s challenges with well-thought plans, and have the peace of mind to see life’s challenges as opportunities for growth. As we hear the shofar’s different blasts, we should develop a plan to leave the shevarim and teruah stages – the challenges which break us and leave us in a state of grief – and enter the more tranquil tekiya stage to approach dealing with the difficulties that life throws our way.
If each and every one of us use this year’s shofar blowing to reflect upon these lessons, and commit to take tangible action to heed the call of the shofar, then we as a collective will emerge from Rosh Hashanah as much better individuals and a much improved nation.
The writer served as a member of the 19th Knesset and holds rabbinic ordination from Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, MD.