A Wordless Blast
Adapted by Rav Yoel Amital
Translated by Jonathan Ziring
Remembrance before God
Happy is the nation that knows the blast of the shofar. O Lord, they walk in the light of Your presence. (Tehillim 89:16)
The Torah does not explicitly command us to blow the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shana. Rather, the Torah says, “It shall be for you a day of shofar blowing” (Bamidbar 29:1) as well as “a holy convocation with a remembrance of shofar blasts” (Vayikra 23:24). The simple meaning of “a day of shofar blowing” is a day entirely characterized by the shofar blowing. The blow leaves its signature on the entire day. The Ramban explains in his commentary to the Torah that “a remembrance of shofar blasts” means that the Jews are remembered before God, as it says, “And you shall sound the trumpets… and it shall be for you a remembrance before God” (Bamidbar 10:10). In other words, the remembrance of the Jews before God on Rosh Ha-Shana is brought about by the shofar.
The Bach (to Tur OC 625) suggests that regarding the commandments of sukka, tefillin, and tzitzit, the rationales for the commandments are inseparable parts of their fulfillment. He notes that regarding tzitzit the Torah says, “so that [lema’an] you will remember” (Bamidbar 15:40); regarding tefillin it says, “so that [lema’an] God’s Torah will be in your mouth” (Shemot 13:9); regarding sukka it says, “so that [lema’an] your generations will know that I caused you to dwell in sukkot” (Vayikra 23:43). In each case, understanding the rationale for the mitzva enables one to fulfill the commandment properly.
I believe the same is true regarding the blowing of the shofar. Both the blower and those hearing the shofar must keep in mind that by means of this mitzva, the Jewish people “remind” God and “are remembered” by God.
This understanding can resolve a question that the Ramban raised against Rashi. Rashi comments (Vayikra 23:24):
“Zikhron teru’a” – A remembrance of the verses of zikhronot and the verses of shofarot (in the Musaf prayer of Rosh Ha-shana).
The Ramban asked: How can this biblical verse be referring to the blessings of the Musaf prayer – are not these blessings a rabbinic (de-rabbanan) obligation? In light of the above, we can suggest that though mentioning the verses is a rabbinic rather than a biblical obligation, by saying the verses one fulfills the mitzvot of remembrance before God and “it shall be for you a remembrance of shofar blasts.”
The Language of the Heart
Why does the Torah command us to be remembered before God specifically by means of the shofar blasts? Why should we speak with a language of symbols and sounds and not words (the way we tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt)? The answer is that the shofar expands and deepens the human voice. Man puts as much energy into the shofar as he can, and a sound far greater than his own emanates from the shofar.
The teki’a and teru’a blasts express more than words can. Regarding the receiving of the Torah, the verse says, “and the voice of the shofar became continuously stronger; Moshe would speak and God would respond with a voice” (Shemot 19:19); the ever-strengthening voice hinted at the endless proliferation of Torah throughout the generations.
A person who turns to God faces a dilemma. Generally, turning to God in prayer consists of using words. However, human language was created for dialogue between people, between one finite creature and another. There is something tragic about the fact that a person must use human language when turning to God. Human language limits, constricts, and distorts. It cannot express what is found in the chambers of our hearts. Human speech is fundamentally different from divine speech. God, after all, uttered “Remember the Sabbath” and “Keep the Sabbath” in one statement. This is an entirely different mode of expression than human speech; it is a completely different essence. The blast of the shofar solves the dilemma, as least to some degree.
Rav Saadya Gaon enumerates ten reasons for the blowing of the shofar, and they have been copied into some machzorim. We can study these reasons, ponder them, organize them, but do they really express what is in the depths of our hearts? In the heart, things are not set forth in an organized way. Images, feelings, and thoughts rage in our hearts and fill them! Sometimes, though not always, we succeed in arranging things in our intellect. However, in the heart, everything is mixed together: ancient memories of the creation of the world, the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the destruction of the Temple, the kingship of God, the fear of judgment, and the voices of the prophets. The heart is an entanglement of thoughts and feelings, and we have difficulty communicating the authentic message found in our innermost hearts. We are incapable of expressing this in words or organized speech. God gave us the commandment of shofar, and through it we communicate to God the feelings of our heart – “for You hear the voice of the shofar, and listen to its blast, and there is none like You” (Amida of Rosh Ha-shana).
The Cries of a Mother
The Talmud (Rosh Ha-shana 32b) derives from a verse regarding the mother of Sisera that the teru’a is the sound of a whimper. The obvious question is: What have we to do with the mother of Sisera? Can we really learn the laws of the shofar from the mother of that wicked man, the enemy of Israel? Rabbeinu Natan (Arukh 272) draws an even stronger connection, asserting that the one hundred shofar sounds blown on Rosh Ha-shana parallel the hundred whimpers of Sisera’s mother.
Even within a culture that is wholly false and repugnant, a mother worries about her son. Nothing is more natural than that. Our matriarch Sara and Sisera’s mother differ in innumerable ways. Nevertheless, there is point at which they meet. There is a common denominator between the hundred whimpers of Sisera’s mother and the six cries that Sara uttered when she heard about the binding of her son Yitzchak (Vayikra Rabba 20:2). Both expressed the natural fear of a mother for her child. This is also the power of the shofar blasts that come from the depths of the heart.
The Shofar of the Akeida
The origin of the shofar is that ram caught in the thicket by its horns. It is astonishing that Avraham is silent during the entire akeida. Aside from word “Hinneini – Here I am” at the beginning of the episode (Bereishit 22:1), the instructions to his lads, and his answer to Yitzchak, “God will show for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Bereishit 22:8), Avraham does not utter a word. And then, at the climax of the akeida, the angel tells him, "Do not lay your hand upon the lad!" (Bereishit 22:12). What passed through Avraham's heart at that moment? Where is the author, where is the poet who can describe it?! Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi (Kuzari 3:5) wrote that a righteous person should direct the power of his imagination to such lofty states such as the akeida, but we wonder: Where is the imagination rich enough to describe it?
Avraham seeks to express what is in his heart, but his power of speech fails him. Instead, “Avraham lifted up his eyes and saw, and behold, a ram was caught in the thicket by its horns, and Avraham went and took the ram and brought it as a sacrifice instead of his son” (Bereishit 22:13). Avraham’s glance towards the horns caught in the thicket is laden with unimaginably tense energy. We blow that same ram’s horn, and thereby express the hidden thoughts and feelings that we cannot organize or put into words, “for You hear the voice of the shofar, and listen to its blast, and there is none like You.”