Friday, September 12, 2014

Themes of the High Holidays Part 1: The Sound of the Shofar

In the Weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the Cantor and I share some reflections on the High Holidays, preparing for the New Year. This is my first for this year. 

My dog doesn't like bagpipes. We've taken her to the Memorial Day parade in Centerville a couple of times, back home on Cape Cod, and as you would expect for a New England parade, there’s pipe-and-drum. Oh, boy, she does not like that sound. I love it. I grew up with it. I would love to study bagpipes (I have this vision of playing them at 8:30 in the morning on Shabbat at Camp Harlam on the hill to get everyone to breakfast. Anyway). That sound causes her to jump, to the point where if she hears bagpipes in the background of a song I’m listening to or on Television she starts to whimper. Hrmn. Maybe no bagpipes after all.

In a few weeks, when we gather in this place, when we see faces familiar and new, we will hear another powerful, yet strange sound; the blast of the shofar, a sound awesome, alien and powerful. It is a fitting sound for the day we celebrate God’s majesty, a day where ‘even the hosts of heaven are judged’. The sound of the shofar is like no other, entirely foreign to our daily lives. No man-made instrument, be it trumpet or car horn or computer, can replicate it. I’ve heard computerized versions, and recordings of the shofar, and our organ even has a shofar key, and it does not sound the same; there is no comparable experience to hearing the ram’s horn in person, on the day of Rosh Hashanah. You cannot fake the shofar blast.

For such an instrument as this, one that awakens the Jewish soul, that proclaims God’s sovereignty, we would expect an instrument that dazzles. I have always had a childlike fascination with musical instruments: the curve of the neck of a guitar, the way light reflects off a brass horn, how a clarinetist holds their hands just so, the shine and color of the violin. All these instruments great and small are works of art; even the computers, turntables and keyboards used by the dj or producer are like some powerful, glowing machine, alluring and frightening at the same time. Yet, the shofar is none of these things. It is a simple instrument; no buttons, no strings, no valves. It has neither reed nor mouthpiece. It takes no ornamentation; no metal, no elaborate designs. Indeed, the moment you carve or cover a shofar in metal or add any kind of decoration it is rendered unusable, unfit to fulfill the commandment. There is only one quality of the Shofar with which the rabbis were concerned; it’s sound. It had to produce the right sound, the sequence of blasts—the notes—that signaled the opening of the gates at the Days of Awe. Truly, with the shofar, it is what’s inside that counts.

And yet the mitzvah is not to sound the shofar, but to hear it. Again, the sound, not the sound-er, is what is important. Why must we hear the shofar? What compels us to hear its sound? After all, it’s weird. It makes us uncomfortable. We giggle when we hear it, when the ba’al tekiah the shofar sounder, turns blue, then purple, then goes to plaid as their Tekiah Gedolah goes on “too long”. Why this sound? Why a sound at all?

So we learn, in Sefer HaChinuch, that “at the root of the precept lies the reason that since man is a creature of physical matter, he is not aroused to things except by something stirring.” In other words, sounds stir something up in us. Maybe it’s the song you first slow-danced to, or that one aria in an opera, or the primal sounds of heavy metal or hip-hop all hit you right where it counts. Yes, the auditory cortex, but also the neshama, the soul.
And the shofar is supposed to make us feel weird, uncomfortable. As Sefer HaChinuch continues, the shofar is the sound of judgment. We hear it and we are supposed to ‘entreat mercy for [our] sins from the Master of Mercies…” and “break the impules of [our] heart that is evil with the cravings and sinful matters of the world.” We hear the shofar three times, and the sound is supposed to remind us of our own disappointments, our own stumbles, and seek to do better. We feel awkward because deep down inside, the sound causes us to struggle, our hearts turning toward the mistakes we’ve made in the past year, laid bare without pretense. We don’t like that. That makes us uncomfortable. We want the sound to go away, but it will not. Instead, we need to hear the sound, to listen carefully, listen to our hearts carefully, and turn ourselves toward the right path.

Three and a half more weeks and we hear the sound of the shofar. Will we be ready to hear the sound? Will we be ready to turn ourselves from within? For just as it is with the shofar, so too is it with us, and our souls: it’s what’s inside that counts.

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