Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon or Maimononides offers an explanation of why we blow the shofar. It is interesting that there was a need by the Rabbis to explain this mitzvah since many of the 613 mitzvot are regarded by our sages as commandments not to be interpreted. Rather they are accepted as actions we need to take because they have been commanded by G-d, even if we don’t understand exactly their purpose. Maimonides stated that even though we know that tekiat shofar or shofar blowing is decreed by our Torah, thus suggesting that we don’t need to try to figure out why it exists, it does contain an important message: Wake up from your sleep, look at your actions, repent for them and remember your Creator.
There are four different sounds of the shofar heard in the service: Tekiah, Shevarim, Truah and Tekiah Gedolah. According to the Zohar, the great text of the Kabbala or Jewish mysticism, the notes of the shofar are but “outer shells that hide an inner meaning”. Each distinctive sound represents a hidden truth and is rich in symbolic meaning.
Rabbis Milton Friedman and Mendell Lewittes have some interesting explanations for these various sounds. Rabbi Friedman sees the Tekiah (the long shofar blast) as an announcement: “Awake those who slumber in selfishness”. Friedman explains this as self-centeredness, an individual’s concern with family, work and leisure, while forgetting the rest of the world. He points to routine and amusements that yield diversion, but not contentment, in addition to using one’s social life as an escape from oneself.
Rabbi Lewittes wrote in 1973 that the tekiah sound is an alerting sound, an alarm to make us apprehensive of an alarming situation. At the time Lewittes wrote that if any one of us is under the illusion that all is well with the Jewish people, that our situation has never been as secure as it is today with the establishment of the State of Israel and three victories on the battlefield, that we have no need of worry or concern, this tekiah is sounded in order to wake us up to the dangers which still threaten the safety of our people. Ironically, although it is now more than 40 years later and one could argue that Israel is as powerful as it ever was, the Jewish people as of late seem to be dealing with a recurrence of global anti-Semitism mostly disguised as anti-Israel sentiment. Unfortunately American Jews have not escaped this reality and for many of us, this is the first time that we are feeling vulnerable and scared; in particular college students dealing more than ever with BDS on campus.
Rabbi Friedman explains that the sound of Shevarim (the three shofar blasts) is a call to hear the sighs and the laments of the oppressed of the world. While we live in comfort in our local community, many millions of people are living in slums, misery and poverty. In fact, we only have to travel a few miles to find many people living in challenging circumstances without enough resources to live decently. At the Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges, for example, the client base has grown dramatically in recent years as cutbacks to SNAP benefits have dovetailed with the constant increasing expenses of living in New Jersey. It is important for us to pay attention to our neighbors and do what we can to support the pantry and other local charities that can help them.
Rabbi Steinberg writes that the teruah (the many fragmented notes) is a call to battle to fight for social justice declared by our ancesters Moses and Amos, prophets of Israel, to destroy forever the injustice of the world. It is a war for human equity and liberty. Rabbi Lewittes writes that our sages taught that the teruah sound symbolizes a person’s wailing and that these notes are designed to awaken us to the cry of those who suffer and that list is long and varied from our fellow Jews who suffer from injustices due to their religion, to the world at large which is full of people suffering from poverty, illness, hunger, loss of freedom, economic exploitation and man’s inhumanity to man.
These notes should be a wakeup call for us to look around and see what is going on: climate change due to global warming which continues to lead to unprecedented natural disasters due to unheeded warnings and deniers having too much influence; inequity between people growing larger and larger due to corporate greed and lack of empathy by many of our political leaders, anti-Semitism which has always been there often under the surface, but has of late returned to the forefront, the list goes on and on.
But don’t just sit tight, if you haven’t already, get involved. Blow your shofar – in other words, make a noise to get heard. Don’t stay complacent when so much is as stake for each of us in every community worldwide.
Finally the Tekiah Gedolah, the lengthly shofar blast is explained by Rabbi Lewittes as the great sounds of prophetic vision and humanity’s hopes, of universal peace and brotherhood of the fulfilment of redemption for our people and for all humankind. At this time of the year, or more importantly at this time in the history of the United States and the world, this idea cannot be more appropriate. We are in desperate need of good people throughout the world to come together to push against the negative forces that try to divide us. As Lewittes reminds us, we are living in the era of Kibbutz Galuyot, the ingathering of the exiles, as well as the beginning of our redemption. We have a State of Israel for all Jews and if we can just unite together in the spirit of unity and help those of us who need help, we will hasten the coming of peace and justice for all
To the Jewish community, the shofar seems to be one unique symbol that captivates us as a community at large. From little children who may either be afraid or fascinated by the sound, to older children who love trying to blow the shofar, to adults who look forward to the sections of the service in which they will have the opportunity to stop and listen and contemplate as the different notes are blown. This year, what will you reflect on?