Full moon of Elul
Fall classes at Tiferet

The emotional journey of shofar

On Rosh Hashanah, it's a mitzvah to hear the call of the shofar. It's a central mitzvah during the month that precedes the Days of Awe, too; some make it a practice to listen to the shofar daily during Elul. (Here are some useful one-a-day meditations for hearing the shofar during Elul -- and, while I'm at it, a handy shofar mp3.) The shofar is meant to rouse us from spiritual slumber, to call us to make teshuvah and re/turn ourselves to God.

In the calls of the shofar, we can also retrace the emotional journey of a year in microcosm. (I learned this from Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg in his class in middot last month, and I think this is a gorgeous teaching.) Here's how:

The first call is tekiah, a single whole note. Tekiah reminds us that once we were whole.

The second is shevarim, three shorter notes. Shevarim reminds us that we have known scatteredness.

The third is teruah, nine staccato notes in rapid succession. Teruah reminds us that we have been shattered.

And finally we reach tekiah gedolah, "the great tekiah" -- one note that lasts as long as the shofar-blower has breath. Tekiah gedolah reminds us that we can be restored to wholeness again.

Of course, tekiah gedolah is a much longer note than the initial blast which began the cycle. Through surviving brokenness, we can reach an even deeper kind of wholeness than we knew before. (I'm reminded here of the parable of the shofar-blower who lost his crib sheet, a story I recounted recently.)

The sages of the Talmud offered a teaching that relates to this one in a fascinating way. A clay pot, being porous, is susceptible to tum'ah ("ritual impurity.") If a clay vessel becomes tamei, the way to make it again tahor ("ritually pure," or as some would have it, "capable of again becoming tamei") is to break it and then glue it back together. Through the pot's brokenness, in other words, wholeness is restored.

We too are made from clay, at least in the metaphorical language of Torah. When we allow ourselves to be open to our own brokenness, we become capable of a deeper and more powerful wholeness than we knew in the first place. Tekiah gedolah packs its punch precisely because it arises out of scattered sounds. The places where we're glued back together are places where God can enter.

Of course, the great rebbe Leonard Cohen knew all of this, and said it more succinctly than I have:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

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