top of page

The Shofar and the Complexity of Our Existence – Ellul 5774

For  printable Pdf version click here:

“There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen Anthem

“אין שלם מלב שבור; אין זעקה גדולה מהדממה; אין ישר מסולם עקום” “There is nothing as complete as a broken heart, no cry as great as silence and nothing as straight as a bent ladder.”  Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk

We enter Rosh Hashanah this year, more than other years as a nation with a heavy heart and mind.  We have experienced a rollercoaster of emotions over the tumultuous summer.  Having seen a nation broken by its losses of their offspring, tormented by the relentless suffering of their citizens, and finally after having fought a battle to secure their own existence, berated and accused by the world of war crimes, it would be no surprise if we gave up and buried ourselves in the sand.

The brokenness of the teruah sound reverberates lucidly in our psyche. And yet we are not broken or downtrodden, we lift ourselves up, elevated and inspired, and perhaps even surprised at the unity and courage we demonstrated.  We are aghast at our own resilience and conviction.  It is the tekia – the stable unified sound of crying together as a nation, the unending echo of eternity, the cry of promise and a better tomorrow that gives birth to our continued existence.

In an interview I read with Racheli Frankel, the mother of one of the three kidnapped boys that were found murdered, I felt she represented through her dignified, gentle but immensely strong way, the history of our people.  The brokenness together with the indomitable spirit.  Her ability to say – yes I am broken and shattered, but I must continue.  As she said in the hesped for her son ‘we will learn to sing without you’.  This dialectical existence of brokenness and wholeness is not only the story of our people, but the experience of each thinking individual and it finds expression in the cries of the Shofar blast on Rosh Hashanah.

The challenge of a fragmented Existence:

The dichotomy of existence finds expression in God’s words to Adam and Chava on their departure from Gan Eden:

יט בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ, תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם, עַד שׁוּבְךָ אֶל-הָאֲדָמָה, כִּי מִמֶּנָּה לֻקָּחְתָּ:  כִּי-עָפָר אַתָּה, וְאֶל-עָפָר תָּשׁוּב

By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the ground, from which you were taken: For you are dust and to dust shall you return. (Bereshit 3)

It seems from Man’s inception he is destined to struggle with the meaning he attaches to his existence.  He ‘clothes’ himself in so many superficialities in order to ‘escape’ the torment of unanswered questions.  He searches for wholeness, for completion and harmony and instead encounters fragmentation and discord.

Erich Fromm expresses this human reality of recognising our birth and death as beyond our control and yet attempting through reason to make sense of reality and find harmony:

Self -awareness, reason and imagination have disrupted the “harmony” that characterizes animal existence. Their emergence has made man into an anomaly, into the freak of the universe.  He is part of nature, subject to her physical laws and unable to change them, yet he transcends the rest of nature.  He is set apart while being a part, he is homeless yet chained to the home he shares with all creatures.  Cast into this world at an accidental time and place. He is forced out of it, again accidentally.  Being aware of himself, he realises his powerlessness and the limitations of his existence……Human existence is different in this respect from that of all other organisms; it is in a state of constant and unavoidable disequilibrium…..He is driven to overcome this inner split, tormented by a craving for ‘absoluteness’, for another kind of harmony…..The most fundamental existential dichotomy is that between life and death.  The fact that we have to die is unalterable for man. Man is aware of this fact, and this very awareness profoundly influences his life.

(Erich Fromm: Man For Himself p40-42)

The fact of death is not something alien to the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy; a dominant theme in much of the Yamim Norayim’s tefillot is that of life and death.  The Rabbis understand man’s nature and the dichotomy of his existence.  They want man to appreciate the docile and volatile  nature of mankind, but also our ability as human beings through our free will to rise above this primordial existence.   As we chant so often in our prayers”ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה” – Repentance, prayer and charity can waver the evil decree’ – we have the ability to shape our destiny through our own actions.  To stand on the abyss and look into it without falling.  To internalise the instability of our lives but attempt to build foundations.  To live with the fragments whilst searching for the whole – this tension finds expression best in the famous Unetane Tokef prayer:

אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר, וְסופו לֶעָפָר – בנַפְשׁו יָבִיא לַחְמו – מָשׁוּל כְּחֶרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר – כחָצִיר יָבֵשׁ וּכְצִיץ נובֵל – כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר וּכְעָנָן כָּלָה – וּכְרוּחַ נושָׁבֶת וּכְאָבָק פּורֵחַ – וכַחֲלוֹם יָעוּף.

 A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.

It is interesting that the source of these few verses in the prayer originate from the book of Iyov(7:1, 14:1) and Kohelet (6:12. 12:7), both books which focus on the suffering, crisis and almost transitory nature of existence.  We are described as a broken vessel. That is man, broken, transitory, fragmented and tormented by visions of his own death.

Teruah and shvarim: Brokenness and Crisis:

This ‘crisis’ of the individual and his fragmentary existence I want to suggest, is expressed through the sounding of the ‘teruah’ blasts.  We are told in Torah that the ‘teruah’ is sounded in times of crisis:

And when you go to war in your land against the adversary that oppresses you, then you should blow a teruah blast with the trumpets. 10 Also in the day of your gladness, and in your appointed seasons, and in your new moons, ye shall blow with the trumpets ((ותְקַעְתֶּםover your burnt-offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace-offerings; and they shall be to you for a memorial before your God: I am the LORD your God.

(Number 10:9) 

The term tekiah is used for happy times and teruah as a warning of a crisis – a time for war.

The term Rosh Hashanah is never specifically used in Tanach.  Instead the day is described as Yom Teruah – the day of brokenness.  Rosh Hashanah is inextricably tied up to themes of shever – brokenness.  There is a discussion amongst the Sages in Masechet Rosh Hashanah as to how the teruah blast must be sounded:

והתניא: שיעור תרועה כשלשה שברים […] “יום תרועה יהיה לכם”- ומתרגמינן: יום יבבא יהא לכון [יום יבבה יהיה לכם] וכתיב באימיה דסיסרא [=על אם סיסרא] (שופטים ה, כח): “בעד החלון נשקפה ותיבב אם סיסרא”. מר סבר – גנוחי גנח, ומר סבר ילולי יליל [אחד סבר (שתרועה) היא קול גניחה, והאחר סבר כי היא קול יללה].

 But it has been taught, ‘The length of the teruah is equal to three shebarim’? — Abaye said: Here there is really a difference of opinion. It is written, It shall be a day of teru’ah unto you, and we translate [in Aramaic], a day of yebaba, and it is written of the mother of Sisera, Through the window she looked forth,23 [wa-teyabab]. One authority thought that this means drawing a long sigh, and the other that it means uttering short piercing cries. (Talmud Bavli Rosh Hashanah 32b)

The debate centres on the type of blast a teruah is and what it represents.  Is it a short piercing cry (like shvarim) or a long sigh like cry?  The Halacha decides for both which is why today we sound both the teruah and the shvarim.  Central to the debate is the idea that teruah and shvarim both represent a type of cry – an echo of a human sound that cannot be expressed in words, a breaking point, a crisis, a call for help.   As broken beings we approach the complete whole one.  Our sense of mortality and incompleteness can lead to either despondency or elevation. We can remain stuck in the fractured sound of the teruah or move on to the purity and wholeness of the tekiah.

The Sefer Hachinuch understands the teruah blast in the same guise.  A cry of brokenness that should inspire man to break his yeser hara.  To use the ‘mashber – crisis ‘ to ‘lishbor – break’ that which is negative within him.

וקול השופר- מעורר הרבה לב כל שומעיו, וכל שכן קול התרועה, כלומר: הקול הנשבר. ומלבד התעוררות שבו – יש לו לאדם זכר בדבר שישבור יצר ליבו הרע […] בשמעו קולו נשברים.

 The sound of the Shofar awakens the attention of its listeners. Moreover the sound of the Teruah in other words: the broken sound. And so besides for the awakening he should also remember the thing that evil break him away from his evil inclination when he hears the broken sounds. (Sefer Hachinuch: Parshat Pinchas Mitzva 405 )

Shevira is not always something negative – in Tanach the word Shever has both negative and positive connotations.  For example when Yaakov urges his sons to go to Mizrayim to get food the text says ] הנה שמעתי כי יש שבר במצריםbereshit 42:2) .  He has heard that there is a ‘break’ in the famine there.  The bench used by women to give birth is also called a mashber.  The moment of pain and suffering gives fruit to life.   Shvarim and teruah lead to tekiah.  That is not to say by any means that we must suffer in order to come out stronger, as we know Halacha forbids us to harm ourselves in any way.   However the Torah acknowledges that the very fact of our existence will lead to crisis, be that psychological, physical or existential.  The fact of our birth leads to thoughts of our death and with it a fragmentary perspective of life.  Yet the resounding cries of the Shofar remind us that from depths of our struggles and pain, from the cracks of our broken hearts we become more open to the voice of God.  From the challenges that our existence presents we learn the secret of empathy, sensitivity and the subtlety of Godliness in the world as well as appreciating the moments of wholeness, even if they are fleeting.

As we read in Tehillim 34: “קרוב ה למשברי לב  – God is close to the broken hearted”, it is often in the broken shattered perspective of life that we plumb the depths of our relationship to the Divine, and realise its true complexity.  From within that complexity we come out stronger and more determined.  A.J. Heschel in his timeless words expresses this idea poignantly:

And yet God does not need those who praise Him in a state of Euphoria, he needs those that are in love with him in distress both He and ourselves.  This is the task: in the darkest night to be certain of the dawn, certain of the power to turn a curse into a blessing, agony into a song.  To know the monsters rage and, in spite of it, proclaim its face; to go through Hell and trust in the goodness of God- this is the challenge and the way.  God writes straight in crooked lines…..the shattering queries continue to come in such overwhelming cascade, the agonies pile up so dreadfully, that they rinse away the power to speak.  Farewell comfort, farewell tranquillity. Faith is the beginning of compassion for God.  It is when bursting with God’s sighs that we are touched by the awareness that  beyond all absurdity there is meaning, truth and love. (A.J.Heschel: A Passion for Truth p301)

Thus Rosh Hashanah – Yom Teruah is a deliberate attempt to force man to face these feelings and recognise the imperative to strive towards completeness whilst conceding to his brokenness. It is the age old obligation of Tikkun Olam, which requires that we live, feel and breath the brokenness so that we can begin to fix it .  Though we live with the knowledge that an absolute fixing may never be possibile,  the tekia – teruah – tekia expresses the life lived in this dialectical tension that is very often the springboard for change.  As the wise sages tell us in Masechet Avot (2:16)

הוא היה אומר, לא עליך כל המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל.

 It is not required of you to complete the work, but you may not desist from attempting to.

Shabbat Shalom

3 views0 comments


bottom of page