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Nitzavim-Vayeilech – Symbolism of the Shofar Blasts

September 22, 2011

The Torah tells us that Rosh HaShana is a “Yom Teruah”, meaning a “day of sounding the shofar” (Bamidbar 29:1). However, the sages of the Talmud inferred from the nuances of the verses that actually we sound a fanfare of three different blasts: a “tekiah”, which is a simple blast; a “tru’ah”, which is a broken sound, and another “tekiah” at the end. The sages had two opinions regarding the exact blowing of the truah: either it is a wail of three intermediate sounds, called “shevarim”, or a stacatto sob of many small sounds known as “teruah”, or perhaps a combination of these two (Rosh HaShana 33b). In practice we sound all three “fanfares”:TaSHaT (tekiah, shevarim, terkiah); TaRaT (tekiah, teruah, tekiah); and TaSHRaT (tekiah, shevarim-teruah, tekiah) (SA OC 590).

Many different interpretations have been given for the specific order of sounds. In a previous column we mentioned the explanation of Rav Kook, that these represent the course of history: In the beginning of time, HaShem’s sovereignty was firmly established; this corresponds to the simple and powerful tekiah. However, after the sin of man our lives are filled with crises and cries, the shevarim (cognate with shever, a break or crisis) and the teruah (similar root to ra’, evil). At the time of the redemption, HaShem’s reign will again be firmly established (final tekiah) and will endure forever (shown by the long tekiah blown at the end ofthe series) (Moadei HaRayah).

Rav Nachman of Breslav brings a profound explanation based on the spiritual progress of the individual. The subject of the essay is how a person advances through specific stages in his spiritual development or awakening. At the lowest stage of development, a person serves HaShem in a completely mechanical, perfunctory way. Even though he may be punctilious about performing mitzvot and studying Torah, he is at such a low level of self-aware- ness that he may be considered to be sleeping. So the first stage in spiritual development is just to wake up, to be conscious of the need to stir ourselves to greater involvement.

This corresponds to the first tekiah, which comes to waken us from our sleep – as the Rambam writes (Mishneh Torah Teshuva 3:4).

When a person is sleeping, he is also mute. Likewise, the person who goes through life without insight may speak, but he is not in touch with his inner spirit and never truly expresses himself. So the first stage of spiritual awakening is that a person regains his power of speech, or self-expression.

In terms of the shofar call, the unarticulated tekiah corresponds to a dumb cry which precedes speech, whereas the articulated teruah which follows corresponds to speech.

When a person regains his power of speech, he also attains creativity. Just as the physical connection between a married couple which gives rise to new human life needs to be based on communication, so all our creative powers need to be based on communication and self-expression. This corresponds to the shevarim, which is cognate with the word hashbir meaning to begin labor. It also corresponds to the fact that Rosh HaShana is traditionally a day when the childless are blessed with issue; the gemara states that on Rosh HaShana Sarah, Rachel and Chanah were “visited” after their prolonged barrenness (Rosh HaShana 10b).

The next stage in spiritual development is awe. A person who lacks self- awareness cannot feel true fear and awe of HaShem; this awareness depends on a conscious awareness of our lowly status and liability to sin compared to God’s infinite goodness and power. It seems that Rav Nachman likens this to the final shofar blast, the teruah, which instills awe in all who hear it (Amos 3:6). Fear of heaven is the necessary foundation for true progress in God’s service. (This recalls the verse, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of HaShem” – Tehilim 111:10.)

This process is symbolized not only in the shofar blasts, but also in the shofar itself. The shofar begins with a narrow opening at the mouthpiece and widens out at the end; this symbolizes the process of progressing from a narrow consciousness with lack of insight to an expanded consciousness with a constant awareness of God’s presence.

(This likeness is also hinted at in the Rosh HaShana liturgy; before the shofar blowing, the congregation recites the verse, “From the straits I called HaShem; God answered me from the expanse” – Tehilim 118:5.) (Based on Likutei Moharan ch. 60.)

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.