As I am writing this note, the High Holidays are fast-approaching. We will gather for Slichot prayers on Saturday evening, Sept. 1st, the first time that many Jews begin thinking in earnest about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For many, Slichot marks the first hearing of the poignant melodies associated with our High Holiday penitential prayers. On the other hand, our sages set aside the whole month of Elul preceding Rosh Hashanah for deep introspection and preparation, and for intentionally regretting our mistakes and misdeeds and turning ourselves around and back towards the sacred.
During every day of this month we have been thinking about repentance while listening to the startling and wailing sounds of the shofar. Why the shofar, I ask myself? Couldn’t we as a Jewish people have come up with a more perfect-sounding instrument to mark the joy of Rosh Hashanah? Similar to a bugle, this crude instrument made from a Ram’s horn lacks a musical mechanism for accurate pitch-control, and the quality of its sound is supposed to be raw and jarring. The output varies depending on the input of the person blowing. Even for an expert shofar-blower, there is a lot of room for imperfection of sound, and for contemplating the similarity to the imperfections in our lives.
Sounds that need to be heard are sometimes stifled, weak, and groaning. Sometimes a significant effort fails to achieve the desired result. At other times, we blow spontaneously, and our constitution is relaxed and free, and the sound is on-point and miraculously strong, jubilant and joyful.
The series of shofar sounds also play a role in the emotional impact the Shofar has on us. We start with one long sound, Tekiah. We start out thinking we are whole, but something unexpected happens to us. The initial long blast jars us entirely out of our complacency. We realize suddenly that we cannot continue living the way we have been up until now, and the urgency of the blast pushes us to break things down: to re-evaluate our choices and our life-path… before it’s too late.
Next comes Shevarim: three medium, wailing notes. These sounds can be compared to a broken heart once we’ve recognized our shortcomings and our wasted opportunities in the past year. We cry out as we yearn to free ourselves from past ways of thinking… to make way for new opportunities in the future… to become a truly changed individual and community.
Then we hear the sounds of Truah: nine quick staccato blasts. Like the final alarm of an alarm clock: we know the time is waning and we scramble to motivate ourselves to make the necessary changes, drawing perilously close to complete brokenness. It’s our last opportunity to set the plan of action: What is our revised vision of our new “Best Selves”, our best Beth Israel, our best Roanoke Jewish community? Are we going to make real changes with the greatest potential to make a difference? And finally…
…Tekiah Gedolah: one long tekiah. If we’ve done the hard work of introspection, the final long blast on Yom Kippor should be a great moment of joy. I am looking forward to sharing this difficult work together in our community as we listen with extra kavanah this year for the shofar sounds, a listening that has great potential to heal us and to change us all for the better.
L ‘Shanah Tovah U’Metukah! May we all have a Good and Sweet New Year!
Rabbi Jama Purser