Rosh HaShana | What is the difference between hearing and listening?
Updated: Apr 20
Why is it that music has such a deep effect on us? Sometimes it seems as though music has a direct line to our souls. It affects our mood and our emotions. It can make us laugh or cry. It can make us get up and dance, and it can make us stop and think. It can soothe us, uplift us, and stir us to the depths of our being.
Music is unique in that it can go where other external stimuli can’t – it can access our innermost thoughts, where logic and speech are no longer able to reach. Alzheimer’s sufferers, stroke victims, even coma patients often respond to music in ways they can’t even respond to their loved ones.
This is especially true when it comes to the shofar. The notes of the shofar affect several parts of the brain in a profound manner. It startles us into alertness and increases activity throughout the brain, propelling us into a heightened state of consciousness that allows us to see things clearly and act resolutely.
Friends – the mitzvah of shofar on Rosh Hashana requires active intentionality. It requires not just hearing the sound, but listening to it. Based on the Gemara, the Rambam rules that both the one who is blowing the shofar and the one who is listening to the shofar must have in mind that they are fulfilling a specific Torah obligation. But the Rambam goes a step further, emphasising the importance of attuning ourselves to its potent moral and spiritual message. He writes:
“Even though the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a decree of the scripture, there is a hint in it which is to say ‘awaken those who sleep from your slumber… search out your deeds and return in repentance and remember your Creator those who forget the truth in the emptiness of the time …’.” (Laws of Repentance 3:4).
The shofar is a call to return to our best selves. It goes beyond the physical process of converting air vibrations into nerve impulses and then ordering them in our brain. It’s an enriching, potentially life-changing intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience.
Sometimes, we cruise through life on autopilot. Not thinking too much about what we say or do, not stretching ourselves to be better. The shofar is our Divine wake-up call. It can arrest our moral and spiritual slumber, jolt us into being present, jumpstart our lives. It can reawaken us to our priorities and purpose, and return us to a path of personal and spiritual growth. The moments of hearing the shofar being sounded in shul on Rosh Hashanah can become truly a deep spiritual experience for us as we are literally hearing G-d calling out to us through the sounds of the shofar to become better people, to fulfil our potential.
The notes of the shofar are particularly specific. Essentially, the pattern is a straight sustained note (a tekiah), followed by a broken note (either a shevarim or a teruah), followed by another straight note. What is the significance of these notes? What does this pattern mean?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch connects this sequence to the sounds of the chatzotzrot, the silver trumpets used to direct the movements of the Jewish people in the desert, where we journeyed for forty years after leaving Egypt. The straight blast, the tekiah, was sounded to call people to attention. The broken blast, the teruah, was an indication to the people to break camp – to dismantle their tents and pack their belongings and move on to the next place. This was followed by another straight blast, indicating that the time had come to proceed on their journey.
In the context of the shofar, Rabbi Hirsch explains that the first unbroken note, the tekiah, is G-d calling us to attention – to accept His authority in our lives and prepare to receive His message. The broken notes, the shevarim-teruah, represent breaking camp with our past selves, our entrenched bad habits. This requires doing a deep, honest reassessment of our lives, in terms of the Torah’s values and principles, to determine what needs to be reinforced and taken with us on our new journey, and what we need to leave behind. The final straight note, the tekiah, is a call to move forward into the future with our new resolutions and a renewed sense of direction, aligned with G-d’s will and our true, elevated purpose.
Like our ancestors, we are on a journey in life. And that journey requires a map, a compass. Our Creator has put us on this earth for a particular purpose, and in order to ensure we fulfil it, we need His direction. In the same way the Jewish people in the desert needed to be alerted when to break camp and go forward, we too need that wake-up call to break from the harmful things we are doing, to find new, positive, productive things to do, and to journey forward in a new direction. The map and the compass of our lives is the Torah, but sometimes we forget that, and we need a reminder.
The shofar is that reminder. It calls us to take note, to step away from the turbulence of day-to-day life and to hear the crystal-clear call of G-d, the blast of the shofar that pierces our souls. It stops us in our tracks, and calls on us to disengage from all the things that we become attached to, all the extraneous things that are not part of the map of our lives. And it calls us to move forward, into the future, with determination and with conviction.
These three steps of the shofar – stopping, assessing, and moving forward – mirror the process of repentance itself, which the Rambam defines as regret for the wrongdoing of the past, disengagement with this wrongdoing in the present, and a resolve not to engage in this wrongdoing in the future.
It’s interesting that in the blessing recited before the sounding of the shofar, we refer to lishmoa kol shofar – “hearing the voice of the shofar”. The shofar isn’t just a sound, it’s a voice. It’s a voice with an explicit message, something directly intelligible. We are called on to hear that message, not just in the sense of hearing the notes, but to listen intently and receive it. Listening is foundational in Judaism. The mission statement of the Jewish people is Shema Yisrael – “Listen O’ Israel.” We recite the Shema every day before we go to bed and when we wake up. We begin and end each day with listening.
This Rosh Hashanah, we will hear the sound of the shofar 100 times each day in shul. It is the sound that can awaken us. It is the sound that stirs us us to look deep inside ourselves and make changes. It is the sound that opens the door and beckons us to a new, glorious future – to who we were meant to be. And all we need to do is listen.