Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that encoded in this simple pattern of sounds is the key to understanding the message of the shofar”
How do you communicate with three million Jews without access to e-mail, Facebook, or even radio? This was the problem facing Moshe more than 3 300 years ago, after the Jewish people had been liberated from Egypt and spent forty years travelling in the desert. As they journeyed from place to place, their movements needed to be directed. G-d instructed Moshe to make two silver trumpets which were to be the primary method of communication with the people. An unbroken sound from the trumpet was a message to them to pay attention. A broken, staccato blast following that was a message to break camp and pack up their belongings. A further unbroken blast was an indication to the people that they should begin the journey to a new destination.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that encoded in this simple pattern of sounds is the key to understanding the message of the shofar. On Rosh HaShana, when the shofar is sounded, you will notice a pattern which repeats itself many times throughout the service: a straight blast (a “tekiah”), followed by a broken blast (“shevarim truah”), followed by another straight blast. Rabbi Hirsch explains that in the same way that the trumpets in the desert were a call to journey forth, so too is the shofar blast a call to journey forth – towards becoming better Jews.
The straight blast is a call to listen to the message – to stop and to contemplate; to reflect on the majesty of G-d and the purpose of our lives, and to attune ourselves to the messages of Rosh HaShana. In the desert the first sound of the trumpets was to call people to stop and take notice. They were preoccupied with all the activities of the daily functioning of their lives, and had to be redirected to listen to a new message for a future journey. So too, the first straight blast of the shofar comes as call to step back from the distractions of the sheer busyness of life, to contemplate the greater purpose of our higher calling to do good, fulfil the mitzvot, to serve G-d and make the world into a better place.
The broken blast is a call to “break camp” – to introspect, to think about our values and actions, to contemplate real, practical changes in our lives; it is a call to contemplate improving our fulfilment of the mitzvot, and living up to the purpose and promise for which we were created; and a call to analyse where we are going wrong and how we can correct our course. The daily routines and habits of our lives, the preconceptions and thinking patterns of our outlooks can become rigid and unchanging. In the desert the people would become comfortable at each place at which they set up camp. So too, we become comfortable with the status quo of our moral and spiritual lives. The broken blast of the shofar calls us to shake up our lives, and the way we think and behave, and to become better.
The concluding straight blast is a call to walk forward into the future – with renewed conviction and direction, and to implement all our undertakings in the New Year. And so, as we stand in shul and listen to these messages, the shofar becomes not just the sound of a horn, but a call to action – to journey forth and develop, and become better people.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch helps us to decipher the code of the shofar and what it means for our lives.
The message of the shofar is that we cannot remain stuck where we are. Human beings are creatures of habit and seek predictability. The shofar comes to move us out of the complacency and comfort of we are today, and to journey on to greater heights. The word for living life in accordance with the mitzvot is “halacha”, which comes from the root of the word “halicha – “walking”. Our purpose in life is to “walk” – to keep moving and developing, journeying towards the people we were meant to be. That is the call of the shofar, and it is the calling of our lives.