What the Shofar Teaches about T’shuvah by Lisa Rappaport
Everything I Need to Know About Teshuvah I Learned From the Shofar…
Teaching for Selichot Service 5778
Congregation Netivot Shalom – Berkeley, CA
Ram’s horn…Wake us up!
Blast your song! For we have wandered.
Shofar…call us home.
The shofar holds the secrets and wisdom of the Yamim Noraim and the primary directive of the season: teshuvah.
The literal meaning of the word teshuvah is turning, or return, and signifies coming back to an original state.
So how do we actually think about that? How can this idea be helpful and meaningful to us as we continue through the month of Elul and enter into the Yamim Noraim? Before diving into what the shofar can teach us about teshuvah, I think it’s important to find a metaphor of return that resonates with each of us. Here are some suggestions, but I encourage you to come up with your own ideas that work best for you.
- A train returning to the station
- A derailed train, off the tracks, that eventually gets back on track
- A world traveller returning home, unpacking and regrouping before saddling up for another adventure
- Re-tuning an instrument so that its notes and sounds are calibrated correctly and are in harmony
- Something that has been lost, now found and returned to its rightful place
- The eventual return of a raindrop back to the sea
- The always accessible practice of dropping in and turning our attention to the source closest to us, our breath (so close but easy to forget!)
The shofar is also a symbol of return. And it has many lessons to teach us. This ancient instrument (a ram’s horn!) is like a poem, a piece of art, inviting us in for deeper understanding. When we study its details, we come to understand that the very nature of teshuvah is built into the structure and sound of the shofar.
We learn from the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim, 586):
“The Shofar of Rosh Hashana should be from a ram, bent; under extreme circumstances, all shofars are kosher, whether straight or bent, however the mitzvah is better fulfilled with a bent one rather than a straight one.”
What can we learn from this and how does it relate to teshuvah? The round, curved shape of the shofar teaches us about return, about coming back or coming home–to God, to the source that birthed us, to a deeper interior experience of who we REALLY are.
The teachings of Rav Kook suggest that teshuvah is the underlying energetic movement of the cosmos. It’s a predictable, cyclical force–the divine orbit that all of nature, creation follows. When we look at the shofar, we are reminded of this movement. However, this movement is not a circle, something that would keep us on a closed circuit, in a worn rutted, groove. The movement is cyclical. We return, but at a higher, more refined level. The shofar invites us to make this turn–to walk the spiral that renews and transforms us.
The curve in the shofar teaches us that life is not always–in fact should not be–linear but rather a path with with twists and turns. Our tradition teaches us, through the shape of the shofar that we are not to continue on an unchecked, linear trajectory. The energetic direction of our lives should be to turn, to look back, to return and to review so that we can make repairs and amends.
Straightness implies rigidity. The curved shape of the shofar subtly invites us to be flexible, willing to bend and turn, rather than digging in our heels, resisting change, and being so focused on what’s straight ahead that we can’t yield to a new perspective. Bending and turning implies surrender and humility–a way of approaching the other and coming back to connect, to mend fences, rather than carry on ahead, taking us further away from the source of connection. This ability to be bend is an essential way of being and relating to others during this time of year–ideally all year long, but special significance on a more humble posture informs the work we do during the Yamim Noraim.
Another important teaching of the shofar is from the sounds it makes. The piercing cry of the shofar commands our attention, cutting through the haze of our complacency. It halts our unchecked “auto-pilot” trajectory forward. We are called not only in shape, but in sound, to take a turn and head on back. The shofar blasts are filled with intense longing and melancholy and tell the story, sing the song, of our lives and our journey of return.
The four blasts that are sounded during the Days of Awe remind us that part of the human condition (in fact embedded in the very fabric of creation) is the process of going through constant cycles of wholeness and brokenness, integration and disintegration. In Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shofar, Sukkah, Lulav, the shorter, broken blasts are referred to as wails, crying, and sighing. But those blasts are preceded and followed with longer, integrated blasts. The series concludes with a strong, sustained blast. No matter what has happened during the past year, the shofar reminds us, in the very sound and quality of the blasts, and its shape, that we can always return to wholeness, to shalom.
Here is an explanation of the shofar blasts:
TEKIYAH: One long blast. An integrated, full, whole sound. We all start from a place of completeness, oneness.
SHEVARIM (literally translated as brokenness): Three medium blasts. At some point the integrated wholeness is broken. This is life. Clarity, bliss, focus is met with distraction. The peace is inevitably broken.
TERUAH: Nine, staccato blasts. Then, there are times of extreme disturbance. Very little certainty or serenity. Perhaps we experience a major, trying life event. Even times of extreme joy and adventure have that staccato feel. This is the intense stimulation of living. Our attention is pulled this way and that. Our moments of integration are fewer.
TEKIYAH GEDOLAH: One very, very long shofar blast. Return is completed. Teshuvah. We have come through another annual cycle. We leave Yom Kippur services with this reminder that what was broken has now been repaired. We are sent out on this positive affirmation through the triumphant sound of the shofar. Our Shevarims and Teruahs will inevitably greet us, but for now, we are whole. We have returned to our source.
The blasts of the shofar demonstrate how we experience cycles of wholeness and rupture. We are in the flow, feeling connected, and then there is a challenge, a period of disconnection. Things are peaceful and this is suddenly met with times of chaos and disorganization. What the shofar is reflecting back to us is the ebbs and flows, the peaks and valleys of our lives. It’s important to remember that the moments of “disintegration”, those messy, chaotic periods are not always bad or negative.
A quick diversion to give an example: I work in an elementary school. This summer we worked on beautifying the kindergarten courtyard and outdoor playspace. The landscapers replanted all the planter boxes. They brought in fresh wood chips for the garden areas. Brand new outdoor tables, chairs, and benches were purchased from Ikea and assembled. Soft seat cushions in fun, bright colors were added to the chairs. Shade umbrellas were erected. A metal bin full of large foam pieces for building and games was installed. The space looked incredible. It was perfect, pristine. Everything was in its place. It was a moment of unity or echad. Much the way we strive to be at the final shofar blow, tekiyah gedolah, as Yom Kippur ends. Then, 30 kindergartners, and their parents arrived for the first day of school. What do you think happened to the space? It got used the way it was intended! But by the end of the first outdoor experience, the chairs were in disarray, the foam blocks were strewn about, wood chips were found scattered throughout the courtyard. By the end of the day, everything was “returned” to its original spot. And what will happen in this kindergarten play space is the same thing that happens in our lives. Even though we pretty much tidy up the messes from each day, there is a larger arc of wear and tear that happens over time. At the end of the school year, the blocks will likely have to be replaced. The table and chairs will need some cleaning and maintenance. What’s left of the wood chips will need replenishing. The cement may need a power wash. So too in our lives. This is the time to do deep soul work, relationship mending, and examining our interactions in our communities and the world.
On Rosh Hashanah we hear a series of blasts that reflect all of this back to us. What’s beautiful about the shofar is that rather than reading and writing and talking about the journey of teshuvah, we actually hear it. In this way, it reverberates deeply and engages us in the work in ways we would not be able to experience otherwise. Here is a written example of the series of blasts. The point to remember is that wholeness and brokenness is all mixed in in a big soup and shows us what needs repair. The shofar expresses all the pain and joy, the truly humbling experience of being human.
Yes! We conclude with Tekiyah Gedolah. Through the atonement process we become more integrated, revealing another layer of who we are, getting us closer to our authentic center. We experience wholeness, shalom. We begin the year from a place of unity and “at-one-ment.” Then, as the year unfolds, we experience fractures and brokenness. But the wholeness at the other end, when we emerge yet again in another year, will be stronger, longer–Gedolah. Our relationships are fortified, even though they have sustained hardship. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, in referring to Hasidic teaching explains:
“God is more angry that we don’t take advantage of teshuvah than over the sin itself. There is such a wonderful way to turn back and to make amends and clear things up. The fact that we leave that and don’t pick it up is a worse sin than the sin itself.”
Perhaps we could say that we actually reach a more elevated place when we mess up and then fix it, than if we never messed up in the first place. Why? Because we have grown and learned more by throwing ourselves head first into the messiness of life. All of us are in a constant state of growing and becoming better people, whether we are 5 or 105. There is no magical age where we have perfected the art of being human. It’s ongoing trial and error. The remarkable thing is that the repair process strengthens trust and intimacy. The key, as Reb Zalman points out, is to do the necessary repair when we fail. The sin is not the mistake, but in failing to correct it.
Also from Mishneh Torah, laws of Shofar, Sukkah, Lulav, we learn that On Rosh Hashanah, the mitzvah of the day, (mitzvah hayom) is “Lishmoa Kol Shofar” to hear the sound of the shofar. But there is something of paradox or zen koan built into this. To hear the shofar, it needs to be blown. The commandment is not fulfilled if no one hears it. There needs to be at least two. This teaches us about the importance of relationship and that in our relationships we need to both express ourselves AND and listen to the other. Specifically, what we learn from the shofar is that we should put more emphasis on the mitzvah of being the listener, the receiver, the empathic source of receptivity, for the other. When our friends and family members are broken hearted, we should show up and listen. When we hear the wails and cries of our brothers and sisters around the world who are desperate and in need, we are not to turn a deaf ear, but to respond, to heed their call.
The shofar has many more lessons to teach us, more than can be illuminated here. For now we conclude with the teachings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi and the Bal Shem Tov who say that the shofar is a Kol Pashut–a simple, pure, sound or voice. The wrenching cry of the shofar teaches us that the simplest, most genuine sound is the that of our own soul, often in the form of our broken heart, our anguish. This is what is true and real. This is what God wants from us. This is what others respond to. This is what heals. This is the gift of teshuvah.
This year, as we wind through the final days of Elul and enter the Yamim Noraim, may we continue to turn and return. May we continue our cheshbon hanefesh in ways that reveal our authentic selves. And may we take our cues from the shofar–for it contains everything we need to know. Let us strive become a living shofar.
Make of Me a Living Shofar
May I be like the shofar…
able to arch, bending
returning to my source
spiraling back to the origin
though wiser, softer, kinder.
May the shofar teach me to follow
all the notes in my life,
those whole and coherent,
along with the those
fractured, quivering, distressed,
gathering and reshaping all of them
into a resounding
blast of wholeness.
May the shofar teach
me about relationships
Expressing when I need to
but more often listening with an open heart
to the unique sounds
the soul cries of my brothers and sisters.
Shofar, help me find the
Simplest voice inside
that expresses truth
that speaks kindness
that sings a song
L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu!