The Wordless Message of the Shofar

How can all this be accomplished during one short session with but one hundred sounds? Surely the cries of the Bnei Yisroel through the ages and the tefillos of the tzaddikim of all the millennia were greater than anything we could accomplish today. And yet, we take our cue from the Soton himself that it can be done. Chazal tell us that the Soton becomes unhinged – completely confused – during the tekios (Rosh Hashanah 16a-b). He thinks that our regular, seemingly ordinary Rosh Hashanah shofar is actually the shofar heralding Moshiach.

Among others (see, also, Leket Reshimos, page 87), the Kli Yakar (Bereishis 22:13) asks incredulously, “Doesn’t the Soton know that this is something we do every year and it hasn’t brought Moshiach yet?” In other words, he’s no fool, so what is he so worried about?

The Kli Yakar, however, throws us a challenge we dare not drop: “He is not so much worried that Moshiach will suddenly decide to come after all these centuries. He is flustered because of the great potential that we will finally repent completely and wholeheartedly. That will finally bring Moshiach and the Soton’s game will be up.” For him, that is shattering and unsettling. For us, that is our hope and aspiration.

If we are still worried that we just can’t do it, let us remember that the Creator Himself is calling to us to return to Him. Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch zt”l (Bamidbar 10:10) distinguishes between the chatzotzros (trumpets), which represent our call to Hashem, and the shofar, which symbolizes Hashem’s call to us. Of course, following the rule of free will, Hashem will not force us, but short of that, He will inspire us, shake us up and provide every incentive to bring us to teshuvah.

In case that seems irrational after all these millennia, the Sheim MiShmuel (Rosh Hashanah 5674) reminds us that we are indeed the nation that is not limited by human reason: “The fact that the shofar is for zikaron – the power of memory – signifies that Klal Yisroel follows Hashem beyond the dictates of reason and logic, whereas even the best of the nations accept only what seems to make sense and is justifiable through the intellect.”

Perhaps – just maybe – the world in ikvesa diMeshicha is coming around a bit to this conclusion as well.

A recent quote (see New York Times Book Review, September 6, 2015, page 23) records physicist Richard Feynman admitting that “one had to lose one’s common sense in order to perceive what was happening at the atomic level.” Logic, intellect and even “common sense” don’t seem to be all they were once cracked up to be. But Klal Yisroel has always known that there is a higher truth than that claimed by the logical brain alone. All the trillions of words in philosophy and literature cannot come close to an iota of the veracity of a tekiah. The shofar conveys no words, phrases or formal teachings, but its special music reminds us that for Klal Yisroel, there are no limits or restrictions to the spiritual heights we can reach. That is the Soton’s mortal fear and our promise for geulah.  

Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt”l (Michtav M’Eliyahu 2:73) reveals to us the secret of our ability to access the power of the shofar: “Accepting Hashem’s suffering with love, acknowledging that we have sinned and deserve His reproof, is the towering strength (see Yoma 23b) of the Jew at the time of tekias shofar.” According to Rav Dessler, when we have this kavanah at the blowing of the shofar, our enemies just melt away, having no further power to hurt us. This may be what the Maharal (Chiddushei Aggados, Rosh Hashanah 16a) means when he declares that “the Soton is the embodiment of negativity (he’edar) and the shofar is the embodiment of the positive (tov) and therefore causes the Soton to simply disappear.

With this approach to tekias shofar, we can understand why the sound of the shofar, not the shofar itself, represents the mitzvah (see Teshuvos Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 256; Avnei Neizer, Orach Chaim 432; and Noda B’Yehudah, No. 3). Unlike lulav, sukkah or tefillin, it is not the object (cheftza) that we are commemorating. It is the sound and the change it impacts upon us that are crucial. When we travel the incredible distances that the shofar takes us, we should be totally transformed after the journey. Let us imagine if we could enter the proverbial time machine, re-experiencing the Akeidah, Mattan Torah and even Moshiach of the future. Wouldn’t we indeed be changed by the experience? Those who have “returned” from NDEs (near death experiences) are almost invariably better human beings, with changed morals, ethics and life goals. Shouldn’t we be transformed by the magical mystical sounds as well?

Finally, Rav Dovid Cohen (Birchas Yaavetz 4:250) offers us an extraordinary thought on the power of the shofar. He points out that the “ram’s horn” refers us back to the ayil that was substituted for Yitzchok Avinu on the mizbeiach. Now, whereas Yitzchok went willingly and was a full participant in the Akeidah, the ram certainly did not. This is the source of the fact that we consider all those who perished al kiddush Hashem, dying solely because they were Jews, as kedoshim. Neither their previous religious status or motivations at the time are relevant, for they are no less than Avrohom’s ram. That incredible “upgrade” to kedoshim has given Klal Yisroel the spiritual power in recent decades – with all the kedoshim we have tragically seen – to accept that this time, this year, we can do it. We surely want no more tragedies or merits of this kind, but now that they have happened, let us take their zechuyos, together with our own teshuvah at tekias shofar time, and soon listen to the shofar of Moshiach, bemeheirah beyomeinu.