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The Power of the Shofar Blasts

by Rabbi Anthony Manning

The classic pattern of the shofar blasts is Tekiah – Teruah – Tekiah. As is well-known, each of these notes communicates a very different concept on many levels. Tekiah is the firm and confident blast (from the root ‘takua’ – fixed). Teruah is the broken and nervous note (from the note ‘rau’ah’ – shaky). From the beginning of our nation in the desert, these notes were associated with very different occasions; the tekiah representing the simchah of Shabbat and Chag and the teru’ah as the warning of war and battle[1]. Their modern incarnation is our emotional response to hearing the air-raid siren ‘teruah’ wailing over Israeli towns, as opposed to the confident ‘tekiah’ which announces the start of Shabbat.   How does this ancient Jewish music impact on the process of teshuva and personal growth?

I once heard from Rav Yitzchak Hirschfeld of Shapell’s/Darche Noam Yeshiva, that the shofar blasts represent in microcosm the pattern of critical transformation which underpins teshuva and indeed all models of growth in Torah. The initial tekiah represents a clarity, confidence and certainty, but one which stems from blissful ignorance! Many (most?) people are happy with who they are and what they know. Usually, this content is born from a lack of awareness of what they don’t know and of just how much there is to know!

This complacency must be broken. There follows a process of deconstruction – teruah. We challenge, break down and analyse everything we think we understood. In learning Torah this is a phase of intense questioning, raising such fundamental problems with the text as to render it almost unintelligible. The process is confusing, unsettling and leaves us with a bewildering sense of complexity. Who hasn’t experienced the hopeless panic of feeling totally out of one’s depth? In teshuva this is the deconstructive process of ‘azivat hachet’ – picking apart the lives we feel so comfortable with and exposing the raw spots that we usually leave well alone.

It is only from this feeling of unsettling complexity that we can move to a reconstructive phase – the second tekiah - which represents a new clarity. This is now a deeper clarity, since it comes at the other side of the complexity. In Torah learning, we return to a new equilibrium based on resolutions to our textual and logical problems. In teshuva, we formulate a new plan and a new connection with God, built on the foundation of the errors and mistakes of the past.

Chazal[2] saw a textual hint to this process by connecting the mitzvah of shofar and the verse[3] עָלָה אֱלֹקִים בִּתְרוּעָה ה' בְּקוֹל שׁוֹפָר, which we read multiple times before we hear the shofar on Rosh Hashana. The teruah is associated with a deeply disturbing din and yirah implicit in the name Elokim, yet the ‘kol shofar’ of the subsequent tekiah connects us with the rachamim and ahavah of the name Y-H-V-H.

All Jewish learning and growth must involve this 3-stage process. In fact, I believe that we can see in today’s Jewish world the difficult challenge of striking the right balance. Some find it tempting to avoid complexity, nuance and sophistication in Judaism in a bid to keep people settled and happy. But this only leads to a ‘dumbing-down’ of the message of Torah and an morphine-induced contentment based on inspiration and ‘fluff’. Paradise must be lost in order to be regained. On the other hand, others seek to constantly deconstruct – bombarding us in the blogosphere with fundamental questions and challenges but making no attempt to guide us to constructive solutions.

Some of you from the class of 2010-11 may remember this idea as forming part of a one-off guest lecture that I gave before I joined MMY. Now things have b’H moved on and I am incredibly excited to be teaching at MMY 3 full days each week from this Elul. My vision for MMY is to continue to challenge and stretch our talmidot by opening them to the sophistication and complexity of the Torah, while giving them the tools and skills to find a stronger clarity within that complexity. This is also the challenge of Elul, and the daunting process of teshuvah.



[1] See Bamidbar 10:9-10

[2] Vayikra Rabba (Emor 29:3)

[3] Tehillim 47:6