What are we supposed to hear when we listen to the shofar?

by Rabbi Edward Feld

Abaye expounded: The disagreement regarding how to sound the teruah revolves around the following: The Biblical verse in Numbers 29 instructs 'It should be a day of sounding the teruah," and the Aramaic translation for 'teruah' is , 'yevavah.'

Now regarding the mother of Sisera, the Bible remarks that when she heard of her son's death, "the mother of Sisera stood at the window 'vativav.'" One opinion is that the meaning is that she sighed and sighed and therefore the teruah should sound like shevarim a gasping sound, and one opinion is that she cried and cried and therefore the sound of the teruah should be constantly broken like uncontrollable crying. (B.T. Rosh Hashonnah 33b)
[see Rabbi Shefa Gold's article on Sisera's Mother]

What is it that we are supposed to hear when we listen to the shofar blast? What emotions are they supposed to evoke?

The Tekiah the simple long note may be a call. It was used in Biblical Israel to gather Israel, in assembly, or in war. It will be this blast of the shofar which will signal the coming of the Messiah and it is this single long blast which announces the possibility of the Jubilee at the end of Yom Kippur. As we go through Rosh Hashonnah we begin to await that single long blast which will mark the end of the blowing of the Shofar on this day. Inevitably, we will feel a note of triumph, of having come through the day, of having arrived at this time, of having accomplished a certain moment of prayer.

There is an element of the High Holy Days which contains joy and celebration. It is traditional to dress up and wear new clothing on Rosh Hashonnah, we eat sweet things to signal a good year and there is a feeling of comfort in looking around and feeling that we are together once again with many faces we remember from years past, in being in community.

But the Jewish High Holidays also call forth another emotion that of self-examination, of reviewing our behavior and our obligations and seeing how we have fallen short. There is a fearfulness at this time which will culminate in the fasting on Yom Kippur an awareness of our finitude, of the frailty of human existence and of our own inability to meet our best expectations for ourselves.

And so it is not surprising that the shofar blasts express a duality as well. The call and the joy of the single Tekiah blast is balanced by a shattered sound almost imitating crying.

In an extraordinary midrashic interpretation, the Rabbis contend that what we are to hear in this other sounding of the shofar is the cry of the mother of Sisera. In the Book of Judges, Sisera was a Canaanite general who oppressed Israel. Deborah, the prophetess, gathers an army to oppose him; he is defeated, runs away and is killed by a woman, Yael, as he seeks refuge. The Bible celebrates this moment in the wonderful song of Deborah. One of the verses of that song describes Sisera's mother watching from the window, waiting for her son's return, crying as she realizes that he has not come back.

The Rabbis argue that what we should hear in the sound of the teruah is the crying of the mother of Sisera. Some say that it should be sounded like the shevarim like gasping. Some say that it should be a wailing a constantly broken cry. But all agree that the what we are to hear is the pain and suffering of the mother of Sisera.

Make no mistake the Rabbis are proud of Deborah's victory, she acted to save Israel and did what was required in that hour. And yet, on Rosh Hashonnah we are to feel not only the pride of victory but the pain that was caused the mother of our enemy even when we fought in a righteous cause.

If the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashonnah is to signal the final redemption, if we hear in it a taste of messianic longing, we should realize that the moment of redemption can only arrive when we are able to incorporate the pain of our enemy within our own longing. In the final victory, in the ultimately redemptive moment, we are asked to be able to see both sides of the story our own need, and the humanity of the "other" who may even be our enemy.

The message, of course, resounds in our own time. We should be justly proud of the triumph of Zionism. Within a short span of time, we Jews have managed to resurrect the Hebrew language and create through it a dynamic culture which celebrates democratic values. A people traumatized by near genocide has been reborn on its ancient soil. Tears of joy, rightfully, come to the eyes of many of us when we land at Ben Gurion airport.

But ours is not a nationalism which is purely a celebration of self. Our redemption is dependent on our hearing the pain of the other. We know what it means to lose a home, to lose a child, a brother, a grandmother and we ought to easily understand what this means for a Palestinian.

The road not only to our own redemption but to the redemption of the "other" may lie in each side experiencing the pain of the other. If each could understand the other's suffering, if Palestinians could cry over the death of Jewish teenagers killed by a suicide bomber while they danced in a discotheque, and if Jews could feel the pain of the parents of an eight year old child killed by a scared Israeli soldier firing wildly at a checkpoint, then perhaps the redemption would be at hand or at least, then, a peaceful alternative would seem possible.

The Rabbis may have been telling us that unless we hear this message in the blasts of the shofar there can be no redemption and this will hardly be a new year.

In this time of introspection and celebration let us look forward to the possibility of seeing each other as full human beings, all of us God's creatures, all of us in need of renewal.

Every Jewish prayer ends with a prayer for peace. May our prayers this year be heard.

*Rabbi Edward Feld is the Rabbi in residence at the Jewish Theological Seminary

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