We have all experienced frustration at some point in our lives due to difficulty grasping a concept. As cognitively active beings, mankind must make sense of his environment, and if things don’t add up, tension ensues. For some, the challenge of confusion leads to a more concerted effort to arrive at a sensible conclusion. For the mathematician, difficulty with an equation results in rigorous mental gymnastics and a solution. For the student of Gemara, a complex piece of Talmudic discourse brings him to a more penetrating grasp of the concepts. Gaining clarity eliminates the nagging frustration and can be a tremendously satisfying experience, leaving a person with an overwhelming sense of relief.
Complete clarity of every facet of our existence is by definition elusive to man due to our finite intellectual capacity. However, the month of Elul—as a preparatory stage for Rosh Hashanah—is a time in which we strive toward achieving as much clarity as is humanly possible by recalibrating our priorities and attending to improved spiritual awareness. The daily blast of the shofar in Elul is part of this phase; it is the preamble to the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
The sounds of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah bring us back to the sounds of the shofar that emanated from Har Sinai during Matan Torah. Aside from the sound of the shofar, roars of thunder pervaded. Vchol ha’am ro’im et ha’kolot—The nation saw the sounds (Shemot 2:15). The Ramchal explains that the Jewish people were able to perceive the thunder so clearly that they received the auditory stimulus through their visual receptors. During ma’amad Har Sinai the people were so in tune with the spirituality that existed that they were able to see something that had no physical manifestations since the experience became so real to them. Rav Chaim Friedlander, zt”l, draws a parallel between the Torah’s use of “ro’im” and the reference to Shmuel Hanavi as “roeh”—a prophet or “seer,” implying a deep and penetrating understanding of the world. The term “ro’eh” includes physical as well as cognitive perception. The nation enjoyed an experience when everything made sense; questions were answered; ikar and tafel did not exist as an amorphous mixture. Matan Torah was the biggest “aha” moment in our national history, when priorities were calibrated. Man was not fruitlessly attempting to fill a void with trivialities, as the ikar and the tafel were identified for what they were.
While it is difficult to grasp that Sinaitic experience and the accompanying clarity that our forefathers did, we have all gone through phases in our lives when we have become inspired—even if temporarily—to shift our focus away from the trivial. If, lo aleinu, tragedy strikes, for a brief period of time, inconsequential things that previously disturbed us suddenly do not matter because our priorities are realigned. The paint color of our walls and the tablecloth design for a simcha do not carry that much weight since our focus has shifted from the tafel to the ikar. When we engage in tefillah to facilitate a refuah for a close relative, the comment that normally offends and occupies our head space is brushed off with a shrug, and the rude driver does not irritate us all day—because we are focused on bigger and more important things. Similarly, during momentous occasions in our lives such as giving birth or standing under our child’s chuppah, our attention is directed toward more meaningful and purposeful endeavors and interactions. The brain power that was previously directed toward feeling slighted easily or toward engaging in trivial pursuits has now been allocated for important aspect of our lives—to those things that bring us closer to God.
Imagine these bursts of inspiration on “overdrive”—where the existential question of life’s purpose and direction is developed with perfect detail. Such was the experience of the nation at Sinai, of which we are reminded when hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
The shofar brings us inspiration, when for those moments we focus our energies on significant issues. According to Rav Shimshon Pincus, zt”l, the physical shape of the shofar represents the longing of every Jew to enjoy clarity—to arrive at answers to those questions that eluded him. In short, it represents the elimination of confusion. Narrow at the mouth and wide at its end, the shofar signifies that those situations that appear confusing and constricting to us will ultimately be opened wide with a breadth of understanding. Before tekiat shofar we utter the words “Min hameitzar karati Kah”—from the constraints I call out to God; from the constraints of conflicts, confusion and contradiction that afflict us, I call to Hashem.
All too often, we walk around in a state of unhappiness because voids are filled with inconsequential goals. The shofar is the beacon that aids in our navigation toward a more meaningful existence, when the narrow hole will be opened wide with comprehension. Thus we begin our new year with a journey of exchanging the transient for the transcendent and the profane for the sublime.
The shofar also signifies the coronation of Hashem as King over the world that He created. Indeed, we refer to Rosh Hashanah as hayom harat olam—the day the world was “born.” Rav Friedlander further explains that the clarity that was experienced during ma’amad Har Sinai reminds us of Creation and the condition of Adam before his chet, when good and evil were easily distinguished.
Similarly, the shofar represents our future geula and the blast that will herald our ultimate redemption. There will come a day when all the fleeting moments of inspiration from our past will become a permanent state of existence. Mashiach will be that final and lasting “aha” moment. Our focus will shift such that our upside-down world of important and unimportant/moral and immoral will be reoriented and our spiritual vertigo will be alleviated. Frustration from misplaced efforts will be replaced with relief and satisfaction as we focus our energies on bringing us closer to our Creator. Mashiach is a time when man will not just hear the word of Hashem, but see or grasp the voice of Hashem just as we did during the Sinai experience. “Vera’u kol basar yachdav ki pi Hashem diber,” and all flesh together will see that the voice of Hashem has spoken (Yeshaya 40:5).
May the blowing of the shofar this coming new year bring us sharper vision and purpose as well the call of the ultimate shofar gadol.
By Aviva Orlian
Aviva Orlian teaches a weekly Tanach class in the Monsey community and has been giving shiurim on various topics in the greater New York area. Mrs. Orlian is also a practicing speech-language pathologist.