The Simplicity of the Shofar

(Hat tip to my daughter Shifra, who made this point the centerpiece of her speech at her bas mitzvah celebration.)Halachically, a shofar must be a simple instrument. If it has a crack or anything that might shape the note, it is invalid. A cow’s horn, which is layered and therefore not a shofar but a shefarferet, is not usable for the mitzvah. It has no keys, no valves, no strings to tune.And yet from an aggadic perspective, the sound of the shofar is quite complex:

  1. We associate the shofar with crying. We blow 100 sounds because Sisera’s mother cried 100 times when learning her son (off to war against the Jews) was killed and would not return. There is a dispute whether the broken sound required by the Torah is more like yelulei yalal (uneven wailing) or genunei ganach (sobbing), so we blow both the teru’ah and the shevarim, as well as the two together as a pair.
  2. The shofar is also a royal sound. “With trumpets and the sound of a shofar, call out before the King. The mishnah describes Hashem as saying, “Call before Me with the blast of the Shofar – to show that you accept of Me as your King.” In the same way they blow trumpets to announce that the king or queen is entering the room, we blow Shofar on Rosh haShanah to announce a new year of Hashem’s rule.
  3. The shofar is used by the army, to alert the troops that it’s time to break camp and go off to war. Similarly, in the desert, they also blew shofar to tell everyone it was time to move each time the Benei Yisrael broke camp. Rav Hirsch explains the shofar of Rosh haShanah similarly. It is a warning to get ready, to stop what we were doing all last year and do something new and better this one.
  4. Then there are the historical reminicences associated with the shofar:
    • The horn of the ram that Avraham found when told not to sacrifice Yitzchaq at the aqeidah.
    • The sound of the shofar heard during the revelation at Mount Sinai.
  5. These might be additional meanings, or they might derive from the previous ones.

We are required that shofar be something that looks simple at first, and yet what it says to us is complicated. A shofar expresses many different emotions at once. If you just look at it without spending real time, you miss the whole thing!

This in itself is an important lesson of the shofar, one critical to prioritizing our lives and to teshuvah: If we rush through life, everything looks trivial. It is only when we take the time to look deeper do we see the real beauty within.

(In addtion Shifra linked this notion to learning a similar lesson while volunteering every Shabbos to help a mother with two autistic sons. Autistic people seem like they are in their own worlds, not feeling much, not relating to the rest of us. Only if you take the time to see through the shell to the child trapped inside can you get to know them and the beauty of their souls.)

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