The Sounds of the Shofar
Thoughts on Rosh HaShanah 2019
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The Jewish nation has long been referred to as “The People of the Book.” For good reason. After all, God instructed that the many covenants and experiences underwent by Am Yisrael be eternalized as written words in the form of Torah. “Other religions had holy places, holy times, and holy people,” R. Jonathan Sacks wrote, but “Judaism was the first faith to focus on holy words, on a book and its power to transform the lives of those who learn and live its teachings.”
It is fitting, then, that our tradition consistently insists on “the word” in its various practices. Devotional prayer finds a home beyond the contemplative heart and mind – in the spoken words of the siddur. Thought upon the words of Torah is similarly insufficient, as we instead gather for its public reading three times a week and on holidays. Sounding the shofar on Rosh HaShanah, however, is altogether different. By characterizing Rosh HaShanah as a yom teru’ah – “a day of trumpeting” (Bemidbar 29:1), the Torah hinted at the uniqueness of this day. Instructing us to part ways with speech, the Torah prescribed a day that is dominated by the wordless sounds of the shofar. Why?
Consider, in this context, the perplexing statement of Ramban that “the whole Torah is names of God.” He explained that closing the gaps in between words and sentences and reading the letters of the Torah in a single flourish – as one long word – reveals an entirely incoherent name of the Divine. Scholars have long pondered the significance of this cryptically “meaningless” reading of the Torah. Contemporary thinker David Gelernter, however, suggested: “It captures the conviction that there is more to the text than just its sense. The extra ingredient is holiness. And you can see sanctity better when you blank out the distraction of meaning.” Ironically, the text reaches this particular depth by means of an initial rendering of its words “meaningless.”
The “meaningless” sounds of the shofar present a similar possibility. R. Yehuda Amital wrote: “The sound of the shofar expresses more than one can convey in words.” David Gelernter similarly explained that the “territory of the shofar” is the territory beyond language. The cries of the shofar signify our transition from the realm of confined definition into one of unconstricted potential.
The sounds of the shofar are unsolicited invitations to all who hear them. They beckon us to listen closely, encouraging us to courageously determine the meaning of those mysterious sounds as they pertain to our lives. Hearing the shofar, each member of the am yod’ei terua, “nation who knows the trumpeting” (Tehilim 89:16), is given a personal key. Grabbing hold of that key, we are tasked with unlocking the meaning of those voiceless cries for ourselves.
The unique nature of the shofar manifests itself in another context, as well. The Torah’s mandate to sound the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is different than all its other commandments. Whereas the Torah accompanies its command of various active missvot with a description of their background and meaning – why men don tefillin every morning, why we sit in the sukkah on Sukkot, etc. – there is nary a textual hint regarding the purpose or meaning of the shofar.
But there is, to be sure, a long history of sounding the shofar in our tradition. The Shofarot section of Musaf on Rosh HaShanah bears mention of the shofar’s blasts at Har Sinai and those that will sound at the coming of Mashiah. Paradoxically, the calls of the shofar represent both the crowning moment of our nation’s past as well as its anticipated future. “Not only the infinite past but also the infinite future,” R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote, “that future in which there gleams the reflection of the image of eternity, also the splendor of the eschatological vision, arise out of the present moment, fleeting as a dream.” The cries of the shofar, then, transcend not only a world of words, but one of time as well. What is the significance of a reality that exists “above time”?
Of the many case studies written by the great neurologist Oliver Sacks, “The Lost Mariner” remains a classic. It is the story of Jimmie G., the man suffering from retrograde amnesia, who met with Dr. Sacks in the mid-1970’s. Sacks described Jimmie G. as “isolated in a single moment of being.” Unable to retain any memory after 1945, he lived with “a moat or lacuna of forgetting all round him.” Troubled by his patient’s sorry state of life, Sacks then wrote in his notes, “He is man without a past or future, stuck in a constantly changing, meaningless moment.”
Uncertain about the proper treatment for this patient, Dr. Sacks sought the advice of his mentor, the Russian neuropsychologist A.R. Luria. “There is little or no hope of any recovery in his memory,” Luria wrote to Sacks, “But a man does not consist of memory alone. He has feeling, will, sensibilities, moral being – matters of which neuropsychology cannot speak.” The people who surrounded Jimmie G., however, were unsure. They spoke about him as a “lost soul,” an individual whose soul was tragically claimed by disease. But then Sacks began to observe his patient outside of the office, in several different contexts: at prayer in the chapel, listening to music, and outdoors gardening. He found an altogether different personality in these contexts, observing that Jimmie G. then “absorbed in an act, an act of his whole being, which carried feeling and meaning in an organic continuity and unity.”
Oliver Sacks discovered in Jimmie G. a reality wherein one transcends the constrictions of “spatial time,” and enters into an “intentional time.” It is a realm that parts ways from cognition and mental understanding, and is governed instead by emotions and spirituality. And although this realm is rendered incoherent by empirical science, Sacks importantly learned, “empiricism takes no account of the soul, no account of what constitutes and determines personal being.” 
The wordless cry of the shofar opens our hearts and minds to reveal what it says to us. Transcending the confines of words, traditional intellect and time, listening to the sounds of the shofar inspires a uniquely personal experience for each individual. It is our brush with transcendence, offering us the opportunity to intuit its message to our particular lives. Don’t miss it!