The Shofar as Prayer

Lessons from tradition about the meaning of the shofar

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We have already heard this shofar sound, collec­tively, on Mount Sinai. There too it was revealed that God is our father and we are His children; He is our king and we obey Him as servants. On Rosh Hashanah, the sound of the shofar evokes in us the shofar sounds from the past and the future. Then we straighten our crookedness, humble our arrogance, and assume the role of a child, a prince in God's kingdom.

Plea for Loving-Kindness

It is written, "Praised is the nation that understands the quavering sound of the shofar" (Psalms 89:16).

The quavering sound of the shofar is the utter bro­kenness and impotence of all creatures before God the Creator. This is the truth of our being: We exist only by the grace of God's purely unaffected will and mercy every instant. Thus, whoever understands his own brokenness also understands God's will in its purest form. As it is written, ". . . and the trumpet blast of the king is in him" (Numbers 23:21).

The will of God is to do whatever He deems good for His crea­tures. This is the divine judgment: precise, exact, and unerring. It is understood by those who understand the teruah, their own brokenness as creatures. Still, we pray for mercy and loving-kindness on Rosh Hashanah. What more can we ask for?

We can compare this to a patient who was diag­nosed as having a large brain tumor and chose a reputed surgeon to remove it. The surgeon informed the patient of all the details, consequences, and prog­nosis. Finally the day of surgery arrived. Although he believed the doctor would be precise, exact, and unerring, still the patient had tears in his eyes. "Please," he pleaded, "I understand the operation fully. Just, I beg you, each time you cut, think of me and my life. Think of how I will feel it."

Thus, al­though he was confident the operation would be done with pure judgment, still he begged for loving-kindness. We want God to take our life into account the way we experience the judgment. We want the good that God does to be also the good that we experience.

This idea is beautifully taught in the Talmud: "When the Jewish people blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, God rises from his throne of judgment and sits down on a throne of mercy" (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 18a).

Hearing the Voice of Jacob

It is written, "They call and God listens" (Psalms 34:18). The midrash asks, "What is inherent in their call that guarantees the attention of God?"

The Jewish people are forever humbled before God with prayers and supplications. They recognize God as the Creator and assume the role of creatures. And since the Creator is always good to His crea­tures, He listens and answers their call.

The gift of heartfelt prayer we have inherited from our forefa­ther Isaac. He blessed his son Jacob and said, "The voice is the voice of Jacob." The voice belongs to him always in all generations to come. And when Jacob prays as a creature before his Creator, he needs no mercy. It is decreed by divine judgment that every creature shall receive sustenance. Thus, Jacob re­ceived his voice, and his sustenance, as an inheri­tance from his father Isaac, who represents the virtue of strict judgment.

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Moshe Braun

Moshe Braun is the author of Sabbath Peace: A Book of Meditations and other books on Jewish tradition.