If, as the Talmud tells us, the blasts of the shofar are meant to remind us of crying, (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 33A – specifically of Sisera’s mother – but that is another subject!), then I would offer the following.
There are times when we are like a teruah, terribly broken. We may be suffering physically and we may not know how we will ever get well or how we may ever survive the pain. We may be suffering emotionally. Things just are not going well in our lives. Perhaps we have lost a job? Perhaps we are in the midst of a divorce or we are alienated from our parents, children or siblings? Perhaps we have lost a loved one? Perhaps we feel alien from or to God. We ask ourselves, "With all of the pain in my life at this time, does God care about me? Is there even a God at all?"
In the spirit of this season, I might be in a tremendous amount of pain because of the intense hurt I have caused someone else, and I am wondering if I can ever repair the brokenness of what was once a special relationship. These are both the feelings and the questions that arise out of teruah, those nine or 10 notes that represent the most painful moments of life.
But there are times when our pain, though real, may seem more manageable. Physically, the Shevarim – or partially broken times – are those when I am beginning to feel better. Perhaps I have entered rehab. These are the times of Shevarim, the three short blasts. These are the times of partial brokenness. I might have lost a loved one, but though I miss him or her so very much, I am now beginning to realize that I need to take the necessary steps to reconstruct my life.
Emotionally, these are the times when I feel that maybe I can begin to repair may relationships with others. I might have some troubles at work, but they are not overcoming my existence, and I feel that I can work them out. I may have some difficulty in my relationships with those I dearly love or who love me, but I am feeling that we will get though these tough times.
Spiritually, these are the times when I begin to feel that maybe God does care about me. Maybe God will lift up the fallen, as the prayer says. It is at these times that I realize that teshuvah, or repentance, is possible. Teshuvah, I tell myself, also means return. I can return to health. I can return to a better relationship with others and with God.
And then there is the tekiah, the whole note. These are the times when I feel whole. These are the times when I physically feel well. My relationships with others are pretty good. I feel that most of the time, God really does seem to care about me. Things are going well in my life. I might feel that there is nothing that could be better. I might even feel that there is no need for teshuvah. After all, like the tekiah, I am whole!
But it is precisely at these times, times when one feels blessed and whole, that repentance is also a possibility. In other words, no matter how well I think my life is going, no matter how good my relationships are with others and with God, they can always be better.
This, friends, bring us to the last sound of the shofar, and that it’s the tekiah gedolah, the very long blast. It is only sounded twice. The first time is at the end of all of the various shofar sounds on Rosh HaShanah, and the second is at the end of Neilah, the final service on Yom Kippur. The tekiah gedolah is the sound of vision. It reminds us that where ever we are in our lives at the present moment, things can become better if we are willing to put the necessary effort and work in to make them so.
The tekiah gedolah reminds us that we should never accept the status quo. In my career both as a school administrator and as a senior rabbi, I have always reminded my staff that a school or a congregation that is not striving for improvement is one whose quality and program are becoming worse. There is no such thing as staying where you are, resting on your laurels. One must be on the journey, striving for improvement, and not content to stay where one is. The tekiah gedolah is the sound that reminds us never to be satisfied with what is, but rather to actively seek what ought to be in our lives.
Rabbi Fred Guttman serves Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C.