Three Sounds

The best-known sound in Jewish tradition is that of the shofar. One long blast is called tekiah. Three short blasts are called shevarim. Nine staccato blasts are called teruah. The blasts are sounded in that order, and the tekiah is then sounded again at the end of the sequence—the single long blast bracketing the other two. What is the significance of repeating this sound?

Wordless Sound

Let’s first talk about why we sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. If we have something to say on this holy day, why don’t we just say it? To trumpet wordless sounds evokes images of cavemen from times when language was nascent and man’s verbal capacity was too limited to convey complex ideas. We now know how to articulate our thoughts in language. So why don’t we?

The fact is that we articulate plenty during these Days of Awe. We stand for hours on end, turning page after page of prayer and plea. But there is a level of emotion that cannot be articulated, a depth beyond words. That chamber can be accessed only through wordless sound.

Every language has an equivalent for the word “ouch.” Yet, no matter which language we speak, when we experience very intense and pervasive pain, we just scream. We don’t say “I am in pain.” We don’t even say “ouch.” Instead, we emit a shout so guttural that it communicates pain beyond words.

The same is true of emotion. Some feelings can be communicated through poetry. Deeper emotions, with a glance. Sometimes emotions are so intense that they evoke tears of joy. Some emotions are so powerful, so deep, that all you can do is sigh and say “Aaaah.”

Then there is the emotion that is beyond articulation. Even wordless sound can’t capture it. That is what we feel on Rosh Hashanah. Our bond with G‑d is so deep, vast and pervasive that no humanly emitted sound does it justice. Instead, we use an instrument. It blasts an opening in our hearts powerful enough to release torrents of deeply held and long-repressed emotions. It blasts an opening in our souls through which untapped yearning for G‑d cascades.

Replenishing the River

There is a metaphor given for this transformative experience: You one day realize that, as a result of ecological and climatic factors, your river has run dry. How do you refill it? You dig for a wellspring. And when you reach it, the water rushes to the surface and refills your river. The river will now run at full force again; perhaps it will be even fuller than before.

Our relationship with G‑d sometimes runs dry. Throughout the year, we don’t notice that the water levels are dipping. There is still plenty of water left in the riverbed, so we don’t take note. But when the river runs dry, we can’t keep lying to ourselves. We have to sit up and take notice.

On Rosh Hashanah, we take a peek at our river and discover that it is dry. We need to replenish the connection, but from what source can we fill ourselves up? We need to find a new source, because the old well has run dry. This is why we dig deep into our souls, to a place that is as yet untapped, a place that is beyond articulation, to tap a new, fresh, hitherto unexperienced connection with G‑d.

In the Holy of Holies

This is why the moment of the shofar sounding is so spiritual and uplifting. We can feel the shofar strum the strings of our soul. We can feel the vibrations deep within, and the stirring release of powerful connections. This is why many Jews who don’t frequent the synagogue throughout the year make a point of attending on Rosh Hashanah. How can we miss it? It is the most meaningful and powerful experience in the repertoire of our tradition.

We stand silently and listen, evoking the memory of the high priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. He too stood silently, breathing not a word. When he stepped out of the Holy of Holies, he chanted a short prayer, but in the room he was silent.

The connection he felt with G‑d in that holy space was indescribable. Beyond words and beyond sound. When he stood there, he was not a private individual. He represented the entire nation. Every soul was within him. And the reverence experienced by him then reverberated to every soul in the nation, especially to those who were present in the Temple at that time.

We don’t have the Temple today, and aren’t able to experience the connection with G‑d that was present then. And though we await its rebuilding every day with the coming of Moshiach, it is not here yet. In the meantime we must make do with an alternative. The closest we can get to that experience is the wordless inarticulate blast of the shofar.

The Repeating Blast

We now return to the repetition of the tekiah, the single long blast. Of the three sounds, the long blast is the least articulate. Though the other sounds are also wordless, they have character. The shevarim is a groan. The teruah is a sob. They communicate a message that tells us what to feel. The tekiah is just a cry. A deep piercing wail that says nothing. It comes from the depths, and has no message beyond a simple “I am here.”

The groaning and sobbing indicate remorse for having allowed our river to run dry. The tekiah is the blast that strikes a wellspring to refill it. The first tekiah is the agonizing cry from our depths. The second tekiah is G‑d’s response from above. Just like our yearning emerges from our depths, G‑d’s response emerges from His depths.

From the straits I call to G‑d; from a vast expanse G‑d responds.1 Our first blast calls out to G‑d from the straits, the deep confined place that has not yet been tapped. The Divine response comes from the celestial wellspring that abounds with love and forgiveness. It is the wellspring that we sought to tap with our blast. The first blast gives voice to our desperation. The second blast gives voice to His answer.

To bring it all together, the sounds of the shofar communicate the following message: Tekiah, we are desperate for G‑d, and yearn for G‑d from our depths. Shevarim and teruah, we are brokenhearted over having allowed our relationship to run dry. Tekiah, G‑d responds with love and says, “Return, My children, return. No matter where you roam, you can always come back home.”2