There are many styles and approaches to blowing the Shofar, the ram’s horn “trumpet” whose sound so characterizes Rosh HaShanah that the day is even referred to as Yom Teruah, the Day of Teruah, one of the required “cries”. Some people strive for a strident sound, reminiscent of a call to battle. Others try to emphasize the distinction between the Tekiah, a single, urgent, at times triumphant, call and the other two, Shevarim (literally “broken”, comprising three separate notes) and Teruah (comprising nine (or at least nine according to some interpretations) short blasts), both intended to point towards crying. Some people emphasize the exact mathematical values of each note, Tekiah having nine, Shevarim having three notes each of three beat duration, Teruah having nine separate notes, each lasting one beat (technically, each Tekiah should last for at least the same amount of time as the blasts in-between, but further technical details, while important, are not the subject at this time), all pointing to the significance the number nine has in our tradition. Some people aim for a strict, almost flat tone, others for an inspiring one, some for a high pitch, others for a low one. There are authorities who insist on a single, continuous pitch while others don’t seem to care. None of these are any more correct than the others.
Those of us who have been inspired to learn this art, have been forced by circumstance of leadership to learn this art or those, like me, who had the opportunity to play a brass instrument as a child, begin practicing daily, except Shabbat, beginning Rosh Chodesh Elul, exactly one month before Rosh HaShanah. (Actually, our practice is a side-benefit as the real reason for this daily sounding (even though it can have the effect of lessening the impact we might experience hearing it for the very first time only on Rosh HaShanah itself), is to remind us to ramp up our tshuva (return/repentence/self-examination/course-correction) processes in preparation for the holy days.)
I noticed just today, less than a week before Rosh HaShanah, that my own aim this year, again no better nor more worthy than any other approach, has been to achieve the most beautiful sound I can. One of my major tshuva goals this year, and we can (and should) have many (they really aren’t mutually-exclusive, but rather multi-approached) is, even in the moments of my greatest disappointments and pain (and we can be assured that each of us will experience moments like that in this coming year), to find the beauty, bittersweet as it may be.
My late painting teacher, Dr. Hisashi Ohta, at the time Living National Treasure of Japan in sumi-e (black ink on rice paper painting) and one of the two most spiritually inspiring people I’ve known (the other being Rabbi Shloime Twerski zt”l) filled me with the mantra, “Beauty is not always sweet”. Our own tradition states it in another way, one we recite several times daily, מלא כל הארץ כבודו, M’lo Kol Ha’Aretz K’vodo, (God) fills the entire world with His Presence.
I try to remind myself and those who fulfill this mitzva listening to my shofar that both in moments where it’s easy to see the beauty shine through and also at the times of our greatest pain and despair, God is always right here.