Life isn’t fair. We’re not all graced with the same skills and talents. Only some of us received the Bracha (blessing) of a strong lip and good lung capacity, giving us the ability to coax a sound out of, and thus elevate to a Mitzvah (a action miraculously binding ourselves with The Creator) a discarded ram’s horn, a Shofar.
Those of us who can function as a בעל תקיעה (Ba’al Tekiah), a Shofar-blower or, more literally, a Master of the Tekiah, the long, pure tone which begins and closes each musical phrase, begin a full month early, on Rosh Chodesh Elul. Those who attend daily morning services also hear the Shofar every day that month, previewing the “real” blowing on Rosh HaShanah itself. Ideally, this month of Shofar builds our inspiration for Tshuvah.
For most people, however, this special sound hasn’t been heard for almost a full year. The entire Rosh HaShanah service is designed to peak with the Shofar service, this unique music whose piercing tones stir us, hopefully inspire us to rededicate our lives to higher purposes, and can remind us that it’s never too late to begin repairing some of the damage we’ve wrought in the previous twelve months. The challenge for daily Shofar blowers, even for occasional blowers who are practicing and rebuilding their embouchure, as well as for daily minyan-goers, is to retain the ability to be moved by the “official” Shofar-blowing on Rosh HaShanah. However, even those of us who hear the Shofar for the first time each year on Rosh HaShanah, often find that staying inspired for the entire Shofar-service can be a challenge. Familiarity, as we all know, breeds if not contempt, at least complaisance.
Commonly, I find two major Shofar styles which discourage our staying focused long enough, the “hunt” and the “flatline”. The first, the “hunt”, approaches the Shofar with raw emotion. Usually sharply rising cries, it’s filled with the drama of a call to battle, a call to chase down the Yetzer Ha’Rah, our perverse, self-destructive instinct to sabotage ourselves, hopefully to fully slay it and leave us pure for the new year. In the hands of a master Ba’al Tekiah this can be very inspiring…..for the first voice or two. But, remembering that each day’s Shofar “quota” ideally contains one hundred blasts, I tire of it quickly.
The second approach, which I call “flatline”, obsesses on mathematical precision. Starting with the shortest note, the Tru’ah, likened to uncontrolled wailing, contains exactly nine very short (1-beat) blasts. The next longest, the Sh’varim, deep sobs, is made of three blasts, each lasting exactly three counts, totaling nine, the same total as the T’ru’ot. Tekiah, the long, deeply moaning sound which begins and ends each line, needs to be at least slightly longer than the total of what it contains, i.e. 9+ for Tekiah Sh’varim Tekiah or Tekiah T’ruah Tekiah, and 18+ for Tekiah Sh’varim T’ruah Tekiah. Tone, melody and feeling are not only not emphasized, but often considered a distraction from the mathematical precision. Personally, I find one hundred of these very dreary.
Shofar has potential far exceeding our emotional response to it. Not only should it motivate us to better our ways, its sounds rise to the highest levels of Sh’mayim where it awakens God, as it were, to pour His אור אין סוף (Or Eyn Sof) Infinite Light into our universe to energize, animate and elevate every corner of existence, to refine all Yisrael and also to receive each of our individual efforts at Tshuvah.
For all that to realize, I want to offer the purest, most beautiful, most spontaneously relevant Shofar voices I can produce. Within the basic halachic guidelines, I otherwise have no preconception of what each should sound like. Every breath, נשימה (Neshima) (obviously related to Neshama, Soul) is unique. It has its own voice, it’s own longings and passions, it’s own song. Rather than trying to model my breath to force the sound, I try to let each breath model its own sound, its own tone, timbre and pitch. I listen to how my breath, passing through the chamber of the hollow Shofar, enters the world of sound. While, of course, there is “only so much” anyone can do within the framework of the 9=3×3=9×1 and all blasts on any Shofar will sound substantially the same, the subtle differences, beyond style, always remain.
How wonderful when the Ba’al Tekiah brings each note, each phrase, to life! We need remember that the Bracha he makes (in all our names) for this Mitzvah is לִשְׁמֽוֹעַ קוֹל שׁוֹפָר (L’Shmo’a Kol Shofar), that we all hear the voice of the Shofar, and not that he, alone, makes them. May that voice be as richly complex, as deeply harmonious, as vibrant and alive as all of our souls together.