by William Kolbrener
The Rosh Hashana musaf prayer is the longest prayer in the liturgical cycle. In addition to the sections of the t’filah which characterize the other prayers from the High Holidays, there are three separate sections devoted to Kingship, Remembrance and the Blasts of the Shofar.
The section of kingship begins with our obligation to “acknowledge our thanks before the King who reigns over kings,” emphasizing the primary theme of the day: our bestowing of malchus—Kingship—on Gd. The section of remembrance begins with Gd’s remembrance of the entire created world (and all of history) and our imprecations that he remembers—true to theme—his covenant with his people. The third section on shofar begins:
You were revealed in your cloud of glory to Your holy people to speak with them. From the heavens You made them hear your voice and revealed Yourself to them in the thick clouds of purity… Moreover, the entire universe shuddered before You and the creatures of creation trembled before You during your revelation, our King, on Mount Sinai, to teach Your People Torah and commandments. You made them hear the majesty of Your voice and Your holy utterances from fiery flames.
The revelation of Mount Sinai was accompanied by the sound of the shofar; but why does the section on shofar blasts emphasize the aspect of Gd who reveals himself? Why is revelation central to the section on shofar?
A second set of questions: right before the end of the blessing, the prayer reads: “For you hear the voice of the shofar and you give ear to the teruah (the shofar blast), and none is comparable to you.” Why does the blessing emphasize that Gd hears the sound of the shofar? Rambam writes that the shofar is to arouse us to repentance, to awaken us from the slumber of habit and draw us close to our Creator. So why should the blessing emphasize that Gd listens to the sound of the shofar; shouldn’t it emphasize rather that the people of Israel hear the voice of the shofar? Why on earth does Gd need to hear the shofar? And further, why should the blessing conclude with “no one is comparable to you.” Jews are monotheists; Gd is singular. Such singularity is suddenly news to us?; there is no one like you Gd! Don’t we know that already? We don’t find other blessings mentioning Gd’s uniqueness. Why here?
At the end of the prayer services on both days of the holiday, there are several requests. One is: Hayom Tidreshenu La tova: Today seek us out for good. That is, we ask Gd not only to seek good for us, but we ask him to seek for the good in us. Seek out the good in us which other people don’t know; seek out the good in us about which we don’t know! Gd, as the blessing of Remembrance reads, finds Ephraim to be his ben hayakir, his most precious son, his yeled sha’shu’im, his most delightful child. But Ephraim was also the most wayward son, the one who worshipped idols; yet Hashem finds him to be the most precious! Gd yearns for Ephraim, as the prayer reads, with “his inner self” (literally his innards): Gd’s own internal desire, as it were, is for us to reveal our internal voices. We implore Gd during the year, but especially during the ten days of repentance from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur: shma koleinu! Hear our voices! Hear our authentic voices! Attend to the voice which gets lost in our daily routines—lost to others, lost even to ourselves.
We want Gd to hear our voice or kol, so we listen on Rosh Hashana to the kol shofar the voice of the shofar. This shofar is the instrument of revelation, associated with the revelation of Mount Sinai, but it is also associated with the day of creation of Man and Gd’s first anointment as King, as well as the End of Days, when the final great shofar blast will signal the full and ultimate revelation to all of humanity. God reveals himself with—and through—the blasts of the shofar. In the Talmud, the shofar, though merely an object is associated with the internal depths of man: ha shofar c’bfnim dami: the most sacred inner sanctum of man, the means by which we attend to Gd’s revelatory voice and draw close to him. Rosh Hashana is not only a day commemorating Gd’s revelation in history, it is a day of self-revelation, the revelation of our inner selves for which Gd yearns.
On Rosh Hashana, Gd hears the shofar, and He knows that through the shofar we are trying to connect to Him, to rouse ourselves from our slumber—to reveal our own voices. Shma Kolainu: Hear our Voices! Find in us that authentic voice which we have forgotten. Only after we have found this voice, the primal force that connects us to our Creator, can we begin the process of tshuva. First the voice, then articulate speech. First shofar, then the vidui or confession. First Rosh Hashana, then Yom Kippur.
This is the Uniqueness of Gd—emphasized in the prayer: “there is none like You.” He is the one who hears our attempts to connect to him through tshuva. There is no need for some mediator or sacrificial agent in order for our repentance to be accepted: Gd is the one who hears us and accepts our prayers. The shofar blasts call out: remember our authentic selves, even if we have forgotten! Shma Kolainu: hear our voice; help us remember who we are…
In these days before Yom Kippur, may we be blessed to find our true voices.
Dr William Kolbrener is Associate Professor of English at Bar-Ilan University. He is a frequent contributor to Orthodox journals such as Tradition and Jewish Action. This is his first appearance on Cross-Currents