“If a person heard the sound of the shofar, he has fulfilled his obligation, but if he only heard an indistinct sound, he has not fulfilled his obligation.”
Mishna, Rosh Hashana 3:7
By this time tomorrow, many of us will have heard shofar blasts. Little children will cry. Big kids will stand at attention even though interest in the service may have waned. Adults will hold on to the strong resonances of the shofar’s wail with sounds from the past and possibly associate the sharp, plaintive noise with the past year’s pain. Many of us will view the shofar as the existential wake-up call to energize ourselves for the year ahead.
Even those who may not be particular about prayer during this season often feel a need for this ritual. It is not Rosh Hashana without the shofar’s cry. The mishna above anticipated this and asked if there were certain situations that compromised one’s fulfillment of this command. The mishna starts with an odd situation: a person blowing shofar into a hole into the ground, a pit surrounded by walls or a large earthenware barrel. Maimonides writes that this might have been the case in times of persecution. People in hiding may have to blow shofar in small spaces. Others who hear the sound have fulfilled their obligation to hear shofar only if they hear a clear sound and not the echo of the shofar, the sound as it bounces off the walls of an enclosed space.
Rabbi Pinhas Kehati, modern commentator on the mishna, writes that you fulfill your obligation if, “The sound of the shofar was clear, without any interfering sound or echo.” You have fulfilled this mitzva. But, as the gemara – the exposition on the mishna - later deliberates, one standing outside the pit or the cave cannot be sure if what he or she heard was the shofar or the echo. The echo is not enough to fulfill your obligation.
An echo is an interesting scientific phenomenon. It mimics what is real but does so in a diluted fashion, a reflection of sound waves caused by hitting particular surfaces that create a parallel, repetitive experience of the original sound but are not the sound itself. The reverberation of sound is only a close second, and third and fourth, depending on how long the echo lasts.
A friend of mine, Or, taught me this mishna again in light of repentance rather than pure obligation. The mishna, in essence, is asking us to be the genuine article, not the shadow of it. Teshuva demands our authenticity. You have to hear the shofar, not intimations of it. You have to be present in the moment, not in the reflection of it. You have to embody forgiveness, not merely ask for it. You have to pray, not – as I heard in the name of scholar, Maurice Samuel, read prayers because there is an exponential difference between praying and reading prayers. Reading prayer is an echo off a wall. Praying is an authentic conversation we have with God and sometimes with others and sometimes with ourselves. Anything less is only an echo experience.
Dr. Steve Maraboli, a behavioral psychologist wrote in his book Unapologetically You that:
“Cemeteries are full of unfulfilled dreams... countless echoes of 'could have' and 'should have'… countless books unwritten… countless songs unsung... I want to live my life in such a way that when my body is laid to rest, it will be a well needed rest from a life well lived, a song well sung, a book well written, opportunities well explored, and a love well expressed.”
May this be a year of authenticity, where we live in the present and not in its shadow, where we hear clearly the clarion call of the shofar to seek peace, justice and meaning, and we know the difference between the echo of a life and a life well-lived.
Shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom