A few years ago, after decades of sounding shofar, I started to understand that the mission, the task of the ba'al tekiah—the sounder of the horn—is not to perform these ancient notes, but to offer them to the congregation as a prayer. It requires developing the appropriate kavanah—reverent intention. I spend the entire month of Elul developing that intention by sounding the horn after my morning meditation, reading Psalm 27, etc. On Rosh Hashanah morning, with chant and meditation and prayer, I go more deeply into that spiritual territory. My objective is to become a conduit for the breath of God, to reproduce the ancestral vibrations that may awaken the souls of the listeners and open the gates of heaven to receive their prayers, and to avoid just standing up there “tooting my own horn.” When I manage to achieve some measure of success in this mission, I experience the most spiritual moment of my entire year. The irony is that this pinnacle of spirituality comes on the very first day of the year, which means it's all downhill from there.
A few days ago, I was speaking with my chevruta partner—my spiritual study buddy—and in the course of the conversation, I gained a fresh perspective. I saw this as analogous to how each of us enters the world a pure soul, and then spends the rest of our life trying to recapture that essence. I get a taste of this quest every year. From the moment when the last strain of the Tekiah Gedolah twists out of the horn, I begin anew this annual and lifelong pursuit of deep spiritual connection.
During the shofar service every Rosh Hashanah, I stand next to the rabbi and wait for him to chant the name of each call. I do my best to respond with the prescribed notes, but I’m never entirely sure of how it will sound. I do as much as I can with my lips and lungs to produce the proper vibrations. Of greater importance is what I do with my kavanah.
When the tones issue forth from the horn, I am a listener as much as anyone else in the sanctuary. Sometimes, the sounds are round and true, even melodious. Other times, they are jagged, bleating blasts sounding more like cries or the tremulous alarums they are intended to be. I have learned to embrace whatever I hear in those sacred moments, to marvel in their plaintive beauty or their harsh harangue, their unvarnished demonstration of mastery one second and of struggle the next. As a mortal channel for a divine message, I am aware of my imperfections and forgive them even as I aspire to overcome them. The medium is the message.
This year, in addition to the preparation that I described above, I was affected by what our rabbi had to say just before I ascended the bimah. He recounted to the congregation a poignant story that I had shared with him earlier in the summer. It was about my father and an encounter he had with an Israeli guide who later gave him the shofar that I have sounded for over half a century. The rabbi’s words heightened my emotional and spiritual connection to the imminent sacred task.
In years past, as I stood before the congregation, I would see hundreds of faces in eager anticipation. I would gaze upon friends and family and many strangers as well. This year, I didn't see anyone. Aside from a few moments when I glanced at the prayerbook to recite the ritual blessings, my eyes were closed. I was clinging to the fragile kavanah I had built. I was there to serve the congregation, but I felt a need to do so from within my personal tabernacle. (Some ba’alim tekiah actually pull their tallesim—prayer shawls—over their heads to completely hide their faces.) At the conclusion of the final climatic call, as the last bit of air flowed through the horn and out to the unseen and infinite space beyond me, I instinctively lowered my head and my gaze. I was too spent to visually connect with anyone in that moment.
I managed to kiss my wife and daughter, who remained beside me after they had led the congregation in a pre-shofar reading. Then, I shook the rabbi's hand and carefully stepped down from the bimah, making as little eye contact and shaking as few additional hands as possible on the way to my seat. People naturally wanted to offer words of appreciation, and while my ego is still alive and well and interested in that kind of praise, the rest of me just wanted to sit in the pew in relative isolation.
The service continued as I sat there with my eyes closed, reaping the harvest of a year, a month, and a morning of intense spiritual seeking. And then I felt a tear. And then another. And before I knew it I was feeling the cleansing, healing, embracing warmth of a good cry. Where did this come from? Was it relief? Was it grief? Was it sadness at leaving the year's ultimate spiritual moment behind me? It was all of those and, no doubt, much more.
Upon reflection, rather than becoming mired in thought about the inevitable descent that follows a peak experience, it’s much more uplifting to be grateful for receiving this holy infusion in the first place, and to accept the challenge of sustaining it as best I can. With proper care and nourishment, may it be enough spiritual fuel to last the year.