The musaf prayer of Rosh Hashana is the longest of the year — in contrast to every other musaf which has seven blessings, the musaf of Rosh Hashana contains nine – the first three and the last three are standard (other than the fact that the third bracha regarding G-d’s sanctity is expanded to several paragraphs and ends in Ha’Malech Hakadosh – the Holy King rather than the “Holy G-d.”) Each of the middle three berachot focuses on a discrete theme:

(1) Malchiyut – G-d’s kingship;
(2) Zichronot – G-d’s remembering and judging our past behavior but recalling also the merit of our avot and His covenant with the Jewish people;
(3) Shofarot – the idea of shofar as a precursor to revelation (matan Torah) and ultimately redemption (Mashiach).

Each of these special berachot follows a uniform format — a peticha: a poetic introduction setting out the grand theme of the blessing; the recitation of 10 Biblical verses – three from Torah, three from the Prophets, three from the Writings, concluding with one extra from the Torah; and a chatima – a conclusion which once again reiterates and amplifies the bracha’s central theme. At the conclusion of each of these special sections, the shofar is blown. (According to Nusach Sefard, the shofar is blown both in the silent amidah and in its repetition by the Chazan; according to the Ashkenazic rite, only in the repetition).

The Maharsha explains that each section of the musaf is designed to reaffirm a central tenet of our faith. Malchiyot affirms G-d’s role as creator of the world; zichronot – G-d’s intervention into the affairs of man ultimately rewarding good and punishing evil; shofarot – the principle that “good” and “evil” are not left to idiosyncratic definition but are determined by revealed truth – matan Torah.

These tefillot thus involve rededicating and recommitting to the centrality of Hakadosh Boruch Hu and His Torah to our daily lives. On the anniversary of the Creation of Adam 5657 years ago, we stand up and proclaim our allegiance to our Creator.

The end of the bracha of shofarot contains an intriguing redundancy: “For You hear [“shomay’ah”] the voice of the shofar and harken [“ma’azin] to the teruah [the quivering sounds of the shofar] and none is like You. Blessed art You, Hashem, who hears [“shomay’ah”] the voice of the shofar of His people Israel with compassion.”

What is the difference between “hearing” and “harkening”? Why the dichotomy between “the voice of the shofar” and “teruah,” coupling “shofar” with the verb hear and “teruah” with harken? If, for whatever reason, harken should be coupled with teruah, why does the bracha end by combining teruah with “hearing”?

The Pri Megadim offers the following explanation: the various sounds of the shofar represent the Jewish soul – the breath of the Divine spirit that animates the body. The tekiah sound – straight, unwavering, confident, and strong – represents the pristine holiness of the saint who has never sinned, the tzadik gamur. The broken, wavering tremors of shevarim and teruah represent the sinner who has initially become distanced from G-d but through repentance and prayer (the cries of a broken heart) seeks to reestablish the connection.

Thus, tekiah (the long sound) = tzadik gamur (perfectly righteous); shevarim/teruah (the broken sounds) = the baal teshuva (the person who has strayed but seeks reunification).

In Hebrew, the verb “shma” (hear) connotes listening to someone who is immediately adjacent. Le’haazin (harken) connotes listening from a distance, thereby necessitating moving one’s ear closer to be able to hear.

Based on these two assumptions, the text of the bracha is now clear:

1. You hear (“shma”) the voice of the shofar: G-d, You are always near to the righteous who serve You and love You with all their hearts.

2. But even with respect to those broken souls who have rejected and despised You, creating distance from You, You nevertheless turn your ear towards them trying to pick up any little hint of repentance and remorse. And in Your love for even those who have gone astray, there is no one comparable. Thus, ma’azin teruah – You endeavor to pick up the crying of the heart from a distance.

3. And when such teshuva is attained, Your love for the baal teshuva creates a closeness (hence, the final use of the verb “shma”) no less than that G-d has for the righteous and indeed, according to Chazal, may even be greater.

In essence, the bracha graphically paints a portrait of initial distance, G-d’s yearning for our closeness, our responding to His needs, and eventually achieving that closeness (which is the symbolism of the straight tekiah that follows the shevarim and teruah).

The shofar is the cry of the heart – recalling the purity of our beginnings, the disintegration of our pristine selves, the process of teshuvah, and the culmination of rectification. It is a prayer without words for words are both inadequate and unnecessary – it is the expression of the essence of a Jew who, no matter how far he may have gone, remains the beloved child of G-d.

This season is indeed one of introspection, soul searching, and resolution but lest we fall into disillusionment and despair, let us also remember that there is no time of year when G-d’s love is so palpable and accessible, when His yearning for us so great, where every little move towards Him on our part will be reciprocated many times over. Where, as Chazal say, if we open up no larger than the eye of a needle, He will open up to us like the doors of the Bait HaMikdash.

The shofar is described as eliciting a favorable remembrance from G-d but it does so by effecting transformations within ourselves. May we merit to respond to its call.

L’Shana Tova Tikatevu V’Tichateimu

May all of us be written and inscribed in the Book of Life together with all of K’llal Yisrael.