These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Shofar and God’s Love of Israel

Posted on September 10, 2012 by The Director of Digital Media

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by Rabbi Alex Israel
Cross-posted from his blog Thinking Israel

On the one hand, the cycle of the Jewish year is predictable and familiar: The solemnity of Yom Kippur, the smells and feel of the Sukka and the 4 species, the warmth and intimacy of Hannuka, Purim’s raucous frivolity, the tunes and tastes of Seder night, the lilt of Eikha on the 9th of Av, and so forth. We know what to anticipate, and we look forward to the special atmosphere that each holiday brings.

And yet, each year is unique. Something is happening in my life this year that is different from last year. As individuals, we face new concerns and challenges; our health, our finances, our family undergo change and development. Our insights expand us, new experiences unlock fresh emotions and understanding. Nationally, the challenges of Israel and the Jewish people shift and fluctuate with time. And so, in some way, each year is experienced anew.

And so, looking towards Rosh Hashanna, I found myself seeking an insight that will generate new kavanna, a fresh perspective to inspire the powerful davening experience of the day. I would like to share the following idea which has excited me this year. I hope it will affect you as well.

Parashat Balak records the famous blessings (that might have been curses) uttered by Bilaam. In those blessings Bilaam praises the unique relationship between God and Israel:

לֹא הִבִּיט אָוֶן בְּיַעֲקֹב וְלֹא רָאָה עָמָל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו עִמּוֹ וּתְרוּעַת מֶלֶךְ בּוֹ.

“He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob, Neither has he seen perverseness in Israel; The Lord his God is with him, And the shout of a king is among them.” (Bamidbar 23:21)

This passuk is particularly applicable to Rosh Hashanna as it features in the series of ten pesukim recited in the malkhuyot section of Musaf. On first reading it seems pretty straightforward in expressing God’s love of Israel in that He overlooks our sins and faults. The verse’s four clauses tell us that 1.) God ignores our sins, 2.) He is oblivious to our flaws, moreover 3.) “The Lord God is with him” i.e. with Israel, in other words He actively associates His identity with the Jewish people. But then we have the concluding phrase – “Teruat Melekh” – “and the shout (Terua) of a king is among them” – and this is difficult to understand. What is this “shout” or “fanfare” of the king? And how does it feature in connection with Israel?

Ibn Ezra writes: ותרועת מלך בו: במחנה ישראל וזה ותקעתם תרועה – “The Terua of the king is within him: In the camp of Israel, and this is what is indicated by ‘And they shall sound the Terua.'(Bamidbar 10,5).”

Ibn Ezra is quoting a passuk that describes how trumpets were sounded when the Israelites journeyed in the wilderness. But how is this shofar blast demonstrative of God? In fact, when we read the context in Bamidbar, it seems like a signal, indicating to the throngs of Israel announcing that they would be breaking camp. Why is the pre-travel alarm signal defined as “the Terua of the King?”

Sephorno’s reading offers one line of interpretation:

הם תוקעים תרועה בנסוע המשכן לשמחה שיגילו במלכם –
“They sounded a [trumpet] blast when the Mishkan traveled to express joy, delighting in their King [God].” In other words, this was a “blast of the king” because the Terua sound heralded the movement of the Mishkan, not the nation. This fanfare underscored God’s presence amidst them. Israel’s honor was the fact that God established His earthly residence amongst them, so that even when they journeyed, God’s presence traveled with them.

These commentaries share the interpretation that the verse refers to an actual trumpet blast blown in the camp of Israel. However, this reading creates an imbalance in the passuk as the first 3 clauses refer to God’s action, whereas the 4th clause depicts Israel’s act (of sounding the trumpets.)

The Ramban however reads this phrase as God’s action rather than Israel’s: “ותרועת מלך גבור בו שלא ינוצח לעולם” – “The mighty King’s war-shout (Terua) is amongst them, that they will never be defeated.” In other words, the “Terua” is not a trumpet blast at all, but it refers to the sounds of war. This phrase states that God will ensure Israel’s victory on the battlefield.

But Rashi contributes the most creative and surprising reading:

“ותרועת מלך בו: לשון חבה ורעות כמו רעה דוד אוהב דוד ויתנה למרעהו וכן תרגם אונקלוס ושכינת מלכהון ביניהון” – “A Language of love and friendship, as in ‘The friend of David’ (II Sam 15:37), [and see Judges 15:6]…”

For Rashi, the “Terua” is not a blast of the horn at all, not for travel or in the battlefield. It is a derivative of the word רעות meaning friendship, affection, fondness for a beloved.

For Rashi, the verse as a whole expresses the love between God and Israel whereby, as in a human love-relationship, objectivity is swept aside, flaws are ignored, and closeness and companionship is sought. Rashi’s reading is highly attractive as it remains true to theme:

“He [God] is oblivious to Jacob’s sin, and fails to notice Israel’s errors, The Lord his God is with him, And the love of the king is extended to him [Israel].”

Here the word “Terua” is transformed from a horn blast to a deep emotion of love. If we can apply this to our Rosh Hashanna – the “Yom Terua;” God commands us to sound the Shofar, but that very word, and hence that gesture is symbolic and expressive of God’s friendship and love towards Israel. Traditionally, the Terua instills a sense of dread, a feeling of fear. At Mt. Sinai, the people heard the shofar and trembled. And yet we are proposing a model which is the polar opposite. We sound a fanfare to God, but in truth God is giving us the Terua – a gift of love – which is a divine opportunity to celebrate the special relationship, the eternal love of God for His nation. And as we blow the Shofar of God’s devotion and affection, we hope that God, in his love, will overlook the sins of Israel.