A leadership journey via the blasts of the Shofar

Rosh Hashana 5779/September 2018

One of the ritual highlights of Rosh Hashanah is the blowing of the shofar. which serves as a wake-up reminder, a spiritual alarm clock, for us to take stock of our past season and to re-engage with our heritage, religion, and community. With its familiar blasts, the shofar reminds us of the conscious and manifest relationship that we have with Gd. It is our symbol of teshuva (repentance); will herald in the Messiah; and it is even the blast heard when in 1967, our Israeli soldiers reunified Jerusalem. The shofar says to the world “I am a Jew and I unabashedly call out to Gd.” There is a set rhythm to the shofar that brings comfort with its familiarity; blast after blast, grouping of blasts after grouping of blasts; following the proscribed pattern of tekiah, shevarim and teruah totaling one hundred notes in all.

And yet, while we are very familiar with the sounds of the shofar, we don’t often think about what these sounds represent. There are three distinct notes that comprise this musical service: First we encounter the tekiah which is a strong initial blast; followed by three medium length notes of shevarim; and finally, a series of short teruah sounds. This pattern is repeated throughout the prayer service.

Breaking down the Hebrew meaning behind each of these terms can help us gain insights into the season of reflection. The word tekiah stems from the Hebrew word, תקע which means to be firmly planted. At the outset of the High Holiday season, we all feel the tekiah pulsating inside of us: strong, rooted, upright and self-assured, certain that we will come out after Yom Kippur unscathed. We coast into Rosh Hashana feeling confident, in a tekiah mood, we are safe and assured another year of blessings and success is upon us.

As the liturgical readings begin to penetrate our external selves, we start to contemplate that Rosh HaShana is not simply a day of Happy New Year, it is also the beginning of the Days of Awe. The moment of reflection is upon us and our self-assurance begins to ebb away. The strong tekiah yields to the next set of shofar notes, the shevarim from the Hebrew word, שבר , broken. One strong, single blast has fragmented into three medium ones. And yet, while our stature has weakened and our tekiah has been replaced by three shevarim pauses, there is still some coherent connection from one blast, from one moment, to the next. It is during these pauses that reflection can begin.

Finally, the last set of blasts, teruah, is comprised of short, barely discernible and rapid sounds. From the Hebrew word רעועַ – meaning shaky, this set depicts us as shattered. Far removed from the tekiah blast, we can barely eke out a perceptible sound. The confidence and hubris that emboldened us at the outset of the High Holiday period has dissolved into a moment of crisis and reflection. Gone are the formidable and notable tekiah and shevarim blasts. We are left with tiny markers, suggestive of a shocked person gasping for air.

Every Rosh HaShana, the moment of judgement and honest reflection is upon us; a time when we need to contemplate our lot. We audit the past year: how did we comport ourselves and how did we interact with others? The book of life is open and with it, a portal into our souls is opened through the strength of the tekiah, broken into by the shevarim and left raw and vulnerable as we cry out with the teruah.

This cycle of the shofar is suggestive of a path to healthy leadership as well. We, as leaders, often start off strong with full confidence that our path of change is correct, similar to a tekiah mindset. We launch bold initiatives and bravely forge ahead with a vision for our year ahead. As we begin to be faced with the challenges of implementation, we realize that leading change is neither quick, nor easy, but, like the brokenness of shevarim, patience and pause can help settle us down. Ultimately, a humble and effective leader recognizes that only painstaking attention to detail, reminiscent of the traces of teruah, is where true everlasting change can occur. This is the cycle of change through leadership. It takes patience. It takes repetitiveness. It takes honesty. And it takes humility. It takes a willingness to allow the shofar notes to enter our core. Once done, we repeat the cycle of reflection to rebuild our upward path of Teshuvah. A strong opening, a breaking apart, and an outcry.

In the end, when we have put everything on the table; when we have emptied our pockets of all the crumbs we had brought with us when we first entered the sanctuary, we conclude the shofar service with a tekiah gedolah (the great tekiah). While we began with confidence and strength with a strong tekiah, we end with renewed energy that can carry us to even greater heights. Great is teshuvah that not only recharges us, it emboldens us to face a new year stronger than we ended the last. May we all embrace the shofar service with a sense of openness, transformation, and ultimately tekiah gedolah growth that elevates us all during the year ahead.

Shana Tova!

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Israel is in his twenty-third year as a Hillel Executive Director. Since 2003, he has been at the University of Maryland after spending seven years at the Rochester, NY area Hillels. In addition to Rabbinic ordination, Ari has Masters Degrees in Medieval Jewish History as well as Secondary Education. Ari is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, teaching a Jewish Leadership Class, taught for the Melton mini-school for ten years and is currently the Judaics faculty member for the ACHARAI Leadership Institute in Baltimore, MD. He is married to Suzy and they have six children residing in Silver Spring, MD.
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