Finding Our True Selves

I once swallowed a toothpick.

As crazy at that sounds, it actually happened. I’m not sure if it was tucked inside a sliced turkey wrap or hidden inside of a pastrami sandwich, but somehow, six years ago, I swallowed a toothpick without realizing it. What followed was anything but funny and took weeks to unravel. I went to the doctor with flu-like symptoms, only to find out after ten days that I had a liver abscess. I spent a week in the hospital, underwent a minimally invasive procedure (which was probably the most painful experience of my life), and spent another month receiving IV antibiotics at home. For some time, the cause of the abscess remained a mystery. Although it wasn’t much consolation for me while I was in the hospital, I was something of a minor medical celebrity, as physicians attempted to explain how a healthy twenty-five-year-old could wind up with a liver infection. Eventually, they discovered the cause. A relatively innocuous looking toothpick had perforated the lining of my stomach and allowed bacteria to escape and infect my liver, causing the abscess.

My time in the hospital provided me with time to reflect, perhaps too much time, on who I was and what I was doing. But despite having all this free-time on my hands I found it difficult to pray for any great length of time. It didn’t matter if it was the fixed liturgy of the siddur or a prayer from the heart. I found myself moving quickly through the shemoneh esreh, and when I turned to God with my own tefillot they came only in short bursts. “Please God heal me”, I said, or “Please God don’t let me die.” My inability to pray for any great length of time stuck with me, and it continued to bother me even after I got out of the hospital. There I was, a rabbinical student, in the hospital, at a moment of weakness and uncertainty, and I found myself struggling to turn to God, to truly pray, for anything than longer than the briefest of moments. Several weeks after I got out of the hospital I was recounting this experience to a friend of mine and he pointed me to a story that appears in Sefer Bamidbar.

There Moshe faces a series of challenges to his leadership and authority. But perhaps none was as personal and cut as deep as the one from his own siblings, Aaron and Miriam. When Aaron and Miriam question Moshe’s uniqueness as a leader, the punishment is swift and dramatic. Miriam becomes afflicted with tzaarat, a skin disease. When Moshe saw what had occurred he uttered a prayer that stands out for its simplicity and brevity. Moshe cried out, “Please, God! Heal her!” At first glance Moshe’s prayer seems somewhat surprising, elsewhere in the Torah he prays at length on behalf of the Jewish people. Yet, here, at the moment of his own sister’s illness, Moshe appears to lack these words and instead he can only utter a simple request.

A Midrash explains that were Moshe to have prayed for a long period of time, the Jewish people would have asked how he could pray at length when his own sister was sick. This answer seems only to confuse things further. What would have been wrong with Moshe turning to God at this moment, and praying at length for his sister’s wellbeing?

The Gemara’s discussion about the unique nature of the shofar, and the halachot that follow from it, may offer us some insight. In the times of the Beit HaMikdash, the shofar was not the only item that was sounded on Rosh Hashana, trumpets were sounded as well. The Gemara tells us the trumpets were made of silver. The sound then that they produced was in some way artificial, it emerged only because the silver had been mined, melted, and formed. Both its interior and exterior finishes reflected the fact that they were used as part of a sacred service. The shofar by contrast cannot be too refined. “If one coated a shofar with gold on the inside – it is unfit to be used.” The Gemara tells us. “If the coating is outside, then if the sound is different from what it was-it is unfit, if not – it is fit.” If the sound that emerges from a shofar is in anyway artificial, it cannot be used to perform the mitzva. Only a shofar that is unaffected by an external coating, can be sounded on Rosh Hashana. The emphasis on hearing a pure unadulterated sound on Rosh Hashana is echoed by a Mishnah “The shofar of Rosh Hashana…Its mouth is to be coated on the outside in gold, and there are to be two trumpets, [one] on each side [of it]. The shofar [blast] is to be long and the trumpet [blast] is to be short, since the commandment of the day is with a shofar.”

As we all know, and are about to observe, the central mitzva of Rosh Hashana is to sound the shofar. The trumpets for all their grandeur and important status cannot in any way be allowed to detract from the sound of the shofar. But what is so important about hearing the natural sound of the shofar? What, if anything, is this mitzva attempting to convey?

There is a fascinating debate amongst the rabbinic commentators concerning the blowing of the shofar. With how many breaths should the note of shevarim-terua be sounded? According to one opinion it should be produced like all the other blasts with only one breath. However, according to Rabbeinu Tam and others it should be made with two breaths, because the blast of shevarim-terua is meant to recall the sound of a person groaning and then crying, and one certainly doesn’t groan and cry all in one breath. As a matter of practical halacha, today we will follow both opinions. In the first set of blasts, those we are about to hear, our Baal Tokea will use only one breath while sounding shevarim-terua and later when the shofar is sounded again he will use two. But perhaps more importantly, the central feature of this debate is about how performative and how artificial the sounding of the shofar should or should not be. For Rabbeinu Tam sounding the shofar is not like playing a musical instrument, the sound that emerges from it must be reflective of our true voice. Just as the Gemara taught the sound of the shofar cannot be in any way artificial, nor can it be overshadowed by any artificial instrument, so too Rabbeinu Tam argued the way in which we sound the shofar cannot be artificial, it must reflect the way we really cry, and the way we really are.

When Moshe was praying for the Jewish people, he was not simply praying for them. He was acting performatively. As a leader, and as a prophet. The Jewish people had to see, that he was praying at length for them, even if a shorter prayer would have been sufficient. This was necessary in the moment. But when it came time to pray for his sister, there could be no performance. He could only utter the shortest most heartfelt prayer. This is the essence of what the shofar teaches us, and it reminds us of what Rosh Hashana is truly about.

Psychoanalysts often talk of two selves within each of us, an authentic self and a superficial one. The superficial self, the performative self, is the one we use most of the time. This is not a bad thing, it enables to us to manage our emotions and work with other people. But it also can lead us to think too much about other people’s expectations, too much about what we think we are “supposed” to do. In contrast, our authentic self is as Billy Joel, expressed it, the “…face, That we hide away forever, And we take them out, And show ourselves when everyone has gone.” We keep this part of ourselves, the part that often holds our deepest feelings, believes, opinions, and worries hidden. In the best-case scenario, we can move seamlessly between our authentic self and superficial one, our inner self and outer self as needed. But all too often we keep our inner self hidden for too long, so that we lose sight of it completely. On Rosh Hashana, it is our inner self that God is looking for. The inner self is the pure sound of the shofar without any veneer, glossy coating, or trumpets. The authentic self is the five-word prayer that Moshe uttered for his sister Miriam. May the sounds of the shofar remind us of our true selves; may we learn in this coming year to allow our inner self to govern our outer self and not the other way around; and may this be a year of health, happiness, and peace, for us and the entire Jewish people.

About the Author
Noah Leavitt has an MA in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University. He received smicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
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