This summer, and especially as we start the academic year, I have been thinking about transitions. Three out of four of our children are going through major milestones this year. Our eldest son, who just returned from his gap year in Israel, just started college. Our 17 year old son is now a senior, applying to college and gap year programs, and will be graduating in February. As part of his school’s program, he will then be heading to Israel for three months. Our 14 year old daughter just started high school. And while our youngest daughter (age 12) isn’t going through any major transition, she just started 7th grade and has most definitely been feeling the changes happening around her, as our family continues to adapt to these very natural next stages.
For many, there is joy in second chances and hopes for self-growth, to aspire to be your true self; there is great excitement as you anticipate the potential of what the new year may bring.
As a psychologist, I am constantly working with clients going through key life changes, both joyous ones and painful ones. I am giving support, offering tools, and helping many process and navigate whatever transitions they may face such as starting college, graduating, finding a job, moving, getting married, ending a relationship, mourning the loss of a loved one, becoming a parent, etc. I share with my clients that even the most joyous stages of life are often accompanied by both grief and celebration. When one gets married, they are filled with so much happiness and excitement, yet simultaneously there may be sadness and a grieving of the childhood they are leaving behind, a lost sense of individuality, and/or a shift of identity as they now enter the shared space of marriage. While it’s sometimes easier to put things into black and white categories, the reality is that even positive change comes along with a complexity of emotions that are very real and important to feel and acknowledge.
Similarly, as we experience the Jewish months of Elul and Tishrei, the opportunity for teshuva (repentance), serves as a transition to the Jewish New Year. For many, there is joy in second chances and hopes for self-growth, to aspire to be your true self; there is great excitement as you anticipate the potential of what the new year may bring. But it’s also true that taking the time for self-reflection can invoke deep feelings of sadness for what has been lost and missed.
Every year, during Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate as Hashem is crowned King of the universe and we acknowledge that the mitzvot are for the good of humankind.
Understanding the meaning of the sounds of the shofar that we blow during these months reflects the emotional experience that we often feel during life transitions. There are three different types of noises that are sounded when we blow the shofar: The “tekiah,” a long continuous blast, “shevarim,” three short blasts, and the “teruah,” a set of nine short blasts. The gemara in Rosh Hashana (33b) explains that the shevarim and teruah sounds are meant to sound like crying: “. . . drawing a long sigh. . . uttering short piercing cries.” I recently read an explanation by the Ben Ish Chai that these crying sounds are deliberately meant to contrast with the tekiah. The tekiah, the long blast, is a sound of triumph and joy, reminiscent in the Torah of the coronation of the King. Every year, during Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate as Hashem is crowned King of the universe and we acknowledge that the mitzvot are for the good of humankind. In contrast, according to the gemara, the sounds of the shevarim, which translates as fractured/broken, and the teruah, as explained by the Targum as a “yevavah,” a broken, crying sound, are both sounds of pain.
The shofar gives us permission to grieve, while at the same time, reminds us that we have hope and much to celebrate.
Thus when we hear the shofar, we are meant to be simultaneously holding joy and pain together as we go into the new year. Rather than view this as negative, the sounds of the shofar acknowledge and reflect the complexity of emotions that we feel as human beings as we go through transitions. The shofar gives us permission to grieve, while at the same time, reminds us that we have hope and much to celebrate. It teaches us that we have the ability to anticipate the newness while also recognizing and honoring what has transpired.
As we end the shofar blasts with one long tekiah gedola, may we be reminded that we are whole beings that experience the complexity of human emotion, the loss and the incredible gains at each stage of life.