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Home » Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah: The Shofar – Humility and Strength

Submitted by on August 14, 2009 – 8:33 pmNo Comment | 3,039 views

Three Blasts

On the holiday of Rosh Hashanah we sound three variations of Shofar blasts. tekiah, a long blast, shevarim and teruah, variations of short blasts. Each set of blasts begins with a tekiah, followed by a shevarim or teruah, and concludes with a tekiah. The shevarim and teruah are thus always bracketed by a tekiah. The order of these blasts is curious. The Tekiah, a powerful long blast, implies an assertiveness that brooks no resistance. The shevarim and teruah, meek sobbing sounds, imply humility and weakness. Teruah and shevarim make perfect sense on the Day of Judgment when we reject egocentric assertiveness and strive for humble submission. The question is why do we sound the tekiah?

Who Is Humble?

It was toward the end of Yom Kippur; the sun was about to set. It had been an uplifting day of devotion and prayer when a remarkable event occurred. The venerable Rabbi, physically spent but spiritually elated, rose on trembling legs and cried out, “Dear G-d, I am but nothing.” With that he fell to the floor in humble submission. Not to be outdone, the cantor rose from his lofty perch and echoed the declaration. “Dear G-d, who am I before thee? I am, but a nothing.” A hush fell over the inspired congregation at the sight of holy men in prostrated rapture. From the back of the Shull came the raspy voice of a simple tailor, who also rose and cried, “Dear G-d, help me for I too am a nothing.”

The aged Rabbi lifted his holy visage and marveled, “”Look who thinks he is a nothing.”

Humility and Lowliness

You cannot be humble without having something to be humble about. To declare yourself a nothing when you are indeed without merit is not a compliment; it is a sad truth. This is not humility, it is lowliness and there is a difference. The humble person sets himself aside despite his greatness; the lowly person sits on the side because he has no greatness.

Before nurturing humility we must first nurture greatness. We must grow in our spirituality and Torah knowledge. We must devote ourselves to the worship of G-d and to the betterment of our world. We must dedicate ourselves to the study of Torah and the practice of the commandments. This is why we begin with the tekiah, the sound of confidence and exalted achievement.

It is only after we have earned the title scholar or saint that we are challenged not to take ourselves too seriously. We must remember that our objective is to serve G-d rather than to accumulate merit or prestige. We must remember that our talents are bestowed on us by G-d for which reason G-d alone can claim credit for our achievements. This is why the tekiah is followed by the humble teruah.

However we cannot stop with teruah. Though the posture of humble prostration evokes an admirable sense of reverent supplication, G-d does not expect us to cast everything aside and focus solely on our own insignificance. We cannot properly serve G-d through humility alone; our mission often calls for self assertion. For example, when standing up to our detractors our mission requires that we speak with confidence and authority. This is why we conclude with tekiah.

But can the humble assert themselves? Talk to any low level bureaucrat and you will have your answer.

The Arrogant Bureaucrat

Have you ever found yourself embroiled in an insane argument with a bureaucrat whose only purpose is to demonstrate his authority? You know that it is within his authority to grant your wish and if you could only talk to his supervisor your wish would be granted in an instant. But this bureaucrat won’t hear of it because saying no inflates his own sense of importance.

Contrast that with the bureaucrat who really wants to help; the one who will bend over backward for you and grant your wish in a heartbeat. This bureaucrat is not power hungry; he genuinely wants to assist. (1) He does not wield authority but his words are certainly authoritative. His voice is pleasant and humble; he aims to please. But he is also assertive; when the answer is truly no, he speaks with authority.

Yet such authority is not abrasive; it does not leave you feeling abused. Because the authority he wields is not his own, it belongs to the bureau. We all accept that the bureau is authoritative, what rubs us the wrong way is when bureaucrats don the authority of their bureau and wield it with arrogance. The kind, compassionate bureaucrat does not assert himself; he represents the bureau. This is why his authority is accepted when it is asserted.

This is the assertiveness of the humble. Once we succeed in viewing ourselves through the framework of humility we are authorized to assert ourselves again. This time it is not our ego that we assert, but the honor of G-d. It is not our own strength that we project, but the might and glory of G-d. This is why the nature of the assertive tekiah to which we return after the humble shevarim.

We thus have a three step ladder. It begins with achievement of, scholarship and piety. Once we have risen to the heights of such greatness it is important to surrender our ego and embrace our insignificance. Then, through the framework of humility it is crucial that we stand up again and assert ourselves on behalf of our mission and cause. (2)

The Shofar

Life begins with tekiah, an inflated sense of self importance. Hard work brings us to the soft sounds of teruah, the difficult recognition of our own insignificance. From there we return to tekiah and actually conclude with it. Because humility that leaves you prostrated and impotent leads only to weakness. True humility leads to assertiveness in the name of G-d. We thus conclude with tekiah, the blast of confidence and power. (3)

Questions For Further Discussion

Are the Shofar sounds truly a transformational experience and if not what can you do to make it so?
Have you ever mastered the balance of humble assertiveness? What is the trick?
Of the three mindsets in this article which is easiest, which is hardest and which is most rewarding?

Your comments are invited in response


  1. This is not the usual image we conjure up when we
    think of a bureaucrat, but we know these creatures exist. We have all
    had the good fortune to run into them.
  2. “Yehudah Ben Teima would say: Be bold as a
    leopard, light as an eagle, fleeting as a deer and mighty as a lion to
    do the will of your Father in Heaven.” (Ethics of Our Fathers 5:20.)
    This statement appears to include contradictory elements. Light and
    fleeting are characteristic of humility; bold and mighty are
    characteristic of assertiveness. Yet the last section of the statement
    brings the two elements together. As explained in the essay, in the
    service of our father in heaven we are meant to be humble, but that
    very service also summons us to bold strength. It is not our own
    strength that we project, but that of G-d.
  3. Adapted from Shem Mishmuel, Rosh Hashanah, 5678.

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