Although I was raised in a modern-Orthodox Jewish home and my parents sent me to a Jewish day school through high school, I do not consider myself “religious.”
After years of being forced to attend prayer services, it’s not something that really holds my attention. I have my own practices and rituals for communicating with the Divine, in my way.
I attend synagogue infrequently — mostly on the high holidays and other special occasions. When I do attend, I’m always amazed by how many people talk throughout the service.
Around me, most people talk to each other in hushed murmurs, trying to avoid the cutting glares of the “talking police” that sit among us. Occasionally, the Rabbi will get up at the pulpit and appeal for silence, or the cantor will stop and wait for silence. But the chattering resumes almost immediately.
There is only one thing that truly brings a silence into the room: the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashana. The moment the first long sound — the tekiya — emanates from the shofar, the room falls silent. The shofar’s sound pierces the room and cuts through the noise.
It is as if the world stops.
The Sound of Silence
Simon and Garfunkel famously wrote and sang about the “sound of silence.”
These are the thoughts and voices of the mind that fill the empty space. Our fear of these sounds and the messages they bring are the reason we resist pausing and creating space for reflection. What noise emerges in the emptiness, what arises to fill the void?
In meditation practice, it is common to lose focus on the breath as the mind wanders off to follow the thoughts. We might use a bell to help us “return” to the breath and refocus. That bell works because we are already in a place of stillness. We are listening for it.
The Silence of Sound
As I listened in awe to the sound of the shofar today, I noticed how it cut through the white noise of idle chatter. It occurred to me that this was the silence of sound.
The sound was so clear, so piercing that it cut through the white noise and idle chatter of the people around me. It command full attention, first to its sustained wail and then to the vibrations within that resonated with its frequency.
The great sage Maimonides described the shofar’s sound as a call from God, as if to say,
Wake up, sleepers, from your sleep, and slumberers wake from your slumbers. Examine your deeds and turn in teshuva. Remember your Creator, you who forget the truth in the vanities of time, spending the year in vanity and emptiness that neither helps nor saves. Look to your souls and improve your ways and deeds.
Creating Space to Listen
We often expect a call to action to have a flashing “click here” button and arrows pointing to it. It makes sense that we would think of the sound of the shofar as the call to action. But when it comes to the soul, the call to action more often comes in the form of a “still, small, voice” — the voice of the heart.
Our challenge is that we often don’t hear it. We cannot hear this voice amidst the noise of the hustle, the cacophony of daily chaos, the clanging bells of confusion and idle chatter.
To listen to the still, small voice within requires a space of silence. We are often loathe to create that space because we fear what sounds will emerge in the empty space.
I create that space daily through meditation practice. The shofar forces it through its piercing sound. It stops us in our tracks and creates what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls “a silence in the soul” that allows us to hear the still, small voice within.
The shofar will pave the way for the silence in your heart. Then it’s up to you to listen to the voice within.
- Maimonides, Law of Repentance 3:4 ↩