The secret signal

A Rosh Hashanah Teaching from Gershon.
September 2, 2014

Listen. There is a secret signal. It's sort of like a password, a code. And only we know it — we who sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Or at least some of us who sound the shofar know it. Others may know how to sound the shofar, how to blow their breath through the horn and make shofar sounds, but they don't know the secret signal, the password. Just blowing air through a ram's horn does not produce the secret signal. Anyone can do that. You don't have to be Jewish to do that. Ram's horns and the like, the ancient rabbis reminded us, abound everywhere and with most any people. And guess what? They all know how to blow them, how to sound them. Everyone knows how to toot their horn, so to speak. And if that is the case, as it obviously is, then what is the meaning of the psalmic verse we recite before sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah: “Happy is the people who knows how to sound [the shofar]”? (Psalms 89:16). Excuse me? Did the writer of this psalm actually believe that we were the only people on Earth who knew how to sound a ram's horn? And that is the question the second-century Rabbi O'shia asked: “Do you really suppose that the nations of the world do not know how to sound the horn? They have countless horns, myriad trumpets and innumerable experts at sounding them, and we declare 'Happy is the people who knows how to sound the shofar?'”

And so Rabbi O'shia explains to us the meaning of that puzzling statement, that it implies a knowing that was transmitted to us as a people from the ancients, a knowing not of how to sound the shofar but a knowing of the secrets behind the sounds and their intent (Midrash Vayik'ra Rabbah 29:4).   Sounding the shofar without this knowledge and its intentions creates sound, but no different than any other sound emerging from any old horn blown by anybody at any time for any reason. On the other hand, sounding the shofar while imbuing your breath with this knowledge and intention creates far more than sound. It communicates. It sends a secret signal understood only in the spirit realm, only in the Realm of the Divine Forces, and becomes part of a vocabulary known only in the God Dictionary. It is the language of spirit. It is a personal mystery communication between the soul and its origin, between Creation and Creator, in a language that is absent any symbols or thoughts, any imagery or gesture. It is the language of דִבּוּר dibbur, of Resonance. It is the communication of breath with Breath, ofרוּחַ  ru'ach with רוּחַ אֶלֹהִים ru'ach elo'heem, of mortal breath with Divine Breath.

In one of the most ancient of our Kabbalistic source texts, we are taught that Sound, Breath/Wind, and Resonance are the three qualities of the Life Force that weaves the Divine Intent through all of Existence (Sefer Yetzirah 1:9 [oldest version]). The drama of these three qualities is played-out in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: “And they heard the Voice [sound] of God journeying toward the Wind [breath] of the day…. And God then Called [resonance] to The Adam” (Genesis 3:8-9). Thus you have קול ורוח ודבור — Sound, Breath, and Resonance. Sound is carried by Breath toward Resonance. By Sound, writes the 12th-century Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, is meant primal expression, not sound as we know it in the mortal sense. קול [ko'l-sound] is inaudible to the human ear until it is enwrapped in Breath or Spirit or Wind — all the same meaning of רוח [ru'ach]. It then becomes graspable, translatable, when it is further manifested in דבור [dibbur-resonance]. And that quality of the Life Force that is Resonance, this is the Holy Spirit — the flux of the Divine Spirit that is weaving through all that was and is and will be ever since she first hovered over the primal waters of Genesis (Genesis 1:2). Yes, “She.” In the Hebrew, “the Spirit of God hovering over the waters” is referred to in the feminine, by the way.

Okay. Stay with me. You’re old enough, or young enough. And you don’t have to be married with children or have a background in Kabbalah. This is for everyone.

The two most repeated, most common “names” of God in the Torah are י-ה-ו-ה  and אלהים.

י-ה-ו-ה is the weaving Name of God, and it is un-pronounceable because it is always in flux, constantly weaving Creator’s intent for Creation to become.

אלהים (Elo'heem) represents that particular aspect of God that is immanently involved in the life of all beings and that was active at the time of Creation. It is therefore the only name of God mentioned in the genesis of Genesis.  אלהים according to the mystics is a plural word that implies “בַּעַל הַיְכוֹלֶת וּבַּעַל הכֹּחוֹת כֻּלָם Ba'al ha'ye'cho'let u'ba'al ha'ko'cho't ku'lam — The One Who Masters All Possibilities and Who Masters All the Forces” (16th-century Rabbi Yosef Karo in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 5:1).

We are also taught that the difference between these two primary qualities of the revealed aspects of God, י-ה-ו-ה  and אלהים — besides one being God Transcendent and one being God Imminent — is that the quality of אלהים is about judgment (after all, creating or sculpting requires a great deal of judgment) and the quality of י-ה-ו-ה  is about mercy. Just like in the story of Abraham and Isaac, where the voice of אלהים resonates in Abraham as a request that he sacrifice his son (Genesis 22:1), and the voice ofי-ה-ו-ה  resonates in Abraham as a demand that he desist from so much as nicking him (Genesis 22:11).

Now to the point.

There is another psalmic verse we recite before blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah that goes like this: “אלהים has ascended in the blowing [breath]; and י-ה-ו-ה  [is] within the sound [resonance] of the shofar” (Psalms 47:6).

The intent of the one who sounds the shofar, then, is to conjure the sound of silence, the primal spirit language of which the mystics spoke that precedes audible, vocal sound, the sound of breath that then translates the primal intent into resonance. The intent? A plea, a spirit-signal, that it is now time for the Divine quality of mercy — י-ה-ו-ה  — to override the Divine quality Judgment — אלהים – and that the sacred blend of both qualities merge in unified balance, thus re-creating the First Sound ever mentioned in the Torah, which is described as the Sound ofי-ה-ו-ה אלהים    (Genesis 2:8).

You see, Rosh Hashanah is a ritual of re-doing the Adam and Eve scenario a little differently. The first human couple heard the sound of both י-ה-ו-ה  and אלהים  (Genesis 2:8) but — when asked “Where are you?” they chose to surrender to their sense of shame and respond only to the quality of אלהים. The question was a challenge to them: “Where are you?” as in which voice are you responding to? That of judgment, or that of mercy? They chose the voice of judgment, and thus did the voice of judgment respond in kind and kick them out.
On Rosh Hashanah, through the secret rite of the shofar, we endeavor to turn that around, to begin our new year with transforming that Karmic consciousness of judgment we too often project onto God to one of compassion.

Thus, the secret of the Secret Signal. And so may it be! Because, we need to bring in the New Year not so much with the dictates of the prayerbook as with our deepest, inaudible hopes. Else, every year is just same-old, same-old, and nothing indeed is new under the sun.

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