Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Post Rosh Hashanah thoughts on the Shofar

I am always amazed at the spiritual power and depth of the Hebrew language. It is no accident that it has traditionally been referred to as the Holy Tongue. Not only is Hebrew the original language of the Holy Bible, and as such the quality of holiness is attributed to it, but often one discovers worlds of meaning embedded in one word, especially when the letters of that word are rearranged to spell new words with meanings and associations that are quite revealing.

“Shofar” (“שפר”) is such a word. Its sounding on Rosh Hashanah is the pre–eminent requirement and ritual of the celebration. Evocative with many historical allusions and references to future hopes and expectations, the word itself is rich in semantic connections that elicit fruitful lessons and messages.

The rabbis of our tradition have recognized several homiletic meanings. The word “shapeir” containing the same three consonants of shofar–ש (sh), פ (p), ר (r)–in the same order of consonants but different vocalization, is translated as “to improve” or “to better”. Thus, the shofar becomes an instrument for the improvement of one’s spiritual and Jewish life.

Closely associated with this meaning is that of “shefer” (“שפר”) meaning “beautiful, decorative, and attractive”. (“אמרי שפר” / “words of beauty” from Genesis 49:21)

As we engage in some rearrangement of the letters, the results continue to be quite surprising and illuminating.

Taking the last letter of shofar (“ר” or “r”) and placing it at the head of the word, we come to the word “reshef” (“רשף”) which means “spark, ember, or ray of light”. Curiously, the same word can mean “destruction, loss, or plague” (Deut. 32:24). Is the implication of these meanings that sparks, the initiating elements of fire, are both constructive and destructive elements? Can the shofar herald not only the arrival of redemption and freedom but can announce as well times of warning, peril, and loss?

To continue the process of rearrangement the word “shofar” embraces two suggestions that are remarkably suggestive of spiritual approaches that can be quite rewarding.
Moving the middle consonant to the beginning of the word we create another word, “pesher” (“פשר”), defined as “melting, softening, compromising, a solution to a problem, lukewarm”. Perhaps the aim of the shofar is to melt the hardness of our hearts and positions and create the possibility of give-and-take, even compromise, that will bring about a solution to so many human problems in the form of reconciliation.

Finally, with the middle letter occupying the beginning of the word and the last shifted to the middle we form the word “peresh” (“פרש”) meaning “clarification, clarity, explanation” or “spread, stretch, scatter”, or “to separate, set aside, withdraw, retire”.
Is not the dynamic of separation and withdrawal not a necessary element in the process of reaching out and stretching oneself to others and to the world? As the popular dictum of Hillel expresses: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for  myself, what am I?”A clarification of one’s identity embraces the dual dynamic of self-concern with the capacity to spread oneself outward in such a way as to share with the  community and world that which has been our individual blessings.

"Poreis"-פרש-spread over-brings to mind the evening prayer in which we pray for a canopy of peace to be spread over us during the night. Moreover, we refer to the canopy as that of a sukkah, a sukkah of peace. As we are currently in the midst of the Succot festival, the echos of the shofar resonate with the hope for peace in the darkness of today's world.

One word, three letters, in their fluid and dynamic rearrangements, they carry to our consciousness meanings of much significance. Is it any wonder that the Hebrew language is the language of the Divine?