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ow o Forgive Yourelf
The Music of the Shofar
By Yosef Y. Jacobson

Let me begin with a story:

Chassidic Master Rabbi Simchah Bunim of Pshische was walking along a riverbank in the city of Dantzig, when he saw a man swimming deep in the peaceful waters.

Suddenly, a powerful wind blew tall waves that rose high near the man, and caught by surprise he lost his balance. Help me, I'm drowning! The Jew's piercing shrieks tore Reb Bunim's heart, but the Rebbe didn't know how to swim, and for miles around there wasn't another soul in sight. All he could do was watch.  The Jew struggled and fought valiantly to save his life, yet too soon, the forceful waves drained him from his energy, and Reb Bunim saw how the man succumbed. He appeared ready to die. The Rebbe shouted with all his might: "My dear friend! When you get down, send my warmest regards to the Leviathan (1)!"

The Jew burst out laughing. His sudden expression of cheer generated renewed energy. With fresh vitality he renewed his struggle and preserved until he was able to save himself.

This story may be used as a metaphor for each of us. Life consists of a complicated journey through turbulent waves and we often feel like we're drowning in the challenges surrounding us.

A primary element that can guarantee our success in making wholesome choices in life is maintaining a joyous, positive attitude. The blowing of the Shofar (the ram's horn) on Rosh Hashanah presents a blueprint for achieving this type of wholesomeness in our lives.

Three sounds

Three types of sounds are emitted from the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, known as Tekiah, Shevarim and Teruah. The Talmud (2) defines the difference between the sounds as follows. A Tekiah is a straight blast (toooooooooooooo!) direct, long and simple. Shevarim, (too-toooh, too-toooh,) is a broken krechtz, a dejected sigh.  Teruah (too-too-too-too-too…) is a series of short cries of sobbing and weeping. 

These three sounds - Tekiah, Shevarim and Teruah -- reflect three distinct modes a human being needs to integrate into his or her soul in order to live a meaningful and inspiring life. There are moments during which we sob like the Teruah; other situations represent the brokenness of Shevarim. And then at times we encounter the complete and simple sound of the Tekiah. Let us explore how the sounds of the Shofar apply to our daily lives.

Guilty of sin

Every individual commits sins. We make mistakes willingly or inadvertently, in moments of exhaustion, in times of stress, or on ordinary sunny days. King Solomon says, "There is no Tzaddik on earth who does only good and does not sin (3)."  At times we may do or say hurtful things to others, and when the dust settles, we feel guilty.

There are many ways of handling feelings of guilt over acts of immorality and abuse to ourselves or to others.  Sometimes we lack the courage to confess that we made a mistake, so we attempt to cover it up, pretend that it never happened. But truth is truth. One can bury truth for a little while, but not forever. In long term, the path of denial doesn't take us very far.

On the other end of the spectrum, some of us wallow in endless shame and remorse. We're repulsed by our very selves: We feel evil, detestable, and lowly. We cannot face ourselves and we certainly cannot forgive ourselves.

It is clear that both of these extreme mindsets are not productive, yet it is often difficult to define and implement the appropriate attitude to our wrongdoing.

Cry your heart out

The holy master Rabbi Aaron of Karlin once remarked: The skillful art of the inner evil inclination (Yetzer Harah) is not in persuading people to sin; its ultimate strength and craftiness is in causing people to feel depressed after they sin.

The sound of the Teruan is the key to adopting a valuable attitude to the wrongs we commit. Teruah is the sound of weeping and sobbing stemming the depths of our hearts. Implementing the Teruah means confronting your sin completely. Ask forgiveness from your soul, from G-d and from the individual you wronged. Acknowledge that you have fallen prey to your temptation, exhaustion, fear or insecurity. Accept accountability and apologize with complete sincerity.  Resolve to act differently in the future. Repair what you can repair, and grieve for that which you cannot repair. Yes, cry your heart out.

Yet there is another significant dimension to the Teruah. Unlike the Shevarim or the Tekiah, the Teruah consists of a series of short cries and it has as a cutting edge to it. Each sob of the Teruah has a sharp end to it.  Similarly, our remorseful feelings must have defined parameters. We cannot sit forever in the muck wallowing or indulging in self-blame. We cannot allow the agonizing over a wrongdoing to paralyze us from living a productive life and fulfilling our G-d given mission. The Torah prescribes designated times for focusing on the wrongdoings we have committed and on our lowliness. The last month of the year, the last day of each month, Thursday evenings, every night before we go to bed -- these are times designated in Judaism for self-evaluation, including feelings of grief over our sins.

This then is the key: the proportion must be preserved -- a daily hour, a monthly day, and the sorrow confined to these bounds.  During those specified times, feel the anguish and guilt! It was bad; feel bad. Feel shame for the past and ask forgiveness. Your sorrow must remain an active seeking, never a passive sinking.

Then, it's time to go on. When you seek forgiveness sincerely, G-d forgives. Now it's time to turn a new page, open a new chapter in life and move forward. That's the Teruah: powerful weeping for a limited, defined time. 

Inherent Imperfections

The holy master Rabbi Zushe of Anipoli said: "After my demise, I'm not afraid of being asked why I wasn't as good as our father Abraham, because I'm not Abraham.  I'm not afraid of being measured against Moses, because I'm not Moses.  What, then, is my fear?  I tremble at the thought of the Heavenly tribunal demanding of me: 'Zushe! Why weren't you as good as Zushe?'

If the Teruah reflects the healthy way to deal with guilt and pain born of sin, the sound of the Shevarim is crucial in relating to another type of guilt and pain: our feelings of shame born from the inherent negative impulses existing in human nature. We ask ourselves: Why can't I always be in a good mood? Why am I insecure? Why am I afraid? Why do I get angry and jealous? Why is it so difficult for me to retain my integrity? Why do I always need to struggle against my instincts and drives?

We need to remember that inherent to humanity is a Shevarim, which literally means brokenness and fragmentation.

Every human being has two souls -- a Divine soul and an animal consciousness, described in the Talmud as a Yetzer Tov and a Yetzer Horah. The beastly identity consistently bombards us with negative thoughts and temptations, often just as we finish doing a mitzvah or in the midst of prayer. At the highest moments of a spiritual pinnacle, when we're feeling so spiritual refined, an ugly impulse rears its unpleasant existence.

This may lead us to question the validity or sincerity of our goodness -- how can we be capable of inspired heights if we are tempted to such lowliness?  But that is not true. Because inherent to our chemistry is the fact that we are Shevarim, we are fragmented and dichotomized, we have BOTH a G-dly soul as well as an animal soul, both very real components of our lives. G-d entrusted our pure souls with a mission: to shine through and beyond the shell of challenges presented by a tainted beastly self.
In the heavens and in all the celestial worlds, there are millions of angels who scream "Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh!" (Holy, Holy, Holy!") The angels don't have any struggles, they never get frustrated or stressed, and everything about them is perfect.  Not so with humans. Woven into the fabric of our being is an inherent dichotomy, a "Shevarim" -- fragmentation. On one hand we are spiritual and idealistic creatures gravitating towards what is good, true and eternal.  On the other hand, we possess a selfish and egotistical identity, gravitating towards the earthly and the mundane.

You must make peace with the truth that you may never resolve your inner conflict. In fact, it is this conflict that is a crucial part of the mission we are to accomplish in life.  For only through our struggles, our challenges and yes, our stumbling and re-climbing, can we fulfill the purpose for which we were created: to introduce the light of G-d into a fragmented, materialistic and lowly universe.

Feeling guilty for possessing a "Shevarim" in you? Remember that we are intended to be Shevarim: G-d created you with an inherent dichotomy; it's a central dimension of the human experience.

Loss and pain

Yet, after everything said and done, we often wonder how to remain inspired and animated. In the presence of so many struggles and pain, within us and around us, how can we continue with dignity and joy? How can we move on if we are shattered to pieces?

After the war, a Holocaust survivor came to visit his one-time spiritual master, the famed Rebbe of the Chassidic dynasty of Ger, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter.

This broken Jew was deported to the death camps together with his wife, children, relatives and entire community. The man's wife and children were gassed, his relatives decimated and his entire community wiped put. He emerged from the ashes a lonely man in a vast world that had silently swallowed the blood of six million Jews.

The Jew lost one more thing in the camps: his G-d. After what he experienced on his own flesh, he could not continue believing in a G-d who allowed for an Auschwitz.   Although after the war he made aliyah to Eretz Yisroel (Israel), he completely abandoned Jewish practice and observance. Yet he missed his old Rebbe and went to visit him in Tel Aviv.

The Gerer Rebbe himself lost large chunks of his family in the Holocaust. In addition, nearly all of his 250,000 followers were wiped out by the Germans. The Rebbe of Ger and some members of his immediate family managed to escape Warsaw in 1940 and arrived in Eretz Yisroel soon after

Upon hearing the story of his disciple, the Rebbe of Ger broke into sobs. The man and his Rebbe sat together mourning what they had lost. After a long period of weeping, the Gerer Rebbe wiped his tears and said -- in Yiddish - the following:

"Before your eyes"

In his farewell address to his people, Moses recounts the moment when he descended from the Sinai Mountain with the two Divine tablets to present to the Jewish people:

"I descended from the mountain," Moses recalls, "the mountain was still burning with fire and the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands. I immediately saw that you had sinned to G-d, making a cast calf. You were so quick to turn from the path that G-d had prescribed. I grasped the two tablets, and threw them down from my two hands, and I smashed them before your eyes (4)."

Now, considering the well-known meticulousness of each word in the Bible, Moses' words "I smashed them before your eyes" seem superfluous. Suppose Moses had turned around and broken the tablets out of view would that in anyway have lessened the tragedy? Why did Moses find it important to emphasize that the breaking occurred "before your eyes"?

Two worlds

What Moses was saying, explained the Rebbe of Ger, was that "I smashed the tablets only before your eyes." The shattering of the tablets occurred only before your eyes and from your own vantage point. In reality, there exists a world in which the tablets have never been broken.

"As hard as it is for you and I to believe," the Rebbe concluded, "I want you to know that the decimation of our families, our communities and our people occurred only 'before our eyes.' There remains a world in which the Jewish people are wholesome and complete. Beneath the surface of our perception there exists a reality in which every single Jew from Abraham till today is perfectly alive.

"The day will come," said the Rebbe of Ger, "when that world will be exposed. Hashem will mend our broken tablets and our broken nation. We will discover how the tablets were really never broken and the Jewish people were always complete."

Core innocence

The sound of the Tekiah helps us access the sacred place within in which the "Tablets" were never broken: The quintessential core of the human soul, untouched and unblemished by the pain of life.

The Shofar produces primitive sounds -- simple and unattractive. Yet within all the blasts of the Shofar, the Tekiah is the least sophisticated; it's a simple, straight tone. If you open your ears to the innermost part of your soul's calling, you'll find that you are listening to the sound of a Tekiah.

Every human being has a place within himself or herself -- the deepest level of identity -- which always remains complete, sacred and dignified.  Nothing and nobody can corrupt or tamper with that "Pintele Yid," that dimension of self that is beyond all of our mistakes, our sins, our despair and our brokenness.  It's a place in which the "Tablets" were never broken, a splendid little corner that remains untouched by even the deepest abuse; it remains intact regardless of our trials and tribulations.

This pure and most simplistic part of our being cries out to us: Return! Come home to the place where you are as virtuous and guiltless as you were on the day you were born. The innocent cry emanating from the depths of a soul is echoed and carried in the sound of the Tekiah - basic, bare and simple.

Three roads

According to Jewish law, the arrangement of the sounds blown on Rosh Hashanah follows this order: Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah, and Tekiah.

What is the spiritual and psychological significance of this sequenced order?

The beginning is always Tekiah, for every human's beginning is Tekiah.  Every one of us experienced the state of being an innocent, fault-free infant. Back in that stage, we didn't suffer any disappointments; we believed in life, we believed in ourselves, in our parents and in our educators. We believed in our potentials and we were connected. It was just like that simple, unsophisticated, childlike cry of Tekiah. We didn't have sins to cry for in Teruah; we didn't have frustrations to think about the broken elements of life, the Shevarim.

As we matured in life, the second stage of Shevarim emerged: disappointments and frustrations. We learnt that life is incomplete and that we can get hurt in this world. As we grew even older, we began performing our own mistakes and wrongdoings, as the third stage of Teruah took us over. Yet after the Shevarim and the Teruos, there's still a Tekiah: You begin with Tekiah and you can always go back to that Tekiah. There's a place in you that never sinned; there's a place in you that's always one with G-d. Yes, there's a place in you in which the "tablets" were never broken.

The Secret Of Yom Kippur

Kol Nidrei night. The wondrous, transcendent moment that ushers in that special time is laden with feelings of profound intensity. Every Jew - young and old, man and woman, is inspired as he or she stands in Shul on Kol Nidrei Night. The image of the Holy Ark open before all the white-clad participants evokes a feeling of awe and passionate fervor. Kol Nidrei itself is chanted in a most soul-stirring melody, a tune that rouses listeners to emotional ecstasy. But have you ever read the actual prayer of Kol Nidrei in English? The basic meaning of Kol Nidrei is that all the promises, vows, oaths, acceptances, that I will accept upon myself and I will swear from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur, are all nullified, extinct, naught and non existent.

People are always making promises and vows during the year, and if they do not fulfill them they are committing a grave transgression. Thus, on Yom Kippur when everybody is in the Synagogue, we collectively nullify all promises, so that even if one makes a promise during the year and doesn't keep it, it was already nullified. 

It is not difficult to comprehend the value and practicality of abolishing vows. But the question is: why is the nullification of vows considered to be the holiest experience during the entire year? Why have Jews over the centuries been so deeply moved by the recital of Kal Nidray? What makes annulling oaths such a sacred experience?

Rabbi Scheur Zalman of Liadi explains (5) that in fact, the words of Kal Nidray encapsulate the essence of what Yom Kippur is all about. As mentioned above, each of us possesses a consciousness that is essentially a reflection of G-d. This part of our self yearns for truth and spiritual depth and has no interest in asserting its ego or engaging in unproductive physical endeavors. This soul, a spark of G-d, craves integrity and G-dliness.

But this spiritual soul, the higher self, is residing in a body that has many promises and vows, deeply ingrained patterns that are alien to the higher soul. Our animalistic identity binds our G-dly soul to the physical environment and to numerous unholy and sometimes repulsive thoughts, words and deeds it continuously pursues. The day-to-day pressures of life knot our hearts in frustration and distress.

On Yom Kippur the soul goes free. On Yom Kippur the soul declares, "The vows are nullified." I'm not tied down to or by anything. I am holy, I am G-dly, I am good. The soul comes back home to the deepest part of it self, rediscovering its innocence and innate spiritual splendor. On Kol Nidrei night, and throughout the 24 hours of Yom Kippur, each and every one of us is empowered to go back to that "Tekiah" part in us -- the absolutely free core that makes us human.

And as the sky above turns into a blend of pinks and crimson, reflecting the sun's brilliance dipping over the horizon, Yom Kippur is culminated with a "Tekiah Gedolah," an extended Tekiah blast, representing the undiluted cry of an innocent baby. The cry of a soul that is completely pure, a soul that wants nothing more than to connect with G-d, forever.

When that Tekiah Gedolah is culminated, we cry out: Leshnah Habbah Beyerushalayim! Next year in Jerusalem. For this Tekiah constitutes a foretaste of the Tekiah Gedolah that will herald the coming of Moshiach and the complete redemption, when the inner sacredness and G-dliness of every Jew and of the entire world will emerge in its full splendor.

During the last moments of Yom Kippur each of us is given a taste of the type of person you and I will become when Moshiach arrives speedily in our times.

(Transcript of a lecture presented by Yosef Y. Jacobson at the Mayan Chai Jewish women's annual convention in Brooklyn (6). Transcribed by Mrs. Shterne Gensburg. My gratitude to Rabbi and Mrs. Aaron Gensburg, directors of Mayan Chai, for their permission to send out this transcript.)


1) The Leviathan is a gigantic wale that roams that the bottom of the sea.
2) Tractate Rosh Hashanah pp. 33-34. Rambam Hilchos Shofar chapter 3. Schlchan Aruch Orach Chaim section 590.
3) Ecclesiastics 7:20.
4) Deuteronomy 9:15-17.
5) Likkutei Torah Matos 85a.
6) This essay is based primarily on Tanya chapters 26-31.


Posted on September 29, 2005
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