The blowing of the shofar is a most enigmatic mitzvah. The reasons we eat matzah, sit in the Sukkah or take the lulav are readily apparent; they commemorate historical events and/or agricultural seasons. Yet the reason for the blowing of the shofar leaves us mystified. As far as we can tell from the Bible, no actual events took place on the "first day of the seventh month" that would warrant it being declared a "day of blowing". The rabbinic notion that the world, or more precisely humanity, was created on this day has no reference in the Bible and is actually a matter of Talmudic debate (Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a). Even were we to assume that it is so, it is not at all clear what the link between creation and shofar might be.
The disjointed, broken sound of the teruah has no place in such a gathering. The teruah is the sound of a disunited—hence, weak, divided and vulnerable—people. "When you go to war against an enemy who attacks you in your land, you shall sound a teruah" (Bamidbar 10:9). The teruah is the call to action, to somehow rectify something so that "we will be remembered before G-d" (Bamidbar 10:10).
"And on the seventh month on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy convocation, yom teruah, it shall be for you” (Bamidbar 29:1). On Rosh Hashanah, the teruah takes centre stage. It is at a time of great need, of fear and trepidation as we reflect on our failings (at least, that’s what we are meant to do). The teruah must motivate us to do better.
We begin shofar blowing with the sevenfold recitation of Psalm 47. The introduction to this psalm, Lamenazeach l'Bnei Korach Mizmor, a song to the children of Korach, is quite startling. Korach is the symbol of dissention, division and disunity. As we get ready to blow the shofar we are to be eminded of the consequences of following in his path.
Yet "the children of Korach did not die" (Bamidbar 26:12). They recognized the danger of divisiveness and repented. Thank G-d, children do not always follow in the footsteps of their parents. Teshuva is always possible, regardless of one's background. When we come to blow the shofar, the call to repentance, we invoke a prayer authored by the children of Korach, who recorded the folly of continuing a "family feud", and were therefore spared the horrible death of their father.
We need both the tekiah and the teruah. But they must be blown properly. We can and should have disagreements and fierce debates. We need to hear the teruah, to hear the sounds of those with whom we differ. Often our fiercest opponents have great insight into our shortcomings, and if we listen to them, we may actually grow from their critique, even if we reject the essence of their arguments.
Conformity is a sign of a weak society afraid of self-criticism. A teruah is a most beautiful sound. But each teruah must be surrounded before and after with a tekiah, with that which unites us and with unshakable commitment and love towards all Jews, irrespective of their level of religiosity or lack thereof. All the people must gather together.
Rosh Hashanah is a yom teruah, a day of fear and trembling and crying out to G-d to have mercy on us despite our failings. The blowing of the shofar ends with a tekiah gedolah, a long, unified shofar blast; and it is with a tekiah gedolah that the High Holiday period ends. May we merit to listen to the tekiah gedolah.