Shevarim: Breaking the liturgical discourse

Eitan Abramovitch • 2012

What is the sound of the shofar? A vague moan intended to shake the hearts, or a voice beyond the words, a speechless voice coming to express a higher form of communication than that of speech and prayer? Careful analysis of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s allegory faces these questions.

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An allegory was told by the Ba’al Shem Tov before the blowing of the Shofar:

A great King sent his sons hunting. The boys lost their way, and they would shout hoping that perhaps their father would hear, and yet they were left unanswered. And they thought to themselves “perhaps we forgot our father’s language, so he does not hear our cries, so we shall shout without speaking”. They decided which one would go out to shout and warned him “see and understand that we all are depending on you”.

And such is the moral, God has sent us to raise the sparks of holiness. We have strayed from our Father, and perhaps because we have forgotten our Father’s language, we cannot pray with speech. We send you, Ba’al Tokea, that you may bring us pity, with a speechless voice, and see and be careful for we are all depending on you. See for men and women depend on you (Baal Shem Tov on the Torah, Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, Ot 31)

The Baal Shem Tov’s allegory hovers and resonates like a shofar, requiring careful analysis. It seems that on every layer looked at, the primordial voice undermines and exceeds the boundaries of the frame that tries to contain it and is directed to another place.

After all, in the context of the allegory, there is no room for understanding the terrible doubt that arises in the sons’ hearts, and brings them to rely on the simple speechless shout. How could the boys possibly think that a simple journey through the forest, however complex it may be, caused them to forget their father’s language? At which imprecise stage of entanglement was their language suddenly replaced by a foreign one and broke off the possible connection with their house?

It seems that this fear goes beyond the allegory, turning our attention to the moral emerging from it.

But even in the moral, the shofar does not rest. When we are transferring the doubt and forgetfulness to the shofar, they go beyond the limits of the Orthodox thought in which the Baal Shem Tov’s sermon is placed. In this domain, the meaning of the forgotten language cannot be reduced to the loss of the literal connection of prayer, which requires a different medium of communication. After all, the liturgical language cannot be distinguished from that of the Torah, which is the language through which our tradition is transmitted, and our images of God are shaped, including the ones used in our story - “our Father/our King”, and the metaphor of the sons. Questioning the liturgical language does not only undermine the efficiency of prayer, but also points to a loss of certainty and confidence in the entire domain within which prayer is supposed to exist.

The power of this thought can be compared to the sermon of the Alter Rebbe (whose beginning is presented on the same page of ‘Baal Shem Tov on the Torah’). The Rebbe interprets the Baal Shem Tov’s Kavanot for the blowing of the shofar, reserving a unique place for the sound of the shofar within a complex and gradual system of voice and speech. Contrariwise, the Baal Shem Tov does not deal with the location of the shofar in any given system, on the contrary - he sees it as a possible response (but not certain, since this whole solution presented under the word “perhaps”, hence the atmosphere of anxiety in the background) to a situation of uncertainty and doubt regarding the status of all systems.

If the doubt in question is taken seriously, the question arises is what remains after it. It seems that in regard to the common faith, such doubt would leave no room for any attempt to communicate, since there would be no confidence in the reality of anyone to turn to. What faith remains after the loss of confidence in the language of faith and everything that was transmitted through it? It is possible that this is precisely where the Baal Shem Tov is getting at: the blowing of the shofar expresses the belief that goes beyond any wording of faith, the “ideal of faith” in which “no heresy can damage” (Rav Kook). Throwing this trust upon the shofar’s blowing is an attempt to cling to this concealed place, and the difficulty of this attempt is echoed in the warning “See for men and women depend on you”. If there is still trust in something beyond the language, it emerges in the shofar’s voice.

But it seems that here, too, things must be taken forward, from another direction. The shofar can be seen not as an expression of the high and hidden faith beyond all the difficulties, as a last resort from the distress of the doubt; perhaps it cannot be placed in relation to the existing system of thought, not even as that which exists beyond it and marking its border, as a crown above the body. It may be, however, that the shofar itself broke the system in the first place. It seems that the Ba’al Shem Tov did not try to direct his followers to doubt their language, and then offered them a solution - to cast their trust in the sound of the shofar. Perhaps he wished to expose them to the undermining power of this primordial voice itself. The shofar is not a new level that settles doubts. It is the voice that comes from nowhere and breaks the boundaries of the faith’s language, as it broke the boundaries of the allegory and the moral together. The shofar’s voice is rising again and again during the prayer, unable to be properly represented in the pages of the Siddur, not allowing the worshipers to continue their simple prayer, hindering them from continuing to hold on to their words. And yet, it is both doubt and faith, the fault and the correction. It is not another means of communication, but the very thing that breaks all means. Above (below?) and beyond all words, the shofar is the question and the answer, heresy and revelation.

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