The Limits of Language: A Rosh Hashanah Meditation

blowing of the shofarThe highlight of tomorrow’s service and the central ritual of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the Shofar. Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon famously listed ten different reasons for this Mitzvah. These range from the trumpet-like sound invoking God’s coronation, to the more human sounds of sobbing or crying apparent in the Shofar’s plain notes which are the result of the deep introspection undertaken on this day.

The Hasidic masters build on the theme of crying and explain that the deepest form of human expression transcends language. The call of the Shofar then represents the deep inner call of the human soul calling out to God as the Psalmist put it: “deep calling unto deep.” The idea is that on Rosh Hashanah we gain access to, and so are able to express, our soul’s deepest yearning for God and its expression as captured in the sobbing of the Shofar, is wordless.

This powerful idea always resonated with me but it was given particular poignancy in 1988 when as an eighteen year old Yeshiva student I had the privilege of spending Rosh Hashanah in Crown Heights and praying with the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory.

It was his custom to blow the shofar for the first set of thirty notes while another Ba’al Toke’ah sounded the notes during Musaph. I can recall the scene as though it were yesterday. I stood in a packed synagogue amongst thousands of Chassidim. One could hear a pin drop as the Rebbe ascended the Bimah and put the Shofar to his lips. The sound that emerged was the most haunting I had ever heard or heard since. His notes were not a triumphant blast but an ethereal sound that one had to strain to hear. If there was such a thing as a sobbing soul it would sound like this. To this day I yearn to hear such soulful notes on Rosh Hashanah and I find the self-confident, clarion blasts of most Shofar blowers to be deeply discordant and I am invariably disappointed.

While the Hasidic masters emphasised the wordless nature of the soul’s longing, that is to say the soul’s reaching out, something I heard the other day gave rise to a thought that perhaps the non-language of the Shofar also travels in the opposite direction. That somehow it reaches in to the soul transforming our perception of reality.

I was listening to Radio 4 in the car on Thursday night and the Jamaican poet and writer Kei Miller was talking about how language shapes one’s perception of reality. As an example he took the word “scroop” which denotes a scrapping or rustling sound of material sweeping along the floor. “How,” he asked, “can you hear your bride’s dress as she walks towards you if you don’t know the word scroop?”

I wonder if the sound of the Shofar is meant to take us back to a primal, pre-language state on Rosh Hashanah. So much of what we experience in life is mediated through the words we routinely use that it becomes almost impossible to experience reality in new ways, to see the world through fresh eyes, to genuinely be surprised, to experience awe, wonder and gratitude. By using the word “sunrise” to capture the moment when night gives way to day we objectify, capture and contain an extraordinary moment, and in that containment we impoverish it. We create a common currency for what otherwise might be an intensely powerful subjective experience.

The same is true with human interactions. When we meet a person for the first time we immediately – and subconsciously –  try to fit them into our existing vocabulary (the person is kind, clever, insincere or arrogant) but in doing so we limit our own ability to be truly open to what could be an entirely new perception of another human being.

This can also  be true in our relationship with God. We inherit a rich metaphorical vocabulary which we invoke when thinking about, and when praying to God. Yet this vocabulary is by definition severely limited.  The notion that God can be captured in terms like Father or King becomes problematic if those become the only terms in which we can conceive of the infinite Creator.

Language is useful to help us make sense of our reality but it can also severely limit our perception of reality and inhibit fresh perspectives.

So could the Shofar, that primal pre-language cry, be telling us to suspend, at least for a crucial moment, our language-shaped reality?  Could it be leading us through the threshold to a renewed reality? Is it a coincidence that the Shofar is sounded on the same day that Adam and Eve were created? When on that first day of human life Adam names all the animals using his God given ability of language to shape and so to experience his new reality?

Could the Shofar be telling us that in order to experience the world anew, we need to suspend our old vocabulary for only then can we begin to fashion a new vocabulary and thereby form a new reality, a new existence, a new world?

I believe the Shofar points us in this direction. It urges us to step beyond the comfortable signposts of language, if just for a moment, so that we can encounter reality starkly without reference to pre-existing frameworks. In the moment we transcend language we plant the seed that will give rise to new language enabling us to enrich our perception of reality, deepen our relationships with others and open up new possibilities in our quest to connect with the infinite Creator.