During the High Holidays, we go through more words of prayer than any other time of year. The themes of creation, repentance, and awe inspired poets throughout the generation to expand the prayers with elaborate poems which blend biblical imagery and rabbinic interpretation in creative new ways to express many of the nuanced emotions that we feel when we consider our own vulnerability and our desire to change ourselves for the better. During the holidays, there is another, perhaps even more creative, trend in our liturgy. In many parts of the service, we recite biblical verses to motivate God to move from a place of judgement to a place of compassion.
When we recite Rosh Hashanah Musaf, we include three unique blessings: malkhuyot which describes God as transcendent ruler of the world, zikhronot which reminds God of the way that God made promises to Israel, and shofarot which connects the sound of the shofar to the feeling of God’s presence. Each blessing includes a series of ten blessings drawn from across the Bible. Apart from the words, we also include the sounding of the shofar as part of our prayer.
After each set of blasts, we include two short passages, hayom harat olam and areshet s’fateinu. This post will discuss areshet s’fateinu. You can find the post about hayom harat olam here.
After each set of blasts during musaf, we recite:
אֲרֶשֶׁת שְׂפָתֵינוּ יֶעֱרַב לְפָנֶיךָ אֵ*ל רָם וְנִשָּׂא מֵבִין וּמַאֲזִין מַבִּיט וּמַקְשִׁיב לְקוֹל תְּקִיעָתֵנוּ וּתְקַבֵּל בְּרַחֲמִים וּבְרָצוֹן סֵדֶר מַלְכֻיּוֹתֵינוּ / זִכְרוֹנוֹתֵינוּ / שׁוֹפְרוֹתֵינוּ
Areshet s’fateinu l’fanekha el ram v’nisa meivin u’ma’azin mabit u’makshiv l’kol t’ki’ateinu ut’kabel b’rachamim uv’ratzon seder malkhuyoteinu/zikhronoteinu/shofroteinu
May the words of our lips be pleasing to You, exalted God, who listens, discerns, considers, and attends to the sound of our shofar blast. Lovingly accept our prayerful offering that proclaims Your sovereignty/remembrance/shofar.
We are asking God for very different things when it comes to our words and the sound of the shofar. For the words, we hope that God may find them pleasing and accept them. The action on God’s part is passive. Compare this to the way we imagine God responding to the Shofar: it takes four actions for God to respond to the sound of the shofar. Listening to the words is a passive experience while hearing the shofar requires active listening to truly understand. We imagine that God throughs the same challenge in hearing prayers that we may feel when saying them.
It is incredibly easy for prayer to become a passive experience. Even someone who knows what the words mean can confuse the memory of thinking about the meaning for engaging in the feelings evoked by prayer. We use the melodies to help us remember and feel those emotions, but the amount of prayers makes it difficult to give proper attention to each theme that floats through the service. The themes are there for us because some ideas will be meaningful on that day, but others will not. A prayer that touches one person will feel empty to their neighbor. One melody will lift one person’s spirit while grating on another’s ears. In the attempt to be specific, our words and melodies take us down a certain path, but the path may not be for us.
On Rosh Hashanah, we expand our prayers by including the sound of the shofar. The sound is unlike anything else we have in prayers. It is far earthier than the sound of any instrument but loud and bright enough to always catch your attention. It is also a versatile sound which can evoke the sound of warning, the sound of joy, and the sound of crying out. Each of us can attach our specific emotion to its sound. At times, we may be able to put our feelings into clear words and can name the feeling that the shofar evokes. Many times, however we are not able to parse how we feel, and so we may turn to let the sound of the shofar express what we cannot express for ourselves.
For this moment, we have the words of this prayer. We ask God to actively listen to the sound of the shofar and plumb the depths of the sound to discover the emotion behind it. The words of our prayer can inspire intellectual reflection, but it does not have the same emotional catharsis as the sound of the shofar. With our words, we quote the tradition that God is merciful, and that God gives us the chance to become the best versions of ourselves, but with the shofar, we find a noise that can express the full range of our emotions and remind ourselves and God, that we have to learn to parse those emotions to better understand what we are asking from the holidays.