Shofar Part 2: The Freedom of Heartbreak

Tonight begins Yom Kippur. Already it is ten days since the wake-up call of Rosh Hashanah, and the call of the shofar becomes more urgent. Tomorrow is the last day before the year turns. The month of Elul for repentance is ending, along with the Days of Awe for more intensively tending to our relationships and making amends. The energy builds to Yom Kippur day, focused on atonement. Communications with people need to be complete. Now we go deeper with self and God, in community, and humble ourselves to that which is greater. In that space, I feel called to make as honest a connection as I can with the force of life.

Weaving Jewish with Toltec (my two spiritual traditions) Yom Kippur is an annual conscious visit with the Angel of Death. The all-day ritual brings attention to the urgency of staying in touch with what really matters, because this day (any day) could be the last day. Pressure builds and the mood turns from joyful to somber, all in a theatrical, shamanic, community effort to help us make that pure connection, each year, from wherever we are.

Ten years ago, feeling miserable and sorry for myself, I received a great gift at Yom Kippur services (thanks to my divorce and words form Estelle Frankel). The teaching of opening stayed with me and established Yom Kippur as my favorite day to have a broken heart.

Right before YK that year, after many months of negotiating, trying and advocating for my partner to believe that our relationship could “work,” I accepted we were not going to stay together. Acceptance made me soften. Remorse rushed in. I felt acutely the pain of recognizing the ways in which I was responsible for our separation. As one part of me crumpled at the loss, my judge berated me for my misdeeds. Where I had been confident we could work it out, suddenly I was hopeless and contrite. Bottom line: I felt like I could feel really bad for a very long time.

In shul for YK with that emotional baggage, I saw what a massive opportunity was available in forgiveness. I could carry the weight forward for years, or I could shed it before the day was over! A spark lit at the thought that I could step into the next day/year having forgiven myself. Rather than ruling that I should be punished for X number of days, the tradition invited me to round up my energy and atone now.

I worked this challenge as well as I could, circling through layers from apologizing to her at the door of the shul, to identifying and offering forgiveness toward her, and then the hardest part, forgiving myself. The teaching Estelle offered before the sounding of the shofar was to let the shofar sound break my heart; then let that break take me open. I was already so viscerally in heartbreak, the teaching came in perfect timing. Whereas I was thinking I was terrible and that a terrible thing had happened, this perspective invited me to shine through brokenness and grow.

When the shofar was blown, that sound sailed me from pity and self-absorption to inspiration and resolve. A hard experience with heartbreak was what I needed to actually open my heart. For that, I am grateful.

heartbreak flame


Shofar Part 1: Hearing the Call

Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year, and the beginning of a liminal period: The Ten Days of Awe. At this time the Book of Life is opened, and we want to be inscribed – for a good year, a healthy year, a year where our prayers are answered, another year of life. We have ten days to reflect, check, and triple check if there is anything we need to clean up in our relationships from the last year, before Yom Kippur, the final Day of Atonement, when the book is sealed.

(Something I really love about Judaism is that the “clean up” is making amends with people. The belief is that when our actions harm people, we need to ask them for forgiveness, not petition God to clear our slate.)

Example shofarIn the Bible, Rosh Hashanah is called “The Day of the Shofar Blast.” One mitzvah, or good deed we can do on this day is to hear the shofar, a hollow ram’s horn blown like a conch or a horn instrument. The blasts of the shofar are calls to wake up. They invite us to shake out of our habitual spiritual slumber, reconnect to our source, and recommit to our divine purpose. (Check out a medley of photos of shofar blowers.)

Here is the wake-up call I received this Rosh Hashanah:

It started with the second aliyah, which is the honor of reciting a blessing over a reading from the Torah. At my shul groups of people are invited up to the front to do and receive this blessing. The first aliyah was for people who had volunteered in the community. The second was dedicated to children, with their parents. (For a perfect visual, see Chochmat Halev’s Facebook page.)

As I witnessed the beauty of the crowd of two generations facing the congregation, the animated innocence and exuberance of the younger ones, I began to feel uncomfortable. When I listened inside I heard these thoughts: “I’m not like them. I’ve failed to become a parent or create my family. I can’t join that group, and I’ve really been wanting and trying to.” I witnessed how bad the thoughts made me feel: tears of disappointment, shame that made me want to hide.

I felt myself hardening and separating from all that beauty. Curious, I wondered, “If this is how I’m relating to people, how am I relating to God?”

Inside I heard blame and victimization: “God, you haven’t answered my prayers yet.” This voice wanted to make a case for opposition, but I also felt how much I don’t want to feed that case and confirm an unhappy ending. I want to trust life and move in harmony with how it moves me. Then came the shofar. Everyone who had a horn to blow was up on the stage blasting away in the call and response of words and sounds. During the service a hundred shofar blasts are sounded, interwoven with prayer.

I prayed to open my perspective. I coached myself, “I am like everyone in this room. Everyone knows the feeling of wanting and not yet manifesting, of disappointment, an unrealized dream.” The plaintive cry of shofar blasts reverberated inside the circular sanctuary, spiraling me open with the healing of sound: “I am no different. We are in this together.” The next round of blasts came: “And it’s not work! We are on this playground together. I am just like them and we are playing together.”