Parshat Va’era

Torah Reading for Week of January 10 – 16, 2010

“Taking Deep Breaths”

by Dr. Joel Gereboff
AJRCA, Professor of Biblical Thought

There are several odd features about the sequence of notes sounded when we blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah. As we all know, it is traditional to blow three sets of notes consisting of the following combination of notes: 1. tekiah, shevaraim teruah, tekiah; 2. tekiah, shevarim, tekiah; 3. tekiah, teruah, tekiah. Two aspects of this order should jump off the page at us. First, in the opening set of notes, the one calling them out treats the shevarim-teruah as if it were a single unit and the shofar blower sounds the shevarim teruah before being asked to blow the next tekiah. But we see from the remainder of the sequence that indeed shevarim and teruah are actually different notes. Why then are they treated as a single unit in the first set of notes? Second, if as it appears the sequence of notes are meant to include all the permutations of the ways in which shevarim and teruah can be sounded between two tekiah notes, then there is a combination that is not present—we do not blow a sequence of tekiah, teruah shevarim, tekiah.

The reasons for these seeming oddities can be found in the discussion in the Talmud, (b. R.H. 33b-34a) of Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4:9. According to the Mishnah three sets of three types of notes comprise the required shofar blasts. And it is clear from the text that in fact there are only two actual types of notes, thetekiah and the teruah. Further, the mishnah reports that the length of the teruah is equivalent to three crying sounds (yevavot). The gemara in commenting on this mishnah observes that in fact while everyone agrees that the teruah is meant to sound like someone crying, it is not clear what sort of crying is intended. Is the crying like the sound of moaning and groaning, that is longer breaths such as one feels pain and cries out by saying, oy, oy oy, or is the crying of the teruah, more like a quick series of short whimpers, oy, oy oy, oy oy? It is because of this uncertainty that the practice developed to sound both the three longer notes now called shevarim as well as at least nine shorter, more staccato type of notes, each as it were drawing upon a shallow breath. Thus we now understand why we blow both shevarim and teruah. The gemara indeed reports that Rabbi Abahu, due to his doubts about the specific sound of the teruah, ended up adopting the practice we now follow that is noted above in which we sandwich between two tekiot first a combination of shevarim teruah and then follow with shevarim between the tekiotand end with a teruah between the tekiot. But the gemara then immediately asks, why did not R. Abahu not also include a sequence of tekiah, teruah shevarim, tekiah? It answers by observing, “Generally when calamity befalls a person and he is impelled to cry, he first moans (shevarim) and then he sobs and whimpers (teruah).” Uncontrolable crying, being overcome with grief and distress leads a person to breathe shallowly and to cry without self control.

This week’s parsha continues the story of the oppression of bnei yisrael by the Egyptians and reports on how they responded to Moses’ efforts at reassuring them that G-d was soon to redeem them. To put their reaction into perspective we need to return to last week’s parsha, Shemot. We are told there in Ex. 2:23-24, that the Israelites, in response to the hard labor imposed by Pharaoh. “Were groaning under the bondage and cried out, and G-d heard their moaning and remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”(JPS translation). And in turn when Moshe and Aaron perform miracles before the Israelites and tell them that the Lord had seen their plight, the Israelites were convinced and reassured. (Ex. 4:30-31). By contrast, this week’s parsha opens with the report that when Moshe, in reaction to Pharaoh’s having increased his oppression of the Israelites by no longer providing them with straw to make the bricks, tried to lift the spirits of bnei yisrael by reiterating G-d’s faithfulness to his covenant, “they (bnei yisrael) would not listen due to their cruel bondage and qotser ruach,” literally, their shortness of breath. Rashi comments on the term qotser ruach, by remarking, “If one is in anguish, his breath comes in short gasps and he cannot draw long breaths”. The parallel between the gemara’s explanation of the sequence of notes for blowing the shofar and reactions of bnei yisrael to their harsh treatment by the Egyptians is clear—people initially respond to bad situations, to tragedies with moans and groans and then begin to whimper and sob. And the latter so overcomes a person that they breathe very shallowly and without any self restraint. Such qotser ruach, shortness of breath, indicates as the JPS translation puts it, “their spirit (ruach) had been crushed.” The vital force, the breath of life, that G-d had breathed into Adam and thereby into all human beings, was now in quite short supply.

The Israelites eventually did recover their breaths, managed to leave Egypt and make their way to Mount Sinai. And there they experienced the revelation of the Holy One who began the Ten Commandments with the word anochi which starts with the letter alef, a letter that the rabbis note is silent or more accurately put, is simply the sound of the divine breath, the ruach elohim that pervades the universe. May we, in the coming days and months, especially as we go through what is often the dark and cold days of winter, not find ourselves in situations when we experience qotser ruach, the shortness of breath, due to sad news and harsh circumstances. May we instead have many occasions for breathing deeply and experiencing the richness and beauty of this world and life in general, Kein yehi ratzon.