(Updated after Rosh haShanah 5774 with idea from the Tanchuma.)
The Ramban, in his Derashah leRosh haShanah, writes that a shofar is a keli, a formal utensil in the halachic sense. For this reason, while most rishonim hold that a hole in a shofar invalidates the shofar only if the hole is such that it changes the produced sound, the Ramban holds that any hole disqualifies it. He emphasizes that we take a raw natural qeren, a horn, and produce a new thing from it with a new name — shofar, from leshapeir (to improve).
(Tangent: Students of R JB Soloveitchik might note that he, RJBS, often referred to the shofar as a raw animal cry, emphasizing how un-technological a shofar is. These two approaches appear to be in conflict. But this entry is from the Ramban’s perspective.)
Literally a qeren is a horn (or something shaped like a horn, like a beam of light from Moshe’s head, or the cornerpieces of the mizbeiach). And once this horn is refined, meshaperes, we have the mitzvah of shofar which we are to blow before G-d.
This notion that Hashem left it for us to complete what He began is the topic of a story in the Medrash Tanchuma (Tzaria, Buber #7, Warsaw: second half of #5) that I discussed elsewhere:
Turnus Rufus the wicked asked Rabbi Aqiva: Which acts are more pleasant, those of the Holy One, or those of flesh and blood?
[R’ Aqiva] said to him: Those of flesh and blood are [more] pleasant.
Turnus Rufus the wicked said to him: Behold heaven and earth — can you make anything like them?
Rabbi Aqiva said to him: Do not talk to me about something which is beyond creatures [to do], which they do not have mastery of them, but of things that exist among people.
He said to him: Why do you circumcise?
He said to him: I even knew you were going to say to me something llike this, therefore I preempted and said to you “the acts of fless and blood are more pleasant than those of the Holy One.
[Then R’ Aqiva said to the staff:] Bring me sheaves and cakes.
He said to him: These [sheaves] are the Holy One’s work, and these [cakes] are made by people. Are they not more pleasant?
[Again R’ Aqiva asked of the staff:] Bring me flax stalks and [linen] garments from Beis She’an.
He said to him: These [stalks] are the Holy One’s work, and these [fine garments] are made by people. Are they not more pleasant?
Turnus Rufus said to him: Since [G-d] wants circumcision, why doesn’t [the baby] emerge circumcised from the mother’s womb?Rabbi Aqiva said to him: And why his umbilical cord emerge with him, if his mother were not to cut his umbilical cord? Why doesn’t he emerge [already] circumcised? Because the Holy One only gave Israel the mitzvos in order to be refined by them. That is why David said, “the speech of G-d refines” (Tehillim 18:31)
This, then is one message of shofar: A person is not saved by simply trusting in G-d and leaving the job to Him. On the other hand, a person can only succeed in anything by entering in a partnership with the Creator. And so we do not awaken ourselves to repentance with the qeren He made. Nor do we use chatzotzros, metal trumpets that are so reshaped they are keilim, utensils, in which it’s so easy to see our own efforts, it is hard to notice Hashem’s initial contribution. The word “shofar” acknowledges that this is something from the Creator, but “refined” by man.
A second thought can be learned from the transition from qeren to shofar when we note that idiomatically, qeren refers to might or pride. As we say in Shemoneh Esrei, “The sprout of David may You quickly cause to bloom, veqarno — and his pride — You shall uplift with Your redemption…” Or in Tehillim (75:5), “אָמַרְתִּי לַהוֹלְלִים אַל תָּהֹלּוּ, וְלָרְשָׁעִים אַל תָּרִימוּ קָרֶן — I said to the arrogant, do not brag; and to the evil, do not ‘lift a horn’ [i.e. boast].”
So we take this symbol of pride, and we bore a small hole at the end. What used to hold air or liquid now amplifies the cry of another. By sharing the pain of another, self-interest gets harnessed to aid this community of suffering. This too is a sublimation and refinement. Thus the qeren of pride becomes a shofar of empathy.
Hashem gives us a set of middos, talents and desires. We can choose whether to use them to build a world of self-pride or one of yedidus, affection and connection to others.
We associate the shofar with crying. We blow 100 sounds because Sisera’s mother cried 100 times when learning her son (off to war against the Jews) was killed and would not return. There is a dispute whether the broken sound required by the Torah is more like yelulei yalal (uneven wailing) or genunei ganach (sobbing), so we blow both the teru’ah and the shevarim, as well as the two together as a pair.
The shofar is also a royal sound. “With trumpets and the sound of a shofar, call out before the King. The mishnah describes Hashem as saying, “Call before Me with the blast of the Shofar – to show that you accept of Me as your King.” In the same way they blow trumpets to announce that the king or queen is entering the room, we blow Shofar on Rosh haShanah to announce a new year of Hashem’s rule.
Is the sound of the shofar the 100 wails of Sisera’s mother, or the triumphant fanfare of the King?
אמר ר’ יוחנן כל מקום שאתה מוצא גבורתו של הקב”ה אתה מוצא ענוותנותו דבר זה כתוב בתורה ושנוי בנביאים ומשולש בכתובים כתוב בתורה (דברים י) כי ה’ אלהיכם הוא אלהי האלהים ואדוני האדונים וכתיב בתריה עושה משפט יתום ואלמנה שנוי בנביאים (ישעיהו נז) כה אמר רם ונשא שוכן עד וקדוש וגו’ וכתיב בתריה ואת דכא ושפל רוח משולש בכתובים דכתיב (תהילים סח) סולו לרוכב בערבות ביה שמו וכתיב בתריה אבי יתומים ודיין אלמנות
R’ Yochanan said: Every place where you find the Might of HQBH, you find His anvanus (humility). This is written in the Torah, seconded in the Nevi’im, and stated a third time in Kesuvim. Written in the Torah: “For Hashem your G-d, He is the G-d over all powers and the L-rd over all lords”, and it says after it “who performs justice for the orphan and the widow.” Seconded in the Nevi’im, “As said the High and Exalted Who dwells eternally and Holy…” and it says after it, “and the broken and low of spirit.” And stated a third time in the Kesuvim, as it says, “Extol He Who rides on the skies, through Kah His name” and it says after it, “the Father of orphans and judge for widows.”
G-d’s greatness isn’t just that He is Infinite, but that He is SO infinite so as to not just set the stars on their paths and keeps the laws of physics running, but He has time, attention and resources to care for the needy.
The person who can share another’s cry is the very one who declares G-d’s majesty.
That is taking the qeren and making something new of it, something shofar — refined.