“With shofarot and the blast of the ram’s horn, shout for joy before God, our King.”
Pablo Neruda in his poem “Tonight I Can Write” observes, “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” This week we began blowing the shofar in honor of the month of Elul in anticipation of Rosh Hashana. It is an instrument of love and one that reminds us not to forget. In love, its plaintive, primitive sound calls out to us to awaken us to be better, more humane, and more compassionate. In memory, the shofar reminds us of ancient events: of Abraham on Mount Moriah, of the shofar of Sinai, of the biblical music that signals the release of debts and slaves, of Joshua surrounding the walls of Jericho. It is the sound of the Jewish soul of yesterday and today.
According to Maimonides, the mitzvah is not to blow the shofar but to hear it. Many of us remember being taken into the sanctuary as children on these holy days to hear the shofar. Everyone was silent. People who may normally whisper their way through much of the service, stand at attention.
There is a mystical quality to the silence that allows the sound of the shofar to puncture the air. If the shofar blower is good, the sounds come out crisp, and piercing. If the shofar blower is having a bad day, the sound puffs its way out, tired and interrupted. A bad blow of the shofar always feels ominous, as if the year will have the same quality as the sound. This mirroring of self and sound is captured in a famous Talmudic debate.
In the Talmud, there is a distinction made between the shofar that should be used for Rosh Hashana and the one to be used on Yom Kippur. In the Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 26a, Rabbi Levi states that a curved shofar of a ram should be used because “the more a person bends his mind, the more effective is his prayer.” The shofar is not only an external call to repentance; it mirrors the inner workings of the human being. As we celebrate the birthday of the world, Rosh Hashana reminds us to look backwards to look forwards. We have to adjust, accommodate, twist ourselves into new situations, new transitions and new demands.
The same Rabbi Levi is of the opinion that on Yom Kippur we should use a shofar that is straight - the horn of an antelope - emblematic of our own desire to be upright and righteous: “the more a person elevates his mind, the better the effect (of his prayer).” This is directly in contradiction to Rabbi Yehuda, author of the opinion in the mishna that we use a straight shofar on Rosh Hashana because it is then that we are straight, standing tall before our Creator. On Yom Kippur we are bent over with humility and the weight of wrongdoing. Rashi confirms that we use a bent shofar on Yom Kippur because it most closely resembles the desired posture of prayer on a day of judgment.
Today we use a bent shofar for each of these holy days. It is hard to remain straight before the presence of the King of Kings and before the mirror that we hold up to ourselves in self-reflection. Nevertheless, the verse above from Psalms reminds us that the shofar is ultimately a sound of joy and relief. It is the way we shout in prayer at God in the hopes that just as we listen with intent, God will hear us with compassion.
In Jeremiah 4:19, we read: “My heart pounds within me. I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the call of the shofar.” The shofar calls us each morning now. Do not keep silent. Allow your heart to hear it and respond.
Are you ready for the days ahead?