The Shofar's Power

With trumpets and the sound of the shofar, call out in the presence of the King, Almighty.
— Psalm 45:6

I saw a bumper sticker this week that said, "I play weird instruments." I wondered if the driver happens to blow shofar. It's hard to say if we would call it an instrument at all since the shofar really doesn't play music in the conventional sense. It plays tears - the primal screams, sobs and whimpers of the human heart when it encounters the soul at its most vulnerable. It is no coincidence that the shofar comes from an animal since its sounds are not sophisticated but more animal-like in their range and treble. We might call it instead the Jewish alarm clock that rings only in this season.

Our associations with the shofar on Rosh Hashana are very old and straight from Numbers 29:1: "It shall be a day of sounding [the ram's horn] for you." Many holidays are associated with tastes, some with smells and many with sights. Rosh Hashana is about sounds. The sounds are of a dual nature, as reflected in the verse from Psalms above. On the one hand, there is the sound of the trumpet, the shrill and majestic announcement that the King of Kings is approaching. It is the sound of joy, royalty and coronation. To demonstrate this, before we blow the shofar we recite psalm 47 seven times. It is a psalm of rejoicing in front of God. The King is in our presence, and we are deeply honored: "All peoples, clap hands and shout to God with the voice of joyous song." 

Every Rosh Hashana we acknowledge God as an authority figure over us and assume once again the posture of the humble servant in God's presence. Unlike human royalty, when it comes to God, we re-affirm God's rule over us annually. This explains why so many verses of prayer on Rosh Hashana mention God as King again and again. A friend recently said to me that she loves Rosh Hashana but doesn't like to refer to God as King again and again. It makes her feel that she is relinquishing her own authority. I told her I felt relief. I know how little I control in this life. Accepting the presence of a Higher Authority over me helps me appreciate the human condition and let go of the ambition of mastery and abide instead in mystery. It certainly makes life more interesting.

But we don't only welcome God with the sounds of formality and royalty represented by the trumpet. We also and primarily blow the shofar.

Maimonides writes that in the Temple on Rosh Hashana, "There was one shofar and two trumpets. The sounding of the shofar was extended, while that of the trumpets was shortened because the mitzvah of the day is the shofar" [Mishne Torah, "Laws of Shofar 1:2]. And while the trumpets likely played out a recognizable tune in the Temple, the shofar made and continues to make an unpredictable sound. Here, too, Maimonides mentions that this is permissible: "Regardless of whether the sound is heavy, thin or raspy, it is kosher, because all the sounds produced by the shofar are kosher" [1:7]. All crying is kosher. There is no correct sound when it comes to tears. They are as different as the people who cry them.  

And with the shofar we recognize the other dimension of God on these Days of Awe. One of our oldest and most central prayers this season is Avinu Malkenu, "Our Father, Our king." We beseech God as both our parent and our authority figure. The trumpets acknowledge one aspect of this relationship: God as King. But the shofar acknowledges the most important role of God as our parent - our Abba with a capital "A" - as one theologian put it. God is the Father who loves us, who weeps over us, who hears the range of our pain and suffering and wants to heal and to help us. The trumpets are formal. The shofar is intimate. Its sound begs us to close our eyes and feel God's loving presence.

A friend of mine recently shared some of her beautiful words. "Love what is broken. Rejoice in what's whole." The trumpets help us rejoice in what is whole this year. The shofar allows us a holy release of what is broken. As we review the year past and hope the year ahead will be filled with meaning and sweetness, we offer up what is whole and what is broken to God. It is the dual sound of our humanity.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova!