Something strange happens on Rosh Hashana. We spend hours declaring God’s majesty, using poetic and unique phrases. We refer to Him as the Ultimate King and Mover of this world. We ask Him to strengthen and reinforce His relationship with us and show us His omnipotence.
But the ultimate prayer of this day is a sound that carries no words, and it is the only biblical commandment of the day: the blowing of the shofar.
What is there in a sound that words cannot express? And why do we have this sound only once a year, on Rosh Hashana, when we remind ourselves of the Creation and of the radical new beginning in our lives; when we repent, turn over a new leaf, and recreate ourselves?
The blowing of the shofar proves that we can surpass ourselves. On our own, using our vocal cords, we are unable to produce this sound – a terrifying penetrating resonance. People can scream, howl, and wail, but nothing more than that. Their reach is limited. Alone, they cannot produce a sound that comes close to the piercing and penetrating heavenly voice of the shofar, which can cause human beings to break down, pick themselves up again, and transform into new individuals.
Not even a chazan’s liturgical solo, or an opera singer’s aria can touch us where the shofar’s vibrations do. The shofar carries us to places unreachable by the human word. It ignores walls and other obstacles, simply forging ahead, long after the human sound has come to an end.
The shofar and the human voice are completely different from each other. The shofar, like a knife, tears our hearts open – just as when the Children of Israel encountered the original shofar sound at Sinai, before God introduced the Torah to them. An experience beyond.
No voice can produce this sound or deliver such a powerful resonance. The only way a person can do it is by blowing a not-too-strong puff of breath into a small hole at one end of the shofar, which widens to a larger opening at the other end. This produces a sound of overwhelming power that pierces the heavens.
Suddenly, we are able to reach unreachable heights, when we are humble enough to admit that we cannot do it alone and we need help. But it is we who must activate this help. The shofar will not blow on its own. It needs the human’s puff – our participation and our effort – before it can move mountains.
Whether or not the shofar will blow is up to us, but whether we can reach our own potential will be up to the shofar. Our humility, combined with our capacity to move beyond ourselves, is what makes us exceptional.
This is our great challenge. Will we remain complacent and stagnant, letting the shofar sit in the cupboard, and never daring to go beyond ourselves? Or, will we have the nerve to blow the shofar and produce something more that will move us and the world forward?
Will we leave Judaism where it is, or will we constantly blow new life into it, impelling it to surpass itself and open new horizons?
On Rosh Hashana, when we recall the greatness of God and the Creation, the shofar challenges us to dare and go beyond, creating ourselves and Judaism anew. If we don’t respond to the challenge at this crucial hour, the sound will fall flat and die before it reaches its destination.
Tizku leshanim rabot!
Questions to Ponder from the David Cardozo Think Tank:
[We suggest printing out and discussing at your Shabbat table, if you like.]
1. Do Shofar and Shabbat both serve to bring an individual back to, or closer to, their essential self – Shabbat every 7 days, Shofar over a concentrated period of each year?
2. If so, what part do Shabbat and Shofar each play in the process?
3. If Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat the Shofar is not blown, in case Shabbat might be inadvertently violated by the Shofar being carried in a public domain. Why were the Sages ready, in order to protect against only a risk of a violation of one of dozens of Shabbatot in the year, to forgo the Shofar on Rosh Hashana.
4. Does it indicate something about the priority attached by the Sages to those aspects of soul which can emerge in the space created by Shabbat, as distinct from those aspects of soul which the Shofar can reach.
5. Does their privileging of Shabbat over Shofar indicate how the Sages, if they were here now, would rule on railway construction work on Shabbat, or on running and maintaining vital 24/7 infrastructure? Would the principles which produced the ruling against Shofar on Shabbat produce similarly uncompromising rulings in such contemporary cases? Or would the same essential principles produce a radically different result if applied by the Sages to contemporary circumstances?
6. If the Sages were ruling for contemporary circumstances, how would their rulings compare to the actual rulings of contemporary Halachic authorities?