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What The Shofar Tries To Teach Us

The shofar is once again reverberating through the late summer air as Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur quickly approach. It’s alarming and mystifying sounds are intended to wake us up from our spiritual and moral slumber. “Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep! O you slumbers, awake from your slumber! Search your deeds and turn in teshuva,” repentance. wrote Maimonides in reference to the role of the shofar. It’s piercing cries ask us — where have we been and where are we going? Existential angst falls with each dying leaf as nature prepares itself for the cold months ahead.

In the days of Joshua its wail brought down the walls of Jericho — today it does so for the barriers surrounding our soul. We stand exposed and vulnerable in these days of awe as the shofar reveals us to our deepest and most authentic selves. Who am I really? How far away am I from fully realizing my potential? With each blast the often painful truth is uncovered and we’re forced to take a true accounting of our actions. “Will we let in the truth we have been walling out all year long and let this truth help us stop making the same mistakes again and again?” asks Rabbi Alan Lew in his classic work — This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. “Will we move from a state of siege to a state of openness, to a state of truthfulness, especially with ourselves?” he concludes.

The sages of Talmud heard the the shofar primarily as a cry — the shavrim and teruot, long and short blasts, as moanings and whimpers. The rabbis believed that the one hundred blasts of the shofar were connected to the hundred cries of Sisera’s mother when she realized her son would not be returning from war against the Israelites. The shofar challenges our emotional capacity — wondering whether we’re capable of hearing not just the pain of others but the brokenness of those we hate. “Hatred, sternness and irritability result from forgetting God” taught Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. “The more intense the quest for God is in a person’s heart, the more the love for all people will grow in him” concluded Kook. The shofar reinstills our humanity as we remember that human heartbreak must transcend all divisions and hatred only pushes us further away from God. If we want to to know how close we are to God we first must examine our relationships with others — especially the most conflicting.

The shofar is truly paradoxical — brokenness and repair can be found in the very same sound wave as the shofar will ultimately be the sound of redemption — heralding in a time of peace, justice, and righteousness. As we begin the new year, we remind ourselves of our central mission in building a more compassionate world. My teacher, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg argues, “The Jewish religion is founded on the divine assurance and human belief that the world will be perfected. Life will triumph over its enemies — war, oppression, hunger, poverty, sickness, even death. Before we are done, humanity will achieve the fullest realization of the dignity of the human being.” On Rosh HaShanah the shofar reminds us to reclaim our dreaming nature and begin seeing what the world ought to be. In a world with bitter strife and endless suffering — we need to hear the shofar this year more than ever before.


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