Friends – the mitzvah of shofar on Rosh Hashanah requires active intentionality. It requires not just hearing the sound, but listening to it. Based on the Gemara, the Rambam rules that both the one who is blowing the shofar and the one who is listening to the shofar must have in mind that they are fulfilling a specific Torah obligation. But the Rambam goes a step further, emphasising the importance of attuning ourselves to its potent moral and spiritual message.
He writes: “Even though the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a decree of the scripture, there is a hint in it which is to say ‘awaken those who sleep from your slumber… search out your deeds and return in repentance and remember your Creator those who forget the truth in the emptiness of the time …’.” (Laws of Repentance 3:4)
The shofar is a call to return to our best selves. It goes beyond the physical process of converting air vibrations into nerve impulses and then ordering them in our brain. It’s an enriching, potentially life-changing intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience.
Sometimes, we cruise through life on autopilot. Not thinking too much about what we say or do, not stretching ourselves to be better. The shofar is our Divine wake-up call. It can arrest our moral and spiritual slumber, jolt us into being present, jumpstart our lives. It can reawaken us to our priorities and purpose, and return us to a path of personal and spiritual growth. The moments of hearing the shofar being sounded in shul on Rosh Hashanah can become truly a deep spiritual experience for us as we are literally hearing G-d calling out to us through the sounds of the shofar to become better people, to fulfil our potential.
Here are some ideas to think about as you listen to the shofar this year.
Remembering who we are
The shofar is a call to remind us of who we really are. It is a call to the soul. Its sounds do not relate to the material world. According to our sages, the sounds of the shofar are the cries of a soul longing to be close to its Creator and to its purpose in life. The shofar is unadorned; the halacha says that it may not be covered with gold or silver. It is pure. It is simple. It is natural. The sounds it emits are not melodious or crafted in a sophisticated fashion, they are merely straight, direct spiritual calls from our souls to G-d. And when that connection is established, we feel a true sense of joy.
When we listen deeply, intently, to the shofar, we leave behind the world of materialism and reconnect with our spiritual essence. One of our great sages, the Vilna Gaon, compares the pursuit of materialism to drinking salt water. Drinking salt water creates an unquenchable thirst. The more you drink, the thirstier you become.
Materialism divides people. It creates jealousies and competition. It also separates us from G-d because it deflects us from our true purpose. When people become consumed by their possessions, by things – when they focus on what they are clothed in, rather than who they are – then an emptiness enters their life, a void which cannot be filled.
That is not to say that the Torah prohibits enjoying this physical world. On the contrary, it is a mitzvah to joyfully partake of the great blessings that G-d has afforded us – but we do so always with a higher purpose in mind, always as a means and not an end. So many of the mitzvot guide us in enjoying the wonderful pleasures of this world, but they do so through a system of values and within a framework of spirituality.
G-d has created each and every one of us with a neshama – a soul – that lies at the centre of our very being. It is who we are. We are not a body with a soul, but a soul clothed in a body. We are essentially spiritual beings – and by living a life filled with good deeds, mitzvot, spiritual connection and kindness, we nurture our souls and feel a sense of deep satisfaction. On the other hand, when the soul is ignored, and it is only the body that is fed, an unquenchable thirst is created at the core of a human being.
When we hear the shofar, we remind ourselves of the primacy of the soul. We set our priorities straight. We reposition ourselves for spiritual greatness,
Back to basics
The mitzvah of shofar contains the secret to achieving real, profound, meaningful freedom. The key to understanding this message of the shofar lies in the mitzvah of the Jubilee year, about which the Torah says, “…and you shall proclaim freedom in the land”. In terms of Torah law, during the fiftieth year, all ancestral land is returned to its original owners, and all those living in servitude are freed. The shofar is blown to herald the Jubilee year, and so becomes the expression of freedom for all.
On Rosh Hashanah, the shofar points the way to spiritual and emotional freedom. It does so by calling on us to return to the basics of life. So often, we overcomplicate our lives, and in so doing, forget the very purpose for which we were sent to this world – to do good and fulfil the mitzvot of Hashem. These are certain simple, basic truths that should underpin everything that we do.
The shofar is an instrument of supreme simplicity. The very object itself is a message to us to get back to basics. This is a message that frees us from the stress of the chores and fears that threaten to overwhelm us. It is liberating to remember that the purpose of life is clear and simple – to live a life of mitzvot and good deeds.
At the birth of a child, we pray to G-d that the child be raised to a life of Torah and good deeds. We do not pray that the child merits fortune, fame and other worldly achievements. Those achievements are in fact merely the means to an end. And that end – the very essence of simplicity – is doing good in the world. Our greatest ambition for our children, and indeed for ourselves, is to do good in the world and fulfil the mitzvot of Hashem. That is the purpose of life in its simplest, purest form and it is the pure and liberating message of the shofar.
As we hear the call of the shofar, the call to true freedom, it is an opportunity to contemplate how, perhaps, we have overcomplicated our lives. It is true that we have many responsibilities, and discharging these responsibilities can often be complicated and difficult. But, ultimately, the purpose of life is simple, pure and inspiring. And that idea is profoundly liberating.
Key moments of Jewish destiny
The shofar cuts through the noise and turbulence of the world today, calling the Jewish people back to basics. Its message is about the clarity of Jewish identity and destiny.
The shofar connects us to the key moments of Jewish history that define our destiny as a people. When G-d gave us the Torah, we are told that the sound of a shofar could be heard by the millions of people gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai. The shofar provided the backdrop for that moment that changed the course of Jewish history forever – when G-d revealed to us our mission and purpose, as fulfilled through His mitzvot.
The shofar will also herald the era of the Final Redemption, when the world as a whole will reach its ultimate purpose and G-d’s Oneness will be experienced by all, and “nation will not lift up sword against nation, and neither will they learn war anymore”. Jewish destiny is thus bookended by two shofar blasts – one of Mount Sinai and the other of the Final Redemption. In this way, the shofar calls on us to see Jewish history and Jewish identity in all its vast and glorious sweep – from the foundations of our people when we received the Torah through to the moment in which world history reaches its climax.
It is this elevated sense of purpose that has carried us through the enormous turbulence of Jewish history, which has brought us moments of great joy and inspiration, but also moments of indescribable agony.
The one constant has been our sense of purpose, of understanding that our lives have meaning and that we have a Divine mission to fulfil. The shofar symbolises that. When we hear its simple notes, we transcend all of the artificial complexities and controversies of the era in which we live, and we reconnect with the basic truths of who we are and why we are here. And it is our reconnection to the purity of that vision that fills us with joy.
This is why Rosh Hashanah – in spite of the seriousness and solemnity of this “Day of Judgment” – is nevertheless celebrated as a Yom Tov. The shofar reminds us of the beauty of simple truths, and of the inspiration that comes from clear purpose and a sense of mission.
When a baby is in its mother’s womb, according to the Gemara, it can see from one side of the world to the other. Obviously this cannot be understood on a literal, physical level. What our sages are conveying to us through this vivid description is that vision is one of the most important aspects of human greatness.
Vision is the intellectual clarity to grasp the ultimate purpose of life; the emotional power to transcend our current circumstances, to see beyond what’s immediately in front of us; and the spiritual inspiration to rise above the travails of life in order to understand the big picture, the full perspective of why we are here on this earth.
Often, we get so engrossed and entangled in our day-to-day challenges that we don’t stop to think about why we are here in the first place, and whether we are fulfilling the purpose for which we were created. In the rush and pressure of daily life, we often lose sight of the big picture, of our lofty purpose.
Rosh Hashanah is a time to step back and regain our lost vision. And the call of the shofar is how we do it. The Rambam writes that the message of the shofar is to “awaken those who are asleep”. The analogy to sleep is profound. The dreams we experience in our sleep seem so real at the time, yet the moment we wake up, we realise they were merely illusions. So, too, we often live life in a spiritual slumber; we dream of accumulating material possessions and indulging ourselves to the greatest extent, and we forget about any higher purpose.
The shofar is a call from G-d to wake up to that higher purpose – to remember why we are in this world in the first place; it is a call to regain our vision, to transcend our daily entanglements and return to the basics. It is a call to our souls to return to the reality of why G-d created us – to live a life of good deeds and, in so doing, make the world into a better place.
It is significant that Rosh Hashanah, the day of repentance and judgment, takes place on the anniversary of the creation of the world. There is a deep connection between these two aspects of the day. The fact that G-d created the world means that life has an elevated Divine purpose. The heart and soul of Judaism is the idea that life has purpose; that G-d created each and every one of us to carry out a unique mission in this world, fulfilling His commandments and living life on an elevated plane.
We can so easily forget the purpose of life, and slip into a dream-like state of being, where trivial matters assume inflated importance, and important values are forgotten. The shofar, with its simple call to clarity of purpose, awakens us to see the world the way it is instead of how it appears when we are in a state of spiritual sleep.
G-d has given us the incredible gift of Rosh Hashanah to wake us up so that we can recapture the transcendent vision of life we all saw so perfectly in the womb.
Catalyst for change
The notes of the shofar are very specific. Essentially, the pattern is a straight sustained note (a tekiah), followed by a broken note (either a shevarim or a teruah), followed by another straight note. What is the significance of these notes? What does this pattern mean?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch connects this sequence to the sounds of the chatzotzrot, the silver trumpets used to direct the movements of the Jewish people in the desert after leaving Egypt. The straight blast, the tekiah, was sounded to call people to attention. The broken blast, the teruah, was an indication to the people to break camp – to dismantle their tents and pack their belongings and move on to the next place. This was followed by another straight blast, indicating that the time had come to proceed on their journey.
In the context of the shofar, Rabbi Hirsch explains that the first unbroken note, the tekiah, is G-d calling us to attention – to accept His authority in our lives and prepare to receive His message.
The broken notes, the shevarim-teruah, represent breaking camp with our past selves, our entrenched bad habits. This requires doing a deep, honest reassessment of our lives, in terms of the Torah’s values and principles, to determine what needs to be reinforced and taken with us on our new journey, and what we need to leave behind.
The final straight note, the tekiah, is a call to move forward into the future with our new resolutions and a renewed sense of direction, aligned with G-d’s will and our true, elevated purpose.
Like our ancestors, we are on a journey in life. And that journey requires a map, a compass. Our Creator has put us on this earth for a particular purpose, and in order to ensure we fulfil it, we need His direction. In the same way the Jewish people in the desert needed to be alerted when to break camp and go forward, we too need that wake-up call to break from the harmful things we are doing, to find new, positive, productive things to do, and to journey forward in a new direction. The map and the compass of our lives is the Torah, but sometimes we forget that, and we need a reminder.
The shofar is that reminder. It calls us to take note, to step away from the turbulence of day-to-day life and to hear the crystal-clear call of G-d, the blast of the shofar that pierces our souls. It stops us in our tracks, and calls on us to disengage from all the things that we become attached to, all the extraneous things that are not part of the map of our lives. And it calls us to move forward, into the future, with determination and with conviction.
These three steps of the shofar – stopping, assessing and moving forward – mirror the process of repentance itself, which the Rambam defines as regret for the wrongdoing of the past, disengagement with this wrongdoing in the present, and a resolve not to engage in this wrongdoing in the future.
Looking back, moving forward
One of the most significant moments of Jewish history took place between a father and son on a lonely mountain top. Avraham had been prepared to sacrifice Yitzchak, until G-d stopped him at the last moment. The ram, Yitzchak’s substitute for the altar, was entangled in the bushes, and as it extricated itself, it got entangled again and again, lurching from bush to bush.
The Midrash says that this image – of the entangled ram – presented Avraham with a prophetic vision about his children. He was given a glimpse into the future of the great nation of Jews that would one day come from him. It was to be a future of entanglements and complications; of lurching from one intractable challenge to the next.
The Midrash says that the entanglements come in two forms: internal and external – our sins from within and our enemies from without. And so it has been throughout the millennia of Jewish history: all crises and obstacles can be divided into one of these two categories: assimilation and anti-Semitism, and sometimes both together.
Fortunately, the prophetic vision shown to Avraham also directs us how to free ourselves from the entanglements of our times. The Midrash says that the secret to our future is the shofar.
As we have mentioned, the shofar blasts are the sounds of freedom (the call of the shofar heralds the Jubilee year), and also the sounds of our founding principles as a nation, given to us by G-d at Mount Sinai, where a heavenly shofar heralded that awesome occasion as we heard the very first words of our moral and strategic blueprint: “I am the L-rd your G-d …” The shofar on Rosh Hashanah shows us that the path to freedom from the entanglements of life is through returning to our core values as given to us by G-d in His Torah.
When confronted with the challenges of intermarriage and assimilation, we need to return to our founding principles. The image of the ram entangled in the bushes is particularly poignant; the ram is unable to lift its head and see the bigger picture. So, too, we often get so entangled in life’s complications and entrapments of our destiny that we are unable to see the bigger picture, or appreciate our greater calling.
It’s interesting that in the blessing recited before the sounding of the shofar, we refer to lishmoa kol shofar – “hearing the voice of the shofar”. The shofar isn’t just a sound, it’s a voice. It’s a voice with an explicit message, something directly intelligible. We are called on to hear that message, not just in the sense of hearing the notes, but to listen intently and receive it.
Listening is foundational in Judaism. The mission statement of the Jewish people is Shema Yisrael – “Listen O’ Israel.” We recite the Shema every day before we go to bed and when we wake up. We begin and end each day with listening.
On Rosh Hashanah, we will hear the sound of the shofar. It is the sound that can awaken us. It is the sound that stirs us to look deep inside ourselves and make changes. It is the sound that opens the door and beckons us to a new, glorious future – to who we were meant to be.
And all we need to do is listen.