Rosh HaShanah: The Challenge of the Shofar

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 the World. We ask Him to strengthen and reinforce His relationship with us and to 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 hear 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 only our vocal cords, we are unable to produce this sound—a terrifying, awesome, penetrating resonance. We can scream, howl, and wail, but nothing more than that. Our reach is limited. Alone, we cannot produce any sound that comes close to the piercing and penetrating heavenly voice of the shofar. This is a sound that can cause us to break down, pick ourselves up again, and transform ourselves into new individuals.

Not even a chazan’s liturgical solo or an opera singer’s aria can touch us the way 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. That, too, was an experience beyond anything that came before.

No human voice can produce such a powerful resonance. The only way to create 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 on our own, and that we need help. But it is we who must activate this help. The shofar will not blow on its own. It needs the human breath—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?

This question is no less crucial in relationship to the future of Judaism. Will we leave Judaism as it is, as if nothing at all has happened in modern Jewish history? As if the State of Israel has not created a radical change in the condition of the Jewish people? As if our spiritual and moral condition has not encountered enormous challenges in modern times? Or will we wake up and use the great foundations of Judaism to 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 to 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. But the Shofar holds all the possibilities of the future, and if we blow it properly, it will utter us into a new area of infinite opportunities through which Judaism will come alive as never before, and enrich our lives in ways that we cannot even imagine! Oh, yes, it will be arduous work with its ups and its downs, but the reward will be infinite.

Tizku leshanim rabot!

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Rabbi Cardozo heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.
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