“The sons shaped their feet
With the shoes of their fathers.
To the plight of their mothers,
The daughters surrendered their dreams.”
— “The River” Larry D. Thomas
Why does the sound of the shofar move us? I have seen people tearing up in Shul listening to the shofar. It is as if the sound managed to pierce beneath the level of consciousness and bring to the surface something profound.
In many respects the shofar is a clarion call to wake up and take action. It reminds us that we are part of a majestic mission going back through the generations with an aim to co-create the world. However, while this aspect is a key part of the shofar experience, it does not adequately explain the depth and range of emotions experienced.
In business we use the term “outsourcing” in the context of obtaining services from a third party. This is typically a function that is not of a critical nature and had in the past been done internally. When the function is then brought in-house we call it “insourcing”. A friend¹ of mine recently suggested that we could use these terms when discussing purpose and meaning.
When we examine critical choices in life, our career, our religious commitment or our friend circle; were these decisions shaped by the desires of others or are they truly our own? How often have decisions been outsourced to others?
The shofar is the simplest of all instruments. Its role is to merely amplify the sound vibrations created when air passes through the lips. I have blown shofar for almost 30 years and it is still a surreal experience for me. I can control my breath and the rate at which air is pushed through my lips, where the shofar is positioned, but not much else. I am still relieved each time a strong clear note is emitted. It’s almost as if the note is not mine.
Many years ago my parents gifted me a beautifully decorated shofar with a silver overlay. I had always been mystified why halachically this cannot be used to fulfill the mitzvah given that it sounds like any other shofar. However, the answer given is that today we are not expert enough to know if the sound has changed so we do not allow it.
Traditional instruments like trumpets work on a similar principle to shofar. They amplify the note produced by the lips, however they provide valves that allow us to shape the note based on the music we want to play.
On Rosh Hashanah we are called on to be the musical instrument. The shofar merely amplifies an essence that strives to make itself heard, an inner essence whose voice is normally drowned out in our busy and frenetic lives. Like waves that need a medium to propagate, so the inner message our soul seeks to deliver is carried through the medium of the shofar sound. Any shaping and changing of this note imposes an outer disturbance that drowns out what we truly need to hear. A soul message. An answer to the question: What seeks to come into the world through me? Who am I called on to become?
For the critical questions of purpose and meaning we need to “insource”. While someone else might blow for us, the mitzvah itself, “lishmoa kol shofar”, is to listen to the voice of the shofar. It is this listening that cannot be outsourced, it has to be insourced.
When you next listen to the sound of shofar, listen with your heart, try to feel the emotions welling up inside of you. Is it regret or sadness or maybe even a feeling of tenderness and love? Lean into these feelings and try to understand the source. This is the music from deep within.
This is our soul speaking to us and the message it delivers should not be distorted or ignored. Our job is to listen and hear what is being said. You owe yourself and the world at least that much.
– Article inspired by the Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning (South Africa) who are putting together a booklet on the theme “Meditations on Shofar”
¹ Stephen Markowitz, founder of MarkowitzConsulting