It is interesting that though the prayers we recite on the High Holidays themselves are collective prayers, where we as a community stand before G-D and ask for forgiveness for both sins we have committed and those we have not, we also do take individual responsibility. The custom of asking forgiveness from those who we’ve wronged is an individual effort (though memes such as these have allowed people to ask forgiveness en masse).
For many, the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is likened to a call to awaken, telling us it is time to look inside and think about what we have or haven’t done this past year, to take a heshbon nefesh, an accounting of our soul.
When the congregation stands to hear the shofar being blown, we stand as a congregation. A group. But as it enters each of our ears, we can process it in a number of different ways, none of them necessarily contradictory.
We can interpret it as the wake-up call our people needs to hear to get our lives back on track, yes.
What about considering its call as one that fills your soul? Dr. Tarece Johnson’s moving poem, Soulful Shofar, does just that, describing how the shofar’s sounds depict the twists and turns in her life.
Considering it a call to better oneself makes sense too. Its root letters in Hebrew are ש-פ-ר (shin-feh-resh), the same as the for the word meshaper (משפר), to improve, and this connection makes sense.
How can we improve? We all know the answer, that is, we each know our own answer. Be it to have more patience, treat others as we would ourselves, perform more mitzvot, whatever it is, each of us knows what we need to do to improve, to become better people, to become better Jews.
But this is no mere New Year’s resolution. Taking stock is a far more weighty endeavor than making a promise and trying to change a behavior.
One of my early blogs was about how organizations could mimic Rosh HaShanah to create an annual ritual of taking stock, seeing if they as an organization fulfill their mission, if their employees are truly a part of the picture. Since then I’ve given more thought to the missed opportunities in the world at large and particularly in the Jewish community in terms of giving voice and representation to marginalized segments of our community. When you look at a picture, are members of the boards and senior management groups all visually alike? Or do they include women, black and brown people, people of different ethnicities and backgrounds, disabled, and all the other wonderful threads in our rich tapestry? Perhaps the high holidays are a fitting time for all kinds of organizations to do heshbon nefesh too, to heed the call of the shofar and to take stock of their level of social responsibility as well.
Yes, we should embrace each day as an opportunity to do better, to be better, but that does not stop us from treating Rosh Hashanah as that larger opportunity for an annual look back and for a renewed commitment to do the right thing. I hear its call. Do you?
For a quick video with the sounds of the three kinds of blasts of the shofar: Tekiah, Shevarim, and T’ruah