The Shofar - How to Listen
Rosh Hashanah 5780
At around age 10, growing up in Eastern Europe, a boy received a gift of his very own Shofar.
So as Rosh HaShanah approached, he was so excited to practice blowing the Shofar. But try as he could, he just couldn’t get any sound out of it at all. Each day, during the month of Elul leading up to Rosh HaShanah, he would spend at least an hour – holding his mouth in various positions, making various kinds of rude vibrating noises with his lips, trying to produce any sound with the Shofar. But to no avail.
The day before Rosh HaShanah, as he was practicing outside his home, a Russian farmer came by. “What’s that?”
He said, “It’s a shofar.” Not realizing that this might be an unfamiliar word to a Russian farmer.
The farmer answered with another question, “What’s a shofar?”
And the boy explained, it’s a ram’s horn, and we blow it in synagogue to commemorate Rosh HaShanah.
And the farmer said, “Can I try?” and he took the Shofar, held it up to his lips – and out came a Tekiah Gedolah that would be the envy of any Shofar-blower in the world. He handed the Shofar back to the boy, who raced back to the Shammos, the man at the synagogue who had been trying to teach him how to blow the Shofar.
Choking back tears, he said, ” it’s just not fair! I spend all this time, for more than a month, practicing to blow the Shofar, and this farmer, who has never even HEARD of a Shofar, gets a beautiful sound out of it!”
And the Shammos heard the boy’s anguish, and said to him, reassuringly:
“The mitzvah, the commandment, isn’t in the blowing.
The mitzvah is in the listening.
The blessing we say before the blowing of the shofar is not ‘ve-tzivanu al teki’at shofar’ – who commanded us concerning the blowing of the shofar – but rather ‘ve-tzivanu lishmo’a kol shofar’ – ‘who commanded us to listen to the sound of the shofar.’
The trick isn’t how to blow the Shofar.
The trick is how to listen.”
Listening is an intentional activity. When you are listening, you are actively trying to hear something and that implies that you intend to do something with what you’ve heard. In contrast, hearing is something that happens without any intentional effort. You can hear something even when you don't want to hear it and don't try to hear it. You can hear something, without thinking about it and without reacting. You can hear something, and not process it. (point to head) Just ask your spouse.
In contrast to the pagans who worshipped things they saw, events and objects in nature, the Israelites worshipped the one they heard. In Devarim 4:12, Moshe reminds the Israelites that at Sinai, “You heard the sound of words, but saw no image; there was only a voice.” Thus listening is a fundamentally Jewish function. It is most powerfully expressed in our most famous prayer: Shema Yisrael. The word, “Shema” has a range of senses in biblical Hebrew. It means to hear, to listen, to understand, to internalize, to respond in action, to obey. It has intention behind it. There is no single equivalent English word.
And when we say the first verse of the Shema we cover our eyes so as to eliminate the distractions of sight and thus enhance our focus on the voice of God.
It is fitting, therefore, that with the start of the new year, the beginning of the holy period, the Yamim Noraim – 10 days of Awe, when we are called upon to return to God – the God who is not an image but a voice – we begin with an act of listening to the wordless cry of the Shofar.
So my question for you this morning, is how should we listen to the Shofar? Or more precisely, if we are listening, what is it telling us about our past, our present, and our future? What is the cry of the Shofar saying to us and how should we respond?
First, the cry of the Shofar…
Our tradition declares Rosh Hashanah to be the anniversary of Creation, and the notes of the Shofar are conceived as sounds of jubilation, joy and celebration on the proclamation of the Divine kingship. They are trumpet blasts that announce the coronation of the King. In fulfilling this command, in participating in the sounding of the Shofar, we are acknowledging God as King, and Ruler of our lives and destinies. As it says in Psalm 98, “With trumpets and the blast of the Shofar, raise a shout before the LORD, the King” (Ps 98:6)
Rosh Hashanah is the first of the Aseret Y’may Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, leading us to Yom Kippur. The Shofar is sounded to stir our conscience. It is a clarion call to repentance, Teshuvah. The Shofar’s notes have throughout the ages been interpreted as the summons to spiritual regeneration.
Back in the twelfth century, Maimonides wrote of the sounding of the Shofar:
“Awake! Awake, ye sleepers from your slumber. And rouse you from your lethargy. Scrutinize your deeds and return in repentance. Remember your Creator, ye who forget eternal truth in the trifles of the hour, who go astray all your years after vain illusions which can neither profit nor deliver. Look well into your souls and mend your ways and your actions; let each one of you forsake his evil path and his unworthy purpose, and return to God, so that He may have mercy upon you.”
And from back in the 1st century a Rabbi once instructed His students to prayer, “forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)
The Revelation at Sinai was accompanied by the sound of the Shofar. “Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the LORD had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the Shofar grew louder and louder. As Moshe spoke, God answered him in thunder.” The Shofar’s notes remind us of that turning-point in the spiritual life of humanity, and reaffirms the eternal truth of that Revelation in the present and the future.
A revelation to which we responded, “All that the LORD has spoken we will faithfully do!” Thus, the Shofar should remind us of our promise — to be a people of Torah, to pursue its study and to practice its commandments.
The sound of the Shofar is reminiscent of the exhortations of the prophets whose voices rang out like a Shofar in denouncing their people’s wrongdoing, and in calling them to the service of God and man. We are told in Amos chapter 3, “Shall a Shofar be blown in the city, and the people be not afraid? Indeed, my Lord GOD does nothing without having revealed His purpose To His servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:6)
The sounding of the Shofar is like the words of the watchman who gives warning of God’s judgment. As Ezekiel said, “Then whosoever hears the sound of the Shofar, and takes not warning; if the sword come, and take him away, his blood shall be upon his own head... But he that takes warning shall deliver his soul.” (Ezek 33:4-5)
Listen. Heed the sound of the Shofar.
The sound of the Shofar was heard in the Jubilee year at which slaves were released and the poor man received back the heritage of his fathers. It is thus a symbol of freedom, and bids us to free ourselves from everything that enslaves us, that is an entanglement to our feet in our progress towards a Higher Life of faith.
The sounding of the Ram’s horn brings to memory the Akedah, as beautifully leyned this morning by Allen,. The binding of Yitzhak and Abraham’s unconditional obedience to God. We should recall the ram provided by Adonai, to be offered instead of Isaac on the alter. Therefore, it should also remind us of Yeshua’s sacrifice, his victory over death and His promise of life for those who would believe.
The sounding of the shofar reminds us of the destruction of the Temple and battle alarms of the foe. As Jeremiah said, “Because you have heard, O my soul, the blare of the Shofar, the alarms of war...” (Jer 4:19). When we hear the sound of the ram’s horn, we thus beseech Adonai to rebuild the temple.
The sounding of the shofar is a call to the dispersed of Israel. It is a call to a holy convocation, a reunion of all Israel and his companions to join together. It is the long compassionate call of God for His people. As Isaiah said, “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the great Shofar shall be blown; and they shall come which were ready to perish in the land of Assyria.” (Isa 27:13)
The Prophets picture the Reunion of Israel’s scattered children as to be ushered in by the sounding of the Shofar. And they speak of the Shofar of the Messiah that shall inaugurate the time when all tiger-passions in the human breast shall have been tamed, and peace shall reign on earth; when “the knowledge of God shall fill the earth, as the waters cover the bed of the ocean” (Isaiah 11.9). And in the poetic conception of our later Teachers, it was the sound of the Great Shofar that will on the Last Day rend open the graves, and cause the dead to rise. On that day, we who are still alive will be changed and gathered with the saints just as Rav Shaul says in 1 Thessalonians, “…And with the Shofar of God; the dead in Messiah shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them...” (1 Thes 4:16-17).
Finally, the sounding of the shofar reminds us of the Great Day of Judgment coming upon the whole world. Just as the prophet Joel said, “Blow a Shofar in Zion, and sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; surely it is near.” (Joel 2:1)
Thus, Creation and Coronation, Revelation, Exhortation, Repentance, Freedom, Obedience, Sacrifice, Messianic Hope, Redemption, Resurrection and Immortality of the soul are all intertwined with the message of the Shofar. That is, if we are listening.
There is a poem from my Grandfather’s Machzor, a High Holiday Prayer Book published back in 1951 which incorporates most of these themes. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear lines from Ezekiel, Isaiah, and other prophets woven into the text.
The poem is calling us to heed to the sound of the Shofar, to listen. I also found it incredibly satisfying to find that following one of the prominent references in the poem to Isaiah, where he talks about building a new heaven and a new earth, my eyes were drawn to the text before and after the reference.
“But as for you who forsake the Lord and forget my holy mountain,
I will destine you for the sword, and all of you will fall in the slaughter;
for I called but you did not answer,
I spoke but you did not listen.” (Isaiah 65:11-12)
Adonai goes on to say that He will bring forth descendants of Jacob and Judah, His chosen to possess the land. He will create a new heaven and a new earth where all will prosper, peace will reign, “The wolf and the lamb will graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox…” And ‘before we even call, Adonai will answer. While we are yet speaking, God will hear.’
So how should we respond?
When we come to shul each week, we worship and praise Hashem, but we also study Torah and the teachings of our faith. We must remember that the mitzvot are not just for Saturday morning entertainment. And the teachings of Messiah are not only applicable under Kippot and Tallitot.
The whole point of studying Torah and Chaye Yeshua (the life of Messiah), is to take those values, ideas, and imperatives, into our daily lives. Torah is the Living Word, but only if internalized so that it becomes the light that guides our steps. Yeshua is our Messiah, but that only means something if we are walking on His path, if we are Just and Kind, and loving our neighbors and yes, even the strangers.
And just in case we doze off during the year, and don’t pay attention to the teachings of our faith the way that we should, we come to synagogue on Rosh HaShanah to hear the blast of the Shofar to stir our souls, to reawaken us to our moral obligations, obligations to ourselves, to each other, to the past, to the future, to our God, and to Messiah.
So how should we respond?
We remember all that the Shofar represents. We repent our failings. We renew our hope in Messiah and redemption. And we strive to live Solomon’s wisdom when he said, “Let your garments be always white.” (Ecc. 9:8) In other words, we live each day as if it’s your last. Assume that tomorrow you will be standing in Judgement before the Heavenly throne. Therefore, Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.
Heed to the sound of the Shofar.
The blast that is blown, O my people.
L’shanah tovah tikatevu.
May you be inscribed in God’s Book of Life for a good year.