I usually keep my work life and my religious life fairly discrete; I’m a big believer in the separation of church and state, and my religious beliefs and practices are really nobody’s business. But on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I gave a d’var — a sort of sermonette — about the meaning of the Shofar, the ram’s horn that is traditionally blown as part of the service. The message seemed to resonate for the congregation, and I think it might fit here as well; regardless of our individual beliefs and practices or the lack thereof, we’re all making our way in a complicated, overly busy world.
At Rosh Hashanah, we look back on the past year of deeds and dreams, of accomplishments and failures, and ask to be written in the Book of Life so that we can do it again. We celebrate the new year — and ask that it be sweet as honey and round and full as an apple. We look back as we look forward.
The children of Israel were called by the sound of the Shofar, or ram’s horn, to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. Later they were called for pilgrimage festivals to the Holy Temple. Every year on Rosh Hashanah the Jewish people are called again — although this time it’s to the dinner table to be with family and friends — and also to show up at the synagogue for services.
We come to hear sermons and to daven (pray), to hum the familiar tunes or sing them out full strength. Both the sermons and the davening are meant to invigorate and refresh us, support a fresh start, and help us reflect on our lives – about the year that has passed and what lies ahead.
If we really take the opportunity to reflect, perhaps we feel a little sad or sorry — maybe we did not behave quite as well as we could have, perhaps we were not consistently our best selves. Or maybe we feel a little frightened about what the year ahead will mean for us, for this fragile and divided world we live in, and for the families we hold dear. Some may remember the services of our past, when we were the children who wanted to be released from the sanctuary, when the rituals were fresh and new to us and we were still figuring out our lives.
The Rosh Hashanah meals, messages, and melodies all make it easy to fall into a reverie, whatever its emotional cast, and to get a little lost in thoughts and memories. Some of us even drift off a bit during services.
And then suddenly it’s time for the Shofar blower to step up to the pulpit — and as we stand, too, our hearts and expectations rise a little.
It’s exciting, the Shofar blowing — a special event. How many of us have held children in our arms, on our shoulders, or balanced on the tops of pews and seats and pointed out the Shofar? And how many of us recall being told to look — and to listen?
The sound of the Shofar has been described as a clarion call, a call to arms, an alarm clock — all of them, according to Maimonides, the noted scholar and commentator, signifying that the sound of the horn is to bring us to attention: “Awake, sleepers, from your sleep, and arise, slumberers, from your slumber. Scrutinize your deeds and return to repentance and remember your creator!”
There is another, almost reciprocal interpretation of the Shofar — that it also calls God to attention, and awakens God’s compassion for us. The psalm that we recite preceding the blowing of the Shofar says: “Out of narrow straits I’ve called out to God — God answered me with abundance.” We say to God, “Hear my voice, God — hear my cry and answer my plea.” It’s like when a child calls out for a parent — the child doesn’t want to hear, “Later, Dear;” the child wants to hear, “Yes! I’m coming right now!”
So when we hear the sound of the Shofar, the message is: No more reverie. No more drifting. Pay attention, NOW.
Pay attention and ask yourself: What is my everyday life? We all coast or stumble along, half asleep and half distracted through so much of it. Think of the terms we use to describe daily functioning: We’re “multitasking” or we’re “on autopilot.” We’re focused on too many things at once — our jobs, our health, the market, the bills, our kids, our parents, getting ready for the next thing, worrying about the last thing.
But at this moment, this simultaneously communal and individual moment, we pay attention. We give heed to kol Shofar — the voice of the Shofar — that says NOW.
Judaism’s single most familiar prayer, the one that everyone knows the highest proportion of the words, is probably the Shema. It begins: “Shema Yisrael — Hear, Oh Israel.” I think of it as an acknowledgment that we are a noisy people, and it’s not easy to call us all to attention.
The voice of the Shofar — kol Shofar — says NOW, be where you are. Stop for a moment and be here and just listen. What do you hear? An ancient set of words and the sounding of historical notes. These are sounds that people have made and heard for centuries.
So when you listen, don’t listen for the loudest sound or the longest sound. Try, instead, to hear what is steady and evocative. Whether it brings you to tears or to joy, try listening for what elevates you to a fullness of feeling and helps you remember who you are and where you are and who you are with, and just for the moment, let the busyness of everything that waits for you outside these walls to fall away.
And the Shofar commands us to be here — in the now — to listen, NOW, for kol Shofar — the voice of the Shofar.
It’s a sort of command to awaken, to be mindful. To listen, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, to hear what is happening in the moment. Isn’t that part of what we need every day, at work and at home to be present, for a moment, in the moment?
What serves as your spiritual or mental alarm clock, your clarion call?
Onward and upward,