Temple Beth Joseph of Herkimer, New York

A Conservative Synagogue in New York’s Mohawk Valley

“And the Great Shofar Shall Sound…” - ובשופר גדול יתקע

October 2016

On these 2 days of Rosh Hashanah we will hear the sound of the shofar. Indeed, one of the names of our holy new year celebration is Yom Teru'ah, The day of Trumpet Blast. Oddly, though Rosh Hashanah is established in our holy Torah, no reason is given for its observance. While the word teru'ah might mean trumpet blast, it could also mean great shout - the noise made by a huge gathering of people shouting in unison. This understanding comes straight out of the well known story of Joshua's battle at Jericho:

And it shall be, that when they make a long blast with the ram's horn, & when you shall hear the sound of the shofar, all the people shall shout with a great shout; & the wall of the city will fall down flat, & the people shall go up, everyone straight ahead.

Perhaps in our day, the sounding of the shofar is meant to be heard merely as ritual. Or, perhaps, it is meant to invoke something deep within us, not merely a ritual but like, in the time of Joshua, a call to arms.

But, what is it that we feel when we hear these blasts of the shofar? What is it we should feel? How do we react to these 2 days sounding? Why is it that people who do not come to services at any other time of the year feel compelled to put in at least 1 of the 2 days of Rosh Hashanah at temple? Is it partly in anticipation of hearing the sound of the shofar? Is there a guilt factor associated with it? Does the sound of the shofar invoke deep seated feelings of guilt that we don't attend services as we should, that we do not support our fellow Jews who cannot say Kaddish for their loved ones because we are too busy, to tired, to unconnected to support our community is this way? Hearing the loud blast of the shofar may give some the feeling that it is OK not to be Jewish most of the time if they can hit the highlights such as the sounding of the shofar. And for others, maybe it reaffirms that they should be Jewish a little more often.

Maybe some feel a connection to the passage from Joshua which tells us that all of the people shall shout with a great shout. The passage seems to suggest if someone is absent, or not participating as they should, those walls won't come a-tumblin' down. These blasts of the ram's horn reminds us that we are part of a community, that we all have to pull our weight or the community does not function. The voice of our leaders, the voice of those on the margins of society, even the voices of those we don't like very much, count. They are all necessary. Everyone must shout a great shout, together, in unison, or their is no sound at all. What is this sound? I like to think that it is the sound of prayer. Anyone can pray individually to God. God listens. But, if individual prayer pleases God, how much more so when all the people shout a great shout.

Perhaps these shofar blasts are designed to remind us that while God created a world on these days of Rosh Hashanah which, according to Jewish tradition, is also the birthday of the world, after all this time the world is still woefully imperfect. A careful reading of Genesis reveals that God never claimed the world was perfect, it was "good" - that is to say, adequate at best. God may have been satisfied with Creation but we, as human beings, ought not to be. We can rebuild the world, We have the technology. We can make it better than it is - better, stronger, faster. We can make it more compassionate, more humane, more civilized. We can find room in it for everyone. We can make the entire world a Garden of Eden. But it takes work. It is a superhuman task, to be sure, but, it is not a Divine task. The shofar reminds us how much this world is in need of repair, how much is left undone, that some ancient walls do need to come a-tumblin' down.

The shofar blast reminds us we are not in complete control. But, we are in partial control. On these days of Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgement, we cannot force God's hand but we can influence God's judgement favorably. We may choose to hear the shofar blast or we may choose to ignore it, but we cannot stop it. If Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, we will not hear it. The shofar excites only 1 of our 5 senses, not the other 4. We can't see the sound of the shofar nor can we smell or feel it. All we can do is to hear it & to internalize it. We must make it our own. How we do that is up to us. We accept it, whether blown beautifully or whether it is flawed. We find our own beauty in it both as individuals & as a community.

There is a prayer in our holiday mahzor that weaves together all of these themes beautifully: the interrelationships between the individual & the community, the sounding of the shofar, the day of judgement, Humanity's ability to persuade God in judgment, the precarious nature of life. It has been part of our liturgy for many centuries, appearing on fragments found in the Cairo Geniza dating back to the 8th century. Kol Nidre notwithstanding, it may be one of the most beloved liturgical offerings of this season if not the entire year. It is worth an English reading:

Let us declare the power of this day's holiness, for it is awe-inspiring & frightening. On it Your kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be established in kindness & You will sit upon it in truth. True it is that You alone are the judge who proves, knows, & bears witness; who writes & seals, who counts & who calculates. You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Records & it will read itself. The signature of every person's hand is there. And the great shofar will be sounded & a still, soft voice will be heard. The angels will shiver, a trembling & terror will seize them - & they will say, "Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, an accounting of the heavenly host for judgment!" - for in Your eyes even they are not meritorious in judgment.

All that has come into the world will pass before You like a flock of sheep. As a shepherd watching his flock, directs his sheep under his staff, so shall You guide, count, calculate, & consider the soul of all the living; & You shall allocate a destiny to all of Your creatures & inscribe the enactment of their judgement.

On Rosh Hashanah they will be inscribed & on Yom Kippur they will be sealed. How many will pass away & how many will be created? Who shall live & who shall die? Who will attain a full measure of time & who will not attain a full measure of time? Who by water & who by fire? Who by sword & who by beast? Who by famine & who by thirst, who by upheaval & who by plague? Who by strangling & who by stoning? Who at rest & who in wandering? Who quietly & who will be torn? Who in tranquility & who in torment? Who in poverty & who with riches? Who will be degraded & who will be exalted?

But repentance, prayer, & righteousness turn away the severe decree.

Yes, we have come to that time of the year when the world & all it contains is judged, when the great shofar will be sounded & a still, soft voice will be heard. We shall internalize the voice of the shofar, whatever it means to us, in whatever manner we choose. But, perhaps asking what the meaning of the shofar sounds are, what they represent, is meaningless. Perhaps the real question is can you hear the still small voice. To all of you, may you be written & sealed in the book of life for a year of blessing & peace.

שלום וברכה
-shalom uverakha-
(peace and blessing)
Rabbi Ronald B. Kopelman