The Shofar is a symbol of Rosh Hashanah that connects us to the holiday on so many levels that it is kind of astounding.
The shofar was used in ancient times to call Israelites warriors to battle. But our rabbis teach that in the modern era, it calls us to do battle with ourselves, to quell the inner battle between our good inclination and our evil inclination, our Yetzer haTov and our Yetzer HaRa.
It also has a deep and resonant sound that our tradition teaches is there to serve as a literal ‘wake up’ call to the soul. It’s sound reaches into our very depths to awaken and stir the Neshamah, the soul, to reflection and action during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in which we are obligated to do a Cheshbon HaNefesh, an ‘accounting of the deeds for our souls’.
The shofar is also a reminder of one of the Torah portions we read at this holiday, the story of Abraham and Isaac going up Mt. Moriah. In Genesis 22, we learn the story of Abraham and Isaac’s journey up Mt. Moriah, where Abraham nearly sacrifices Isaac in the attempt to follow God’s instructions. At the last moment, a ram gets caught in a thicket by its horn. It takes Isaac’s place on the sacrificial altar. The horn is the thing that saves a person, reminding us the Unetanah Tokef prayer of the gravity of the High Holiday season, that this is the time when God decides “who shall live and who shall die.” We hope a ram’s horn saves us, just as it saved Isaac 3000 years ago.
But there’s one other cool thing about a shofar that I learned from a science teacher (thanks, Zeke Kossover) many years ago: blow it into an oscilloscope, a device that expresses sound waves in a visual manner, and it looks like this:
It looks, (when I got my breath steady and got a solid blast out of it) like a nearly perfect wave. It’s peaks are perfectly high and low.
That is the perfect symbol of a new year. The blast of the shofar as seen on an oscilloscope teaches us that the year to come has highs and lows. Our lives coming up will have peaks and valleys: moments of joy and moments of sadness. Our Torah, the warm and support of our community, our commitment to doing mitzvot, and our relationship with God will help us to celebrate the highs and endure the lows of the coming year.
I bless you and your family with a sweet and joyous new year. The shofar blesses us with the reminder, however, that the year to come will have its ups and downs, mountains and valleys. May we be blessed to reach the summits with joy, and experience the depths, with the support and love and strength of our tradition and community.