The Essence of Living as a Jew-The Shofar calls to return
Many of you may recall our children who would run up and down the corridors here. Our middle one, Adi, is now doing well in business, but when we came here,back in 1980, he was just 2 years old himself.
So, I am going to open about the best toy he ever received.
I had one of my own, which sat high up on a shelf in the house, and he would always beg me to take it down so he cou!d play with it. Mine was too large and costly, however;and the answer was, most often, no. By the way, I am not talking about a shotgun on the shelf.
Finally, one summer, when we were in Israel on a visit, and he went to.his grandfather's store in Jerusalem—some of you may have been there. He saw something that caught his eye and his Saba, his grandfather, of blessed memory, having a soft heart , as grandfather’s are supposed, gave it to him.
The toy was nothing less than a shofar, and surely there are few gift items, which are more typically and inherently Jewish, that a child can play with, than a shofar. Also, it is the noisiest of all Jewish objects, and since then, not only did our kids love to blast tekiah, but our grandkids as well.
The shofar rivets our attention.
It is intriguing because of its antiquity. Even with the most intricate of carvings, it remains one of the most primitive of instruments, dating back well before the start of written history .
The shofar is fickle--it can never be counted on, since it depends upon the chance shape that nature gave the particular horn, the skill of the carver who hollowed it out, the natural deterioration that the horn undergoes, the skill and the mood of the baal tekiah, the one entrusted with the blast of the shofar.
Its tone sends a chill down our spine because of its very primitiveness.
Why then, do we still use the shofar, when it has been surpassed in quality, tone,and dependability by over 3500 years of musical development? I can even get a decent musical sound out of playing an I-phone like a flute. Hi Tech music. Why bother the poor ram or antelope for a horn?
Even in Abraham's day, it had been well outmoded. In ancient Ur, his presumed birthplace, we find evidence of flutes and harps a thousand years before his time, a millennia and a half before Moses.Even the Bible records the use of metal trumpets and in the ancient Temple, silver and gold instruments were sounded together with the Shofar.
So why stick to it?
When the Roman’s had indoor plumbing and sophisticated roads and aqueducts, we still used the Shofar. At that time, Rabbi Joshua ban Karcha, the teacher of Rabbi Akiba, gave the following reasons for the use of the ram's horn, in particular, as opposed to other instruments on this day of remembrance: The ram's horn, he claimed, was created for the children of Israel--it was with the blast of the shofar that the Torah was given at Sinai; it was with the blast of the Shofar that the walls of Jericho fell; it will the the shofar that will sound on the appearance of the Messiah; and it is the shofar that will be sounded by God at the ingathering of all our exiles. In short, the shofar's clarion call is symbolic of prime themes of Jewish existence and faith.
Said another Rabbi of the time: Why do we blow the shofar? Said the holy one--Blessed be He--Blow a ram's horn, and I shall remember the binding of Isaac, the son of Abraham, and I shall account it unto you for a binding of yourself before me.
What reason might we give for ourselves, however, in sticking to tradition. Why not, as was tried, and is tried in some places, modernize --why not replace it with a trumpet, or at least fix a mouthpiece to it?
The very fact that the Shofar was outmoded and primitive before it was commanded us is at the heart of its function.
The word religion comes from the Latin term, “religare” to bind oneself. For the Jew, as much as we feel and act as if we are in the vanguard of the future, this is but one more example of our binding ourselves to an ancient tradition and heritage, in blatant disregard of the conveniences and benefits of the trendy and chic. No modern brass or woodwind would do the trick.A sound synthesizer or a computer mixer with their tones, polished and correct, would teach us the beauty of music, but would miss the point completely.
The shofar is not for auditory enjoyment, not for easy listening; it hurts the ears.It is only a shofar, not a coronet nor a saxophone that can achieve the mood evoked by it.
Even the attempts to add a mouthpiece, to make it easier to blow the shofar and improve the tones, was rejected. The Sages felt that putting a mouthpiece, which would be made of silver or gold, would be presenting a kind of a lie, as if to say, I have no voice of my own, so I can only express myself through that which is used for money In the shofar, the sound is raw and unvarnished, to express an inner honesty.
Here is Maimonides description of its effect:
Awake, 0 ye sleepers, awake from your sleep: Search your deeds, and turn in teshuvah. Remember your creator, O you who forget the truth in the vanities of time and go astray all the year after vanity and folly that neither profits nor saves. Look to your soul and better your ways and actions. Let every one of you abandon his evil ways and his wicked thoughts.
Could even 76 trombones ever have the same effect?
Clearly the shofar calls us to teshuvah, to return, to a return to a better,nobler self, and, from a Jewish perspective, a Jewish self.
If the shofar calls us to return, as Jews, to our Rock and source, and that call sends chills down our spine, then what is our path to that return, what will ease that chill ?
If the shofar calls us to awaken, then we must begin to make our choices-- We must take the steps to see to it that our actions and our lives fulfill the basic assumptions of what being a Jew- requires of us.
The first avenue of Jewish expression is worship. If the existence of God is axiomatic, if it is for this idea that jews gave up their lives in the past centuries, then it must be given expression.
That expression can be made privately, yet, as Jews, we live and breathe as a people, as a community. A Jew prays truly when he prays in the company of his or her fellow Jew, with words of prayer that are shared by Jews around the world, and in past and future.
It makes no difference, in its value, whether that worship is in the magnificent classic sanctuary of the Wilshire Boulevard temple, or in a modest shtiebl. It’s value is in the community that is created. No Jew need feel lost in the one true home that all Jews share at any moment in history and in any place-the synagogue.
Our next grteat avenue of Jewish expression is the Sabbath, Shabbat .No other moment in time can create a full, a completed Jew, so to say, than the Shabbat. The great founding Zionist, Ahad Ha'Am once said that, "More than the Jew kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat kept the Jew. "It is the idea of the Shabbat which culminates creation, and it is the Shabbat which is a memorial to our physical and existential freedom from bondage. It is the same Shabbat which the prophet Isaiah proclaims, in one breath with social justice, as essential to achieving atonement on Yom Kippur--:U kratem / Leshabbat Oneg-- You shall declare the Shabbat to be a delight., hence , the idea of Oneg Shabbat, The pleasure of Shabbat.
Unfortunately, the experience of a Shabbat is devastated by modern life. For a few, we might excuse the exigencies of making a living, as one of the ancient Rabbis declared: Make your Shabbat a workday, and don't depend on charity.
But so many can really rest on Shabbat. For many of us, we really don’t need to worry about day to day exigencies of paying the bills. So, most of us probably do have the luxury of being able to enjoy Shabbat. Gather with family and friends for a Shabbat meal, join together in the synagogue, avoid the headaches of day to day struggle to survive, engage in learning, or even, as Jews used to do, geh shpatziren, go out for a lovely wait, and a shlaf shtunde, a cat nap to unwind. What an oneg, a pleasure.
The Shofar calls us to lead our daily lives as Jews. No aspect of life is beyond the scope of Judaism, whether it be our personal hygiene, or what we eat. In the daily, mundane and routine act of satisfying our appetites, we are able to give expression to our Jewish self.
There is no aspect of human desire that is in and of itself forbidden, except for cruelty and wanton violence. All else is cultivated and elevated.
All of the Jewish rituals are paths to take what is human desire and sanctify and elevate it. The act of choosing what to eat, when to eat, of how man and woman relate to each other emotionally and physically—the desires are not stifled and killed—they are trained, cultivated and elevated. Even our simple acts of personal hygiene, as the Talmud describes, Torah hi- lilmod ani tsarich—These are all Torah, and I need to learn.
Finally, the path to return requires reconciliation with our fellow human being.
At this season of the year, we recall our shortcomings, and on Yom Kippur,we have that extensive catch-all of sins, the all-Het. There is no declaration of failure to keep kosher,or of failing to observe Shabbat properly, or not putting on tefillin. The sins that are listed are all sins bein adam le adam-between human and fellow human or between ourselves and oursleves: entrapment; jealousy; stubbornness ;foolish speech; slander; theft; scorn.
It serves to remind us that, if we mean to be Jews, that we must be first, and foremost, moral and ethical Jews. The shofar calls us to lead our lives as Jews in the path of harmony and righteousness in our dealings with our fellow human beings.
The Rabbis told us that in the end of all days, in the heavenly court, we will be asked what we did with our lives. What will they ask us: Hanatata umassata beemunah—Did you deal with each other in business, or in any area of human interaction, beemunah—in faithfulness. Not” Did we have emunah” faith in God or in Torah—but did we act” beemunah- in faith- with our fellow human being.
When the shofar calls us, it call us to account in all these areas.
The sound of the shofar blower starts out in a very small mouthpiece, with very little volume and tone, as it leaves. It is as the sound waves travel along the walls of the horn, and as the horn widens, that the tones pick up volume and tonal quality, until they come out loud and clear at the other end. In other words, what starts out small returns magnified and amplified many times over.
So it is with our turning at this season. The challenges and obstacles we face seem so large, and our voices seem so weak in the beginning. But as we make our moves, that small, weak voice can be magnified, many times over, in the lives of others that we impact upon, until our efforts are echoed by others into a loud crescendo of “ tekia gedolah”.to shake the walls of the heavens.
Thus so may our lives create a great and beautiful noise for the sake of our fellow human being and of heaven. Amen.