Ringing the praises on the world's birthday
'It will be a day of shofar blowing for you' (Numbers 29:1)
Sounding the shofar at Rosh Hashanah in Jerusalem
But why? Why is a blast on a horn the best expression of the national mood at the start of a New Year? And a ram's horn at that?
The talmudic sage Rabbi Avahu elucidates Rosh Hashanah 16a), but in a way that raises as many questions as it solves. He says that the ram's horn recalls the ram which Abraham offered instead of his son Isaac (Genesis 22:13). God tested Abraham, asking him to offer his only son as a sacrifice, but then stopping him at the last moment. Abraham sacrificed a ram instead of his son, and we blow a ram's horn to remember that story. But what does the memory of this story contribute to our shofar experience?
Another talmudic sage, Rabbi Eliezer, says that the world was created on Rosh Hashanah (Rosh Hashanah 10b). The Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 1555 – 1631) clarifies this, saying that most things were made beforehand, but Adam and Eve, the raisons d'être of creation, were made on this day. Our New Year is the birthday of our very humanity.
We can understand this more deeply by looking at the biblical account of the creation of Adam: "Then God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and He breathed into his nose a breath of life, and the man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7).The defining, life-giving act for all human beings was the receipt of that breath from God.
In the sound of the shofar, our soul finds expression
In Hebrew the word for breath is neshamah, which is also used to denote a soul. Unlike other creatures that are merely animate, we have something of God's own nature, a soul that is as close to Him as our breath is to our body. On Rosh Hashanah, we relive that remarkable moment when God infused us with something of His own, and made us His.
This event was so momentous that the Talmud considers it to be the defining date of the Creation. All the glittering, mighty galaxies and the intricate ecology of our own planet were just a backdrop for this unique pair of creatures with intelligence and a conscience.
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) gives us an insight into the purpose of this soul, stating: "All that the Holy One blessed be He created in His world was only created for His glory" (6: 11).
Throughout our lives, then, our mission is to dedicate ourselves and the world to God. The precious spirits vouchsafed to us are not for us to keep, but to use in our task as God's heralds on Earth. On Rosh Hashanah, the day when this first became possible in Eden, we rededicate ourselves to this mission. In the sound of the shofar, our breath - our soul - finds mighty expression and it reverberates far and wide, echoing and swirling around our own little corner of the cosmos. As much as we can, we make the world echo with the good news of the divine presence in human hearts.
Our power to transform the whole creation in this way is hinted at in the final chapter of the Book of Psalms, which summons us to use our soul - our breath - to blow a horn and spread God's praise from our house of prayer out across the heavens, making the entire universe ring with His name.
"Praise God in His sanctuary; praise Him in the vault of the heavens made by His power.
Praise Him for His mighty acts; praise Him according to His abundant greatness.
Praise Him with the blast of the horn... praise Him with the reverberations of the teruah.
Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord."
This idea is emphasised by our recollection of the story of Isaac and the ram, which the shofar brings to mind. The Midrash elaborates on Abraham's thoughts as he sacrificed the ram: "At every point of the sacrificial procedure, Abraham prayed, 'May it be Your will that this is as if it were done to my son... as if my son were slaughtered, as if his blood were sprinkled, as if my son were flayed, as if he were burned and reduced to ashes'" (Bereshit Rabbah 56:9).
The ram's horn reminds us that Abraham sought to give up a soul even more precious than his own in God's service, and that he had this in mind even when it was no longer physically possible. His noble act reminds us that it is humanly possible to yield oneself up to God, not by choosing to die but by choosing to live according to His will.
If our year begins in this way and with this resolve, there is every chance that it will be better than the last; not just another year, but altogether a new one.
David Lister is rabbi of Edgware United Synagogue