The shofar's many voices

How a few notes of the ram's horn span the whole of human history


Rosh Hashanah is almost upon us. 5774 has been a difficult year, riven by conflict and cacophonous with lies, half-truths and hostility. Like many others, the Jewish people are desperate to draw a line under the past and make a new start.

One might hope to find in the rituals and prayers of Rosh Hashanah something that would help us to do this But the central part of the day, its most important and essential ritual, is not the prayers, nor the white vestments, nor dipping an apple in honey. No, the action that sets us up for the year ahead is the blowing of the shofar –- making a noise with a horn (Numbers 29:1).

We are given a glimpse of the essence of this strange commandment in the blessing that we say for it, thanking God for sanctifying us with His commandments and instructing us lishmo'a kol shofar, to "hear the voice of the shofar".

Many commentators link this term to the description of the shofar being blown at Mount Sinai to herald the giving of the Torah (Exodus 19:19). The same phrase, kol shofar, occurs there. But we can go deeper still, and understand this shofar sound as the culmination and conclusion of other kolot, other voices that have preceded it in the Torah.

Let us take a quick tour of voices in the Torah and see what we find. The first voice is an awesome one, the sound of God's terrible majesty. God Himself walks through the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve hear "the voice of God" as He walks (Genesis 3:8). But they have sinned. The mere sound of God's glory strikes fear into their hearts and prompts them to hide, overwhelming and annulling the voice of sin which tempted them (Genesis 3:17).

The next voices which we hear are pleas for justice in a troubled world. Cain kills Abel, and God reproves Cain: "The voice of the blood of your brother is crying out to Me from the ground" (Genesis 4:10). Kind-hearted Abraham steels himself to listen to Sarah's voice as she insists that Abraham's son Ishmael be driven out for bad conduct (Genesis 21:9-12). But God listens to the voice of Ishmael as he cries out in thirst, because Ishmael has not yet sinned and deserves to be saved (29:17).

After this, the voices change.

Blind Isaac is served food by his son Jacob, and he comments, "The hands are the hands of Esau, but the voice is the voice of Jacob" (Genesis 27:22). Jacob's respectful voice reveals that he is a truly worthy son, that it would be fair for him to be Isaac's spiritual heir.

The next voice is the news of Joseph's brothers arriving in Egypt (Genesis 45:16). Their reconciliation with their brother is complete and the Jewish people are reassembled for the next steps in their epic journey through history: slavery and exodus.

And finally the voice of the shofar is heard, announcing that God is coming to make the Israelites His eternal people.

Look at what the voices do. They lament error and injustice in a broken world. They confront difficulty and they seek to change it. Ultimately they succeed, celebrating truth, justice and fraternal reconciliation. The final, triumphant voice is the voice of the shofar, proclaiming that the world is ready for God's return for the first time since the Eden debacle.

On Rosh Hashanah, as we start a new year, we hear the voice of the shofar and we reflect on the voices that preceded it. We see that our society is dysfunctional. As a species, we humans shrink from the divine presence, embarrassed about our exploitation, our unfairness, our treachery and violence. Cries of injustice ascend from one continent after another. But we also recall that there are voices of courtesy, respect, fairness and peace that will succeed the voices of hate and lies, and that, ultimately, we will hear God's voice as He returns to us.

How far we have come in our understanding of the shofar! This sound is not dumb and inarticulate. It sums up the whole span of human history, frankly admitting that we have made mistakes and reminding us that there is hope for our desperate world.

As a start for a new year, it is just what we need.

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