High Holy Days: The shofar's call
One of the joys many Jews look forward to on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the blowing of the shofar, a ram's horn. The notes of the ram's horn are neither melodic nor rhythmic, but rather they are uneven, eerie, jarring, and really loud.
There is a special shofar service on both days of Rosh Hashanah, when 100 shofar blasts are sounded during the service. Ten days later at the end of Yom Kippur, one long blast of the shofar ends the day of fasting. The shofar is also blown in the morning every day for 40 days starting the first day of the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish calendar, through Yom Kippur.
This year is 5769 on the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah, literally translated, "head of the year," or "new year" began on Monday night and is a two-day holiday.
The sounding of the shofar calls to the individual to account for her or his behaviors in the last year. It is an awakening to action, a call to repentance, to consciousness, to examine our lives and see in what ways we have lived up to our ideals and in what ways we have fallen short. We are called to "teshuva," a turning toward our better selves, to making needed changes - perhaps a turning to God.
It is said in the Midrash (the rabbinical interpretation of Biblical passages), that God writes the names of those who will live and those who will die in the coming year in the "Book of Life" on Rosh Hashanah and seals the book on Yom Kippur. It's as if with the blast of the shofar, those observing the holiday are shouting to God to please remember them favorably and to consider them mercifully in God's judgment of each individual and of the whole community.
In preparing for these High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews are to examine not just their behavior, but the thoughts and beliefs from which it arose.
The shofar also calls us to seek forgiveness from those we have hurt over the year, and to do whatever we can to heal those relationships. Yom Kippur is a day of atonement; but the tradition insists that we can only ask God for forgiveness once we have asked for forgiveness from the people we have wronged.
Judaism teaches that one is responsible to oneself, to God, and also to the wider community. High Holy Day prayers are designed to facilitate change, forgiveness and redemption, and focus on our obligation to take responsibility for our actions. God does judge us, but God is merciful and compassionate, loving and nurturing.
With a blast from the shofar, the call to change is sounded, a call to do better individually and in the world: social action, a decision to volunteer in a food bank or homeless shelter, political action and registering voters, or environmental action and promoting conserving land in your community.
Everyone who accepts the challenge offered during the High Holy Days can find a point of entry that is meaningful for him or herself.
Judaism teaches that one needn't wait for the High Holy Days to change, but can begin that process any time. Jewish teaching suggests that "tchuvah," or turning, however small or big, is necessarily difficult - how else could it be redemptive? So the prayers that are said in synagogues during this observance are designed to facilitate that turning. "Tchuvah" also means returning, and Jews are reminded that one can return, at any time, to that which is good, just, and important, in oneself and in the world.
Lori Shaller is an observant Jew and the Assistant Director for Program and Development at Rabbis for Human Rights - North America.