A shofar resting upon a hebrew book

The blast of the shofar is one the most identifiable sounds of the High Holidays. This hollowed-out ram’s horn makes a sound that can be carried far and wide. It’s meant to get your attention. In fact, in the Biblical times (and in many ancient cultures) it was used to muster the troops and signal important announcements, sort of the “emergency broadcast signal” of its time. So what is its relevance now, here in the 21st Century when we have alarm clocks, widely broadcast signals, tweets and pings?

One of the key liturgical pieces for the High Holy Days begins, “U’va shofar gadolyitakah; v’kol d’mama’dakah yishama”—The great shofar sounds, and a still, small voice is heard. This one sentence sums up the true point of hearing the shofar. This verse always reminds me of Pinnocchio and his relationship with Jiminy Cricket who sat on his shoulder whispering in his still, small voice, the words conscience into Pinnocchio’s ear. Pinnocchio didn’t always especially want to hear what Jiminy had to say, but when he did listen, the puppet-boy tended to do the right thing. Pinnocchio needed a cricket; we each have our own whispering voice called conscience. And like a computer needing an occasional reboot, our own Jiminy Crickets need to be refreshed for another year. Duringthis season (in fact once a day during the entire month leading up to Rosh Hashanah), the shofar is still meant to get our attention.

“Wake up!” “Listen!” “Hear me!” it shouts. It reminds us. Not that…oops gotta remember to buy that brisket. Not to remind us to send out the New Year’s cards, and not even to steel us for onrush of fall holidays that will dot the next month from beginning to end. It is meant to remind us that this is the time for introspection, for self-assessment. From the first day of Rosh Hashanah, also called Yom Teruah (Day of the Sounding), when we hear 100 blasts of the shofar and for the following 10 days (called the 10 Days of Repentance) until Yom Kippur—the crescendo of this season, we heed the shout, the wail, and the call to look inward.

We take account of where we’ve been and where we’re going. Return from any wrong turns or unintended diversions and rejoin the path we’ve always meant to follow. We apologize to parents, to children, to friends, and associates, try to make amends; right those wrongs we never intended in the first place, trying to wipe the slate—if not completely clean—as fresh as it can be. We do “teshuva,” often called “repentence,” but which actually means “return”—a turning back to the way we’re meant to be. The loud, intrusive blast of the shofar is meant to get our attention and call us to action, yes.

But we can’t carry around with us the rest of the 364 days of the year our own ram’s horn, giving it a quick blast whenever we feel we need it. So the sound of the shofar’s cry is meant to echo on through the year through that “kold’mama’dakah”—that still small voice always whispering in our ears, giving us advice even when we’re not especially inclined to listen to it. And each year like a computer occasionally needing a reboot, Jiminy is reawakened by the unrelenting cry of the shofar, renewing his still small voice for another year.

Make sure to check out Barbara's acapella recording!

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