Blowing the shofar in Gan Alon pre-school is a very special experience. No two years are quite the same. Sometimes the children cry; Sometimes they scream. This year they giggled – and screamed. So it was with particular interest that I awaited their responses to my question: ‘What did you hear in the sound of the shofar?’
‘A banana’, said one. I guess the comparison was based more on shape than sound. ‘Pasta’, said another, since food was obviously ‘in’. ‘Sounds like my mother,’ said a third.
So what do we hear in the shofar’s call?
Before offering my own answer, I have to say that through the years Rosh Hashanah is to me less and less about a God up there whom we ask to care for the world, and more and more about what the world asks of us. I often think of the entry Etti Hilesum made in her diary in July 1942 when she was forced to leave her beloved Amsterdam:
[O]ne thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well.
The shofar is addressed to that ‘little piece of God’ in me and you, and in the billions of other people, those tiny portions of seemingly independent consciousness and independent will bound together by the sacred vitality which unites and transcends all life.
‘Hear the call of the shofar’, says the blessing which precedes its sounding. Hear what? Words limit. But the shofar speaks no words, so the meanings of its cries are not limited by language.
‘Listen’, it says. Listen to the voices you haven’t heard, or have tried not to hear. Indifference, said Elie Wiesel, whose passing we mourn this year, is living as if someone else’s pain does not exist. We can place suffering people in institutions; we can put refugees behind walls. But if we hear none of their voices we incarcerate our own humanity as well. ‘But the calls on us are overwhelming; we can’t take it all in’, we feel. ‘Just listen to something, someone,’ the shofar begs.
‘Listen to the earth’, it cries. For the shofar is not a fabricated artefact but part of a once living animal. I imagine its call in the hills of the Galilee and the Scottish Highlands. ‘Listen’, it cries, ‘I am the life which dwells in the rivers and forests, the wild goats and deer, the insects as well as the eagles. Destroy me and you destroy yourself. So hear!’
These cries are born on waves of wonder and contrition, at the joy and majesty, sorrow and destitution, of life.
To whom are they addressed? I hope God hears them. I hope those in power hear them; it is our responsibility to strive our utmost that they do. But these matters lie beyond our ultimate control.
What we can ensure is that the ‘little piece of You, God’ within each of us hears, and responds. It is that awareness, that consciousness and conscience in us all, ‘for whom the shofar calls’.
Leshanah Tovah, may this be a good, peaceful, worthwhile year for us, our families, our communities, all Israel and all the world.