At the heart of the Rosh Hashanah service is a cry with no words. It isn’t even a human cry, but the strangely evocative sound made by directing the breath through the hollowed out horn of a ram. Scripture provides no reason for blowing the shofar on the New Year; it doesn’t even name it as the instrument to be used on what it tersely describes as Yom Terua’h, ‘a day of sounding the horn’. Blowing the shofar is, as Maimonides says, simply gezerat hakatuv, a decree of Scripture. Yet the call of the shofar is deeply and insistently resonant, as if we were hearing the cry of creation itself. It contains both exaltation, and the pain of something crushed and broken, pleading for our attention.
The Talmud teaches that the prayers on Rosh Hashanah have three themes: ‘Say before me prayers about kingship, remembrance and the shofar; about kingship so that you proclaim me your king and about remembrance so that your memory ascends before me. By what means? With the shofar?’ (Talmud: Rosh Hashanah 16a) The shofar is the voice through which God and we make ourselves known to each other.
It is a core belief of Judaism that God is sovereign over creation. The notion of a God in heaven who made the world and who, ever since, has controlled its destiny from above does not speak to me. But the experience of God’s sacred presence within all life, God as the vital energy in all creation, summons and commands me.
The prayers about kingship are really a call to such a sense of wonder: ‘God, place your awe upon all you have created’. Wonder is essential spiritual nourishment. Sometimes the natural world inspires us. Walking along the forest path, I suddenly saw a young deer. It raised its head, gazed at my disturbing presence, then sprung back to the safety of the trees. That momentary encounter awoke in me anew the awareness of the beauty and vitality of our world. Sometimes human contact stirs our spirit, as when conversation yields to silence because words would only rupture the quiet solidarity of companionship.
At these times one is scarcely aware of the separateness of one’s own consciousness but feels part of a greater whole, as if some indivisible energy flowed through us and all that is, as if the prayer, ‘God, let every created being know that you created them’ were momentarily realised in our thoughts. Such experiences imbue in us a deepening sensitivity to the sacred. They make not just a spiritual but a penetrating moral impact. They humble us, fill us with a chastening respect for all life, and leave us determined to try not to hurt or harm any living being.
Remembrance, the second theme of the Rosh Hashanah prayers, is deeply connected to such awareness. Unlike on Pesach, we are not instructed to recall any particular event, such as the exodus from Egypt. Nor is there a specific act we are enjoined not to forget. What we are required to remember is nothing less than who we are and to what we belong.
The liturgy approaches the subject of memory not from our perspective but from the imagined point of view of God. God remembers Noah and the animals in the flood. God cares about the fate of the earth. God recalls our ancestors, doesn’t forget us when we are slaves and recalls our youthful faithfulness. God, we conclude, is zocher habrit, mindful of the covenant. That covenant refers here not only to the relationship between God and the Jewish people, but to the all-embracing partnership with life itself.
This has challenging implications. Because God, we are told, knows and cares about everything, ‘no creature can hide away’ and no-one can deny the record of their deeds. Such relentless accountability requires us in turn to be mindful of whom we are, of the bond of life to which we belong, and of the God of life who knows us from within as closely as our own heart or conscience knows itself. There’s no getting away with anything.
With part of my mind, I neither can, nor want to believe this. I don’t see God’s justice self-evidently around me. I don’t credit the notion of a God in heaven with x-ray eyes. Yet I sense that I am known and I do believe in God who is present within all life and who therefore, through all life, knows us to every depth and detail. This perception is captured beautifully in Steven Duncan’s poem Grandma’s Philosophy:
She even said be nice to the trees,
because even the breeze is your companion,
and the sun sees every hand that moves wrongly.
In the great ecology of deeds, all interactions have consequences. We do not behave, or even think, in moral and spiritual isolation. We are part of the brit, the sacred covenant of being, in which every part of life affects the whole. The God who knows me experiences me through the hearts of those around me, by way of the animals and trees.
Furthermore, in my deeper self I don’t want to hide. I want to be known, even judged, though with love and understanding. I don’t want a life of ‘getting away with it’, but of true relationships with people and nature. I respect and love this great life of which I’m an infinitesimal part and I don’t want it to shun me or exclude me from its embrace me.
The third subject of the Rosh Hashanah prayers, and the mouth-piece of the others, is the shofar itself. Through it life itself, God within all living being, cries out to us, piercing us to the very core of our accountability.
Hans Jonas, famous for his lecture The Concept of God after Auschwitz, spoke days before he died in 1993 of a danger outweighing even the horrors of racial hatred: ‘The latest revelation – from no Mount Sinai, Sermon on the Mount or Bo tree – is the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our powers over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what that creation once was’.
I think of the shofar as that outcry. I’m frightened by the hurts we have engendered in the earth, not only to our fellow human beings through injustice and cruelty, but to our fellow species, whose lives are part of the essential vitality of the meadows, forests, mountains and seas. I hear in the shofar, alongside the tekiah of exultation at life’s wonder and abundance, the broken shevarim and weeping teruah of a profoundly injured world.
After explaining that Scripture offers no reason for blowing the shofar, Maimonides continues: ‘There is nevertheless a hint in its call: Wake up, sleepers, from your sleep!’ ‘We are like sleep-walkers,’ the Zen sage Thich Nhat Hanh wrote recently in similar vein. Yet, he noted, ‘the bells of mindfulness are sounding’ and warning us urgently that we are destroying the very earth and vital source from which we are nourished. Like the shofar, they summon us back to the consciousness that life is a sacred partnership to which we belong and before which we are answerable.
The shofar arraigns us on the New Year, the Day of Remembrance and responsibility; it cries out from the great hurts we have engendered. What are we going to do? Shall we simply continue to commit them, or endeavor to become healers?