Why blow the shofar? Maimonides, known by Jews universally as the Rambam, answers simply but profoundly. It is a wake-up call. We wander through much of life slumbering, not capable of making rational decisions or avoiding dangers. The shofar is sounded to awaken us to the dangers ahead.
One of our great rabbis, Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman, the founder and dean of the Ponevizh Yeshiva in Israel, was known for his descriptive and dramatic parables. “A man dreams that he is lost at night in a thick forest. He is surrounded by terrifying eyes peering at him hungrily, bloodcurdling sounds emitting from unseen mouths panting with deadly anticipation. Thoughts of fatal lions, poisonous snakes and lethal predators fill the unfortunate explorer’s mind. What can you do for this poor lost soul?” asks the rabbi. He answers his own question with a smile, “Just wake him up.”
Maimonides, in his Laws of Teshuvah (Repentance) reveals to us that the essence of the New Year is to gain clarity. As soon as we achieve certainty about right and wrong, we can change our ways and be judged favorably. But there is no room for murkiness or ambiguity. To be decisive, there must be moral lucidity. That is the clarion call of the shofar. It connects past and future with the simple effectiveness of a few short notes. This is no symphonic instrument, echoing with a thousand complicated sounds. It is a gut-wrenching soul-searching primordial cry, “wake up and return to Me.”
But there is another side to the message of the shofar. The liturgy itself references the universal nature of Rosh Hashanah: “All mankind will pass before You.” Therefore, the shofar evokes a moment common to every human being. Like every wind instrument, the shofar functions only when someone blows into it.
When G-d created Man, He blew life into his nostrils, producing the breathing creatures we call homo sapiens. At that astounding, not breath-taking but breath-giving moment, Man was perfect. He had not yet sinned, was pristine in his innocence and glorious in his spiritual stature. When we blow the shofar, we, for a fleeting magical moment, evoke that instant of distinction. Using the ancient vehicle of the shofar, we attempt to remind our Creator of our glorious beginnings, of our limitless potential and of the love which existed between us. This is what the Talmud speaks of when it describes the shofar as the “instrument” which recalls the best of memories.
So for us, the shofar produces the most welcome sounds of all. It inspires us to be the best that we can be, while reminding G-d that there was a time when we actually were flawless and pure. By listening carefully this Rosh Hashanah, we will hopefully all wake up to embrace our lost greatness and be blessed with a wonderful, sweet, happy and healthy New Year.