The meaning of the sound of the shofar


Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the start of the period known as the High Holy Days, begins on Friday evening at sunset. Interestingly, in the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, the holiday was simply called, “Yom Teruah, the Day of the Shofar Blast.” 
The ram’s horn, which is blown to make the sacred sounds, is clearly the emblem, and arguably the most essential component, of the celebration.
Many explanations have been proffered about the symbolism and meaning of the shofar. Some sages suggested we examine the places in the holy text that mention a ram’s horn to discern its deeper message. The very first reference is in Genesis when Abraham was about to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. 
As an angel stops Abraham, we are told that a ram gets caught as his horn is tangled up in a thicket. The animal gets substituted for Isaac. Hence, we are taught that the shofar represents continuity and a hopeful future. Because Isaac lives, he has a son himself, Jacob, who in turn fathers the twelve tribes of Israel. 
Later in Exodus, there are various verses that dramatically describe the announcing of the Ten Commandments from atop Mount Sinai. There was lightning, thunder, and the sound of a shofar blast prior to God declaring the Decalogue. 

The shofar then calls to mind the need to reconnect oneself to the principles and ideals of a moral and righteous life. To hear the shofar is to hear the voice of heaven. 
Sounds from this type of trumpet were also utilized by the wandering Jews in the desert to signal when to break camp, and at times when to assemble for battle. Therefore, when we hear the shofar blasts during our services they make us remember to march forward boldly, unafraid to contend with our past bad habits and to bravely seek self-improvement and betterment for others. 
Commentators often talked about the impact of the shofar sound, acting as a wake up call, the noise that stirs you, much like a car horn startles you into action. There are indeed numerous  possible explanations. However, this year, I am drawn to one of the ways the Jewish Mystics came to understand the hidden lesson of blowing the shofar.
To the Kabbalists, it was all about breath. Humankind began when the Creator blew a breath of life into Adam and Eve. All the required shofar blasts- called Tekiah, Shevarim, and Teruah - can only be made by forcing air through the wind instrument, literally breathing into it. 
Since March, how many have struggled to breathe on ventilators? Think of the number of protests that were sparked by a man whose  last words included, “I can’t breathe?” 
It is almost impossible to recount how many natural disasters have occurred in recent months that have necessitated first responders to work through exhaustion, to a point where they were “out of breath.” 
Fires are raging on the West coast of our country, causing many to flee their homes gasping for air. And, the valiant women and men fighting the conflagrations have to deal with smoke filling their lungs, compromising their ability to breathe.
This year let the shofar inspires us to seriously ponder each breath we are granted, about how it is a gift each time we inhale and exhale.  Each of us is given a finite number of breaths over our lifetime. 
What will we do with our lives to make life better for all people in need, to make our earth a place where everyone can breathe a little easier, free from any obstruction. 
May the ancient sounds of the shofar, caused by the strong flow of oxygen, serve as an aural and awesome reminder to resolve to do the right thing with every breath we take. 

Rabbi Jack Zanerhaft is the religious leader at Temple Emanu-El of Long beach.