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    The two meanings of the blast of the shofar

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 3 September, 2021.

    Early September will be especially difficult for the Jewish community. In many parts of the world the High Holydays of Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) will see the synagogues locked and their member-congregants under lockdown, feeling depressed, bereft, and uncertain.

    Where normally the synagogues are chock full on these days and services are rich in song and prayer, this year will make a mockery of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar. No crowds will gather; indeed, no congregations at all — at least no official ones. No choirs will officiate, only occasional budding cantors trying to sing the traditional tunes at home or somewhere in the garden with only the tree and plants to hear.

    No blowing of the ram’s horn trumpet, the shofar, with its eerie sounds and piercing calls to repentance. The poor shofar. Back in its drawer, no smile on its face, no loving handling; just silence, just dreams of what used to be.

    The shofar normally comes into its own on Rosh HaShanah. It is the great dramatic moment of the New Year service. It also marks the end of Yom Kippur with its affirmatory shout, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is One.”

    If the shofar goes well and the right sounds are emitted, there is a congregational hum of approval. If something goes awry, the congregation shake their heads and mutter something about Satan Mekatreg, the spirit of evil getting into the instrument.

    The shofar is one of a range of biblical instruments listed in the last of the Book of Psalms. It is a trumpet, but not in the usual sense of the word. It is not a contrived instrument, but merely a hollowed-out ram’s horn — not from a cow, for that would remind us of the sin of the Golden Calf.

    There are popular tales about a Ba’al Teki’ah, a shofar-blower, who appears before a court of law. He tells the magistrate he is a shofar-blower. The magistrate asks what a shofar is. The hapless litigant says, “A trumpet, Your Honour!” The magistrate says, “A trumpet, eh?” “No, Your Honour”, replies the litigant. “It’s a shofar, not a trumpet!”

    Even though the shofar-blower has set notes to sound, music is not its main feature: it’s the message that matters. Nor is the art so easy to master. As an apprentice rabbi in London, I discovered the truth of the Talmudic saying that the shofar requires skill and not hard work. I was never very good at it, though I did succeed in training a shofar-sounder virtuoso at the Bayswater Synagogue.

    Blowing the shofar was a well-known multi-purpose call in biblical times; the scholar Saadya Ga’on identified ten ancient occasions when the shofar was used.

    It announced the Creation, the Revelation at Mount Sinai, the exhortations of the prophets. It proclaimed a military advance; it called for a military retreat. It marked calendrical occasions such as the commencement of a new month. It announced the Word of God. One day it will proclaim the messianic redemption.

    The shofar is commanded in the Torah (Numbers 29:1). It has two principal, seemingly contradictory, purposes — as a call to war (Numbers 10:1-10) and as a proclamation of freedom (Leviticus 25:9).

    Turned into personal spiritual terms: the first purpose sees the individual struggling with themselves, battling an inner enemy, feeling guilt for the year’s wrongdoing; the second purpose sees the human soul, cleansed of its transgressions, committing to a new regimen that is full of positive possibilities.

    The medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides says:

    Although the blowing of the shofar is a command of the Torah, it has this further meaning: “Awake, you slumberers, from your sleep, and rouse yourselves from your lethargy. Search your deeds, return in repentance. Remember your Creator, you who forget truth in the vanities of the moment, who go astray all your years after vain illusions which neither profit nor save. Look to your souls, mend your ways and actions, leave your evil path and unworthy purpose, seek the way of the Lord.”

    The handbook of the Jewish mystics, The Zohar, points out that there is a Divine-human reciprocity in the shofar. It says: “When human beings repent of their sins, they blow the shofar on earth. It sound ascends On High and awakens the heavenly shofar, and so mercy is aroused and judgment is removed.”

    Rabbinic sermons on these days tend to focus on the things we have done wrong, but that agenda can hardly be the appropriate thought for this year when the enemy is not internal — not ourselves, but an external pandemic pestilence that has polluted every part of the globe.

    What COVID-19 has done to the human heart and soul, to the individual and family, to the social mood and make-up, has been nothing less than horrific. We can hardly lay the finger of blame upon ourselves this year. Nor can the preachers rebuke us too robustly.

    We are not lacking our faults, our failings, and our failures, but that can’t be the right theme for this year. The war inside our conscience certainly needs attention, but not at this moment.

    As a preacher I give notice: once the pandemic is over, I’ll be back on the anti-transgression track — but not yet. What is more relevant to my far-flung co-religionists now is not the first but the second aspect of the shofar, not the call to war but the cry of peace.

    The shofar will be back on duty once COVID-19 has passed. Indeed, the retreat of the COVID-enemy fits into the biblical notion of starting a battle with the shofar blast, and using the same shofar to mark the retreat from the battle.

    The major task that awaits us this year, even in the absence of the shofar, is to promise to work on our values and virtues. Next year God will tell us how we are doing; this year the agenda is to get a start on the peace, justice, truth, and love that we need to pursue.

    #coronavirus #corona #covid-19 #covid19 #pandemic

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