Editor’s note: The Jewish High Holy Days are known in Hebrew as Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe). They are a time of repentance that starts with the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana (literally the “head of the year,” which this year begins at sundown Sept. 4) and ends with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, which includes a day-long fast in repentance and ends at 7:14 p.m. Sept. 14). The Shofar, a hollowed-out ram’s horn, is used to call the Jewish faithful to examine their lives in the past year and to atone for any misdeeds.
The sound of the shofar: primitive, essential, piercing. There’s no way to describe the shofar’s power over us. It takes us back to basics, back to the desert people we once were, summoned together by an instrument that requires no mining for metal, no processing of wood, only a ram, a blade, a fire, and breath. We don’t hear the call of the shofar with our ears. We hear it with our soul.
The High Holy Days are a process of peeling away. We are asked to strip away our routines, taking time off work and avoiding the comfortable rhythm of eating. We are asked to strip away our individuality, by reciting words within a large group and dressing all in white. We are asked to strip away our narratives, asking for forgiveness and accepting another person’s point of view. We are asked to strip away our pride, throwing ourselves at the mercy of the Court.
Despite the 10 days of peeling away, still we cling to the illusion of control over our lives. And then the shofar sounds.
Its call is a rumble, a shriek, a plea. The vibrations are so low that we feel them in our feet and in our bellies. Our skin tingles. And we become aware that the very waves of sound that roll through us, through our bodies and our souls, are rolling through everyone in the kahal (assembly), each in turn. The experience is shared as the sound waves are shared. Since energy is never diminished but only transformed, we know that the waves continue out into the city and into the universe in ever-expanding circles, sharing our soul work with everyone and everything. We are the medium through which the energy moves. At long last, we are stripped of our pretentions and we stand exposed to the Soul.
And what of the breath that makes the shofar sound? It isn’t the breath of the player that makes the shofar sound. Rather, it is God’s own ruach (wind, spirit), coursing through him. The breath doesn’t belong to the player any more than the wind belongs to the kite. It’s the other way around, in fact, for the breath belongs to God, Makor haChayyim, the Source of Life. To hear the Shofar is to hear God breathe.
The calls of the shofar — t’ruah, sh’varim, t’kiyah (the names of the three different sounds the shofar makes) — are the sounds of brokenness. The word “sh’varim” means “shattered.” There are 100 separate blasts during the High Holy Days, symbolic of the divisions between people and within our own beings. As the Gates of Righteousness close at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, these separate blasts merge into one great, regal call: t’kiyah g’dolah. We arrive before God as broken beings, aware of our shortcomings and our wounds. But when we let down our guards, open our souls, and experience true tshuvah (transformational atonement), our brokenness is transformed into triumph.
• Rabbi Dean Shapiro is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of Tempe. Visit emanueloftempe.org.