There is no time of year when there are more Jews in shul than when we go to hear the shofar. Many Jews who generally don’t identify with Judaism come out of the woodwork for this occasion. Some even travel great distances to participate in this seemingly strange event.
The shofar blowing is far from aesthetically pleasing, nor does it make its hearers wealthier or wiser. These Jews don’t make the effort out of obligation nor even from nostalgia. Actually, it is as if it were caused by some sort of animal instinct. But rarely is there an “instinct” more profound.
On the high holy days, we are confronted with our the responsibility for our lack of communion with God. We are reminded that our selfishness has resulted in sins, which have impacted negatively on our spiritual lives. This, in turn, brings us to an analysis of what we have done wrong and how we can improve. But this process of repentance is not the only thing we do at this time of year.
Even more than repenting, we spend a lot of time crying out to God. Of course, our cries don’t intrinsically change matters. Rather, they simply express how we feel, giving form to our longing for closeness with God. And yet we know how unlikely it would be for us to permanently remove all the impediments that prevent this closeness. Our cries express our fervent desire that things could be different.
The shofar seems to dovetail these cries. The rabbis say that the shofar blow is meant to remind us of human crying – so much so that some of the halachot are based upon this similarity (Rosh haShanah 33b). The curious prooftext is from the crying of an ancient warlord’s (Sisera) mother over the death of her son (Shoftim 5:28-30). She is crying in longing for her son to return – for something that cannot be. So too on Rosh haShanah, it seems that we also ultimately cry for something that cannot be. We cry about the very human condition, that seems to get in the way of our communion with God.
Since expressing this inconsolable cry is far from our daily experience, we need assistance. It is for that purpose that we are given the shofar. If we cannot express this very profound cry ourselves, we can at least let the shofar do it for us.
In the Torah, Rosh haShanah is not known as such, but rather as yom teruah (the day of the shofar
blow). And in most people’s minds, the shofar is Rosh haShanah’s symbol, as well as its most outstanding mitzvah. Thus, the holiday’s very identity appears to be based on what the shofar expresses. If the shofar blow is the epitome of our longing for God, then that longing can be viewed as the essence of the day: With this cry, we show who we, the Jewish people, are. Through this cry, we point to God as the object of our truest desires.
A well-known anecdote relates that it used to be if you didn’t cry in shul on Yom Kippur, people would ask what’s wrong; whereas today the opposite is true – it is when you do cry that people ask what’s wrong. Insightful men as varied as the previous Slonimer Rebbe and Dr. Hyam Soloveitchik confirm that no matter how outwardly religious we have become, our generation has lost the living inner religiosity that characterized even recent generations before us. In a word, we have lost our ability to cry. Perhaps that is the case. But I don’t believe we have lost our desire to cry. And it may be that especially in times when we can no longer express our emotions, the shofar takes on even more importance.
In every generation, however, the shofar blow is not like other sounds. Those sounds we listen to with our ears, but to the shofar we listen with our souls. No matter how far a Jews gets from Judaism, his soul will always thirst for this cry of longing.
For at least once a year, the Jewish soul must hear the shofar.