Sinai today: The message of the shofar

August 27, 2015 21:12
3 minute read.


‘There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.”

These words of president Ronald Reagan shed light on the message of the shofar. The Jewish world today faces many challenges – physical, spiritual and political. It is engulfed by forces of confusion and dissension, as the very notion of Jewish identity is plagued by doubts, debates and controversies. In the midst of all of this turbulence, the shofar, which is sounded throughout the month of Elul and then on Rosh Hashana, enters the fray with simple, unadorned blasts of clarity – about who we are, where we have come from, what our purpose is, and what we need to do about it.

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The shofar is a very basic, natural instrument which, according to the halacha, may not be adorned with gold and silver. Its purity and simplicity, both in terms of its form and the notes it sounds, cut through the noise and turbulence of the world today, calling the Jewish people back to basics. Its message is that “there are no easy answers, but there are simple answers” to Jewish identity and destiny.

The shofar connects us to the key moments of Jewish history that define our destiny as a people.

When G-d gave us the Torah, it says that the sound of a shofar could be heard by the millions of people gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai. The shofar provided the backdrop for that moment which changed the course of Jewish history forever – when G-d revealed to us our mission and purpose, as fulfilled through his His mitzvot.

The shofar will herald the era of the Final Redemption, when the world as a whole will reach its ultimate purpose and G-d’s Oneness will be experienced by all, and “nation will not lift up sword against nation, and neither will they learn war anymore.”

Jewish destiny is thus bookended by two shofar blasts – one of Mount Sinai and the other of the Final Redemption. In this way, the shofar calls on us to see Jewish history and Jewish identity in all its vast and glorious sweep – from the foundations of our people when we received the Torah, through to the moment in which world history reaches its climax.

Often, we become so entangled in the problems of the day that we forget who we are and where we have come from. We forget that our ultimate purpose as Jews is to bring the light of Hashem’s Torah into the world and to live in accordance with His plan for us. Yet it is that elevated sense of purpose which has carried us through the enormous turbulence of Jewish history, which has brought us moments of great joy and inspiration, but also moments of indescribable agony. The one constant has been our sense of purpose; of understanding that our lives have meaning and that we have a Divine mission to fulfill. The shofar symbolizes that. When we hear its simple notes, we transcend all of the artificial complexities and controversies of the era in which we live, and we reconnect with the basic truths of who we are and why we are here. And it is that reconnection to the purity of that vision that fills us with joy. This is why Rosh Hashana – in spite of the seriousness and solemnity of this “Day of Judgment” – is nevertheless celebrated as a Yom Tov, a festive holiday.

The shofar reminds us of the beauty of simple truths, and of the inspiration that comes from clear purpose and a sense of mission.

The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa. This is the first in a three-part series.

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