Setting the Alarm
The central mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah, and the defining feature of this festival in the Torah is the sounding of the shofar. We begin to practice for this mitzvah by blowing the shofar every day of the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. A hollowed-out ram’s horn is blown to produce sounds known as tekiah, shevarim, and truah — a long blast, three shorter blasts and a number of very short blasts. The most obvious idea behind this commandment is that the shofar sounds a piercing wake-up call for us to begin an accounting of our lives, to become aware of our responsibilities and to make positive commitments for the future. Maimonides writes:
Even though the blowing of the shofar is a decree of the Torah, there is nevertheless a hint within it. That is, ‘Wake up… from your sleep… Search through your actions, return in repentance and remember your Creator… Look into your souls, improve your ways… and abandon evil…”
In light of this explanation, we can understand why there is a custom to begin sounding the shofar in the synagogue a month before Rosh Hashanah. We have to start the process of change well before Rosh Hashanah to avoid a last minute, panicked rush. During the month before Rosh Hashanah, known as Elul, the shofar is blown every day after the weekday morning services in order to wake us up from our apathy gradually, in the hope that we will not press the “snooze” button too often.
Why do we use a ram’s horn? Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people, was subjected to one of the most severe tests imaginable. G-d asked him to take his beloved son, Isaac, and bring him as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. Even though this request contradicted everything that Abraham had known and believed until that moment, he maintained his total trust in God; he took Isaac, put him on the altar and held the knife to his throat. At the last second, an angel of God told him not to harm the boy. God then showed Abraham a ram whose horns were entangled in a bush nearby and Abraham brought that ram as an offering to God instead of his son. Blowing the horn of a ram reminds us of this event – known forevermore as “The Binding of Isaac” — and of Abraham and Isaac’s tremendous devotion to God. The sound of the ram’s horn challenges us to dedicate ourselves totally to God, with the same faith, trust and devotion as Abraham. If we are sincere in this dedication, God considers it as though we actually performed the same act as Abraham.
In ancient times, the shofar was blown on occasions other than Rosh Hashanah as well. The famous verse from Vayikrah is inscribed in part on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia:
[…blow the shofar throughout your land…] Proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants…
The Biblical context of this verse is the release of indentured servants every jubilee (50th) year, which was proclaimed by the blowing of a shofar. The Sages of the Mishnah explained that the primary significance of the shofar, including the shofar of Rosh Hashanah, is a proclamation of freedom. The freedom proclaimed by the shofar is within our power to achieve. It is the freedom from our past, from our sins and failings. It is the freedom to change ourselves and the entire world through the power of free-will and repentance. The shofar reminds us that we are always free to choose what is right and good, and that our lives are not pre-determined, no matter how many obstacles appear to stand in our way. We believe that when people take this lesson to heart and really change for the better, we will merit the ultimate shofar of freedom that will herald the time of the Messiah. It shall be on that day that a great shofar will be blown and those who are lost in the land of Assyria and those cast away in the land of Egypt will come [together], and they will bow down before God on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.