With the arrival last week of Rosh Chodesh Elul, we resumed one of our people’s most cherished, and certainly most poignant traditions, the sounding of the shofar. Without a doubt, words cannot fully capture that annual experience of hearing the shofar for the first time in nearly a year, and the feelings of anxiety and trepidation it elicits, signaling the impending arrival of the Days of Awe. As the prophet Amos inquired, rhetorically, “Will the shofar be sounded in the city, and the people not tremble?”
Yet, these powerful emotions notwithstanding, what is the conceptual basis of this most cherished custom? Would it not be more effective to wait until the day of Rosh Hashanah itself to hear the shofar for the first time?
True, according to the Midrash, the practice is rooted in an event which occurred some 3,340 years ago: As Moshe ascended the mountain on the first of Elul to receive the second set of tablets, a shofar was sounded throughout the Jewish encampment, to help avert any relapse into the calamitous behavior surrounding the Golden Calf.
Still, one cannot help but wonder why the Sages saw fit to memorialize annually what appears to be a highly contextual one-time practice, deeply rooted in a particular historical moment?
It seems to me that the answer lies in the very nature of the mitzvah of shofar itself, and may even provide some direction in these deeply troubled times in which we are living.
The Torah is famously terse when it comes to the celebrated commandment of shofar. Nowhere does the Torah explicitly state that one blows the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, restricting itself to obliquely referring to the day as “zikhron teruah”, and later, “yom teruah,” a remembrance of the teruah, or day of teruah, respectively. Even once the Sages derived from verses concerning the jubilee year that a shofar was to be utilized on Rosh Hashanah to produce the aforementioned teruah sound (itself quite ambiguous), the Sages of the Mishnah and Talmud did not explicitly characterize the nature of the commandment. Are we commanded to blow the Shofar, or perhaps, are we commanded to hear the blowing of the shofar?
Maimonides’ view of this topic is at once highly counterintuitive and deeply illuminating. While conceding that the very basis of the use of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is the derivation from the jubilee year, Maimonides maintained that the nature of the commandment was qualitatively different in these two different cases. While we are enjoined to blow the shofar during the jubilee year, on Rosh Hashanah, by contrast, we are commanded to hear the shofar. If the sounding of the shofar during the jubilee year is a declarative gesture, proclaiming the emancipation of the indentured bondsmen and return of the ancestral homestead, Rosh Hashanah, apparently, is about listening.
If this is true, we can well understand, from this alternative point of view, the custom which developed to sound the shofar the entire month of Elul. Learning to listen is a skill. To train ourselves to properly hear the voice of the shofar demands intentionality and considerable exertion. Thus, to truly hear the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, to internalize its message, to “arise from our sleep and to wake from our slumber” as Maimonides inimitably wrote, to move towards our Creator and in His light to discover our best selves, a month of preparation in the art and science of listening seems more than appropriate.
In our deeply troubled times, when the ever-present embers of racial and religious hatred have been stoked to a temperature unseen in generations, we would do well to remember that the pathway to reconciliation can be found only through rediscovering the importance of engaged, empathetic listening.
Let us remember, as our Sages taught in the context of shofar, one who hears an echo has not fulfilled the mitzvah. One must hear the actual sound of the shofar: its timbre, its pitch, its actual voice. The same must maintain with respect to hearing the voices of those around us, especially those with whom we disagree. It simply cannot be done virtually, or digitally, with the social media platforms that decouple the capacity to make public declarations from the responsibility of truly listening in response.
The modern day ‘echoes’ which our Sages taught us were invalid in the context of shofar are the emails, blogs, texts, tweets, and Facebook posts which are equally impotent when it comes to healing our deeply broken polity. This will only be achieved by listening to the actual voice of the Other, in all of its distinctiveness, with all of its vulnerability. And, as is the case to fulfill the mitzvah of shofar, this listening must be done with deep intentionality, with kavanah1, with a recognition of our mutual humanity, and an aspiration to honor that which is Divine in each of us.