I often wonder what the shofar sounded like to our ancestors who lived in a sonic world so different from our own. Imagine a world without electricity to amplify sound. Everything you heard came from a natural source. There were no radios, records, cassette tapes, CDs, or MP3s. All guitars were unplugged. There was no need to call some of them “acoustic.” While the number of decibels produced by the blast of the shofar is the same today as it was in the past, I imagine that its effect was different. Loud piercing noises were rare.
The sound of the shofar was perhaps closer to what one writer, Arnold Lustiger, has said. He describes it as a blast that awakens us from sleep and is the “abrupt tragic realization that the false assumptions upon which we build our lives have come crashing down before our eyes.”
It should be a shattering sound. Is that what we heard on Rosh Hashannah, just a few days ago when we heard the Shofar? Did it deliver a shock to our systems?
Imagine if you normally set your alarm clock to awaken you with the soothing sounds of classical music. What if one morning you accidentally set the alarm to a loud buzzing noise and it sounded an hour before you usually arise, during one of your deep sleep cycles. That would make you jump out of bed, and deliver a shock to your system. It would be a radical shift from sleeping to wakefulness. That sound would be like the blast of the shofar, a call for us to change, to repent, to do teshuvah.
How can we reach that state of change today if the Shofar is not as effective as it once was as a cry to correct our lives?
Dr. Naomi Remen, in her book “My Grandfather’s Blessings,” speaks of a similar recognition. As part of a research study she asked 73 doctors to rank the same list of 21 life values twice: first according to what was most important to them in their work, and then according to what was most important to them personally. The list included values such as admiration, control, wisdom, competence, love, power, compassion, happiness, fame, success and kindness.
None of those she reports made two identical lists. Not only that but the two lists were often strikingly different.
For one participant kindness was number two on his list of personal values and number fifteen on the list of desirable work values. Competence was often number one on a professional list and last in a personal list. Many of those who took part in this were dismayed to see that they lived one way and believed in another. Comparing the two lists was like hearing the sound of the shofar.
Dr. Remen continues, “What is true of these doctors is, I think, true of all of us. The experience of sacrificing integrity to expediency is one that many people have daily.”
How would your lists compare? What do you truly value? Do the values of Judaism such as the study of Torah, praying to God and acts of loving kindness rate highly in your professional and/or personal life?
Similarly she notes that the diagnosis of a serious illness is also a shock that causes many people to reprioritize their lives. One patient diagnosed with cancer told her, “I always knew what mattered. I just never felt entitled to live by it before.”
Of course we should not need to become seriously ill to consider whether we are living with the right values, although many of the practices of Yom Kippur are rehearsals for our eventual demise. Wearing white is like dressing in burial shrouds and of course the dead need no food. I hope the sound of the shofar was an admonition for us to evaluate the values we live for and gave us resolve to repent.
The final blast of the shofar will be heard in a few days. I know it tells many of us, “Time to eat!” I hope its blast will also awaken us to recognize any false values in our lives and motivate us to live more consistently with the ideals and the values of Judaism as high priorities in our lives.