The Shofar's Question

The sound of the ram's horn asks: "What are you doing here?"

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Multi-Faceted Question

The question is first and foremost a personal one. Its tone varies; it need not always be serious. On the way back from synagogue the other day my son got stuck between a lamppost and a fence, and the inquiry, "What are you doing there, Mossy?" had a quality with which every parent will be familiar. But as we get older, the issues become more pressing. In loneli­ness, in indecision, amidst trivial routines, the question, "What am I doing here?" penetrates the most intimate regions of self-doubt and despair with the power to evoke a seemingly irresolvable anguish.

Yet there are also moments of joy--at night in the streets or in a garden, looking at the blue-black sky, hearing a late bird call sharply out--when the feeling, "What a privilege it is to be here!" and the questions, "What can I do and what can I give?" traverse the mind like a blessing.

Even at the close of life the shofar's question follows us. I remember a wedding for which the date was put forward because the groom's father was terminally ill. On the clay itself he found a special strength, and the celebration was marked by a particular tenderness and joy. However, I was not surprised to receive a phone call 24 hours later telling me that he was dying. To my surprise, he wanted me to come and see him. By the time I got there, he could hardly talk. I leaned close to him, and he asked me, "What do I have to do now?" The question was pursuing him even then. He needed to hear that he had fulfilled his responsibilities on earrh with dignity and love and that he was free to go in peace.

Thus the shofar's question, "What are you doing here?" follows us in our innermost being and until our final breath. But the shofar is also a specifically Jewish instrument, and its sound traverses Jewish history. The ram's horn recalls the binding of Isaac and God's covenant with Abraham. It reminds us of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, when the Jewish people entered into a bond with God. The shofar was to be blown every 50th year, to proclaim freedom to all the inhabitants of the land of Israel. And at the end of days, when the exiles are gathered in, "...a great shofar shall be sounded and those lost in the land of Assyria and cast away in the ­land of Egypt shall come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain in Jerusalem" (Isaiah 27:13).

Binding of Isaac

Of these connections with history it is the association with the binding of Isaac that is most important on Rosh Hashanah. It is as if by blowing a ram's horn we are specifically reminding God of all that the Jewish people have sacrificed throughout the ages, in a protest and a declaration: "See what we have given for the sake of our relationship with you, God. Remember your side of the partnership and protect us with your love."

These themes, sacrifice and tenderness, were brought home to me in picture by Ernest Neushul, which I saw at the house of a friend. It depicts, in warm colors and something of a cubist style, a young man and a ram. They will shortly be partners in sacrifice. The ram grazes placidly, showing its fine horns; the man, to the left of the picture, is reflective. The ram appears calm, but the man gazes out at the world. Who knows what he can see--the sacrifice to come, all the sacrifices of the Jewish people before the power of Greece and Rome, through the Dark Ages of the medieval world, during the Nazi persecutions?

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Jonathan Wittenberg

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg serves as rabbi of New North London Synagogue. His other publications include Three Pillars of Judaism: A Search for Faith and Values and The Laws of Life: A Guide to Traditional Jewish Practice at Times of Bereavement.