There is a favorite photograph of mine, dated from 1980, in black and white, that depicts Rabbi Mark Loeb z’’l standing on the bimah of Beth El dressed in his High Holiday robes. He holds a long and elegant shofar to his lips, its twists resting in his extended hand. He is surrounded by a large group of children, all probably 4 or 5 years old. The young faces are turned upward toward the rabbi expectantly, and I’ve always imagined that he is just about to sound the tekiah, the ancient clarion call of Jewish ritual and lore.
There are certain symbols and sounds in Jewish life that speak straight to the heart. The sight of the ark opening, revealing the Torah resting in austere dignity. The sound of the opening notes of Kol Nidre. The melody of the Mah Nishtanah. And, without question, the sound of the shofar. These are touchstone Jewish experiences, sights and sounds that we feel in our souls as much as see or hear. They connect us to our ancient history and also to shared family moments. They remind us of parents and grandparents, of family seders and new years begun with promise and hope.
In our tradition, with its thousands of years of accumulated wisdom, the shofar is one of the oldest of all rituals. As the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, they used the shofar’s tekiah as a mustering call, but also as a source of inspiration, an untapped well of strength and hope during difficult times. It is sounded during the most dramatic moments of Jewish history. The Torah teaches that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to commune with God, the people could hear the sound of the shofar growing louder and louder. And in 1967, when Israeli paratroopers fought their way to the Western Wall and regained control of the Old City of Jerusalem, one of the first things they did after touching their hands to the stones was to sound the shofar.
And of course, we sense in the shofar the story of the first Jew, Avraham avinu, Abraham our ancestor, as told in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera. In a desperate moment of his life, as he struggles with understanding how to fulfill God’s will, it is the ram, with its symbolic horns caught in a thicket, that becomes the sacrifice instead of Abraham’s son Isaac. The shofar still calls to us today, reminding us of Abraham’s struggle and our own, lived through the lens of Jewish history and within the structure of Jewish life.
Rabbi Steven Schwartz is spiritual leader at Beth El Congregation.