The Command to Listen
The primary command regarding the shofar is in the listening.
The defining prayer in Judaism is the shema. Shema means to listen, to hear, to understand, to internalize, and to respond in action. The closest English equivalent is to hearken.
When we say this prayer, we cover our eyes, to avoid distractions.
It is similar to how we close our eyes during meditation practice. I often close my eyes when I’m listening to a piece of music.
When we close our eyes we open our other senses.
The Feeling of Sound
There’s another aspect to the sound of shofar that is relevant to how it catalyzes our journey: feeling.
Images can provoke emotions from the outside working in, but sound creates emotion from the inside.
All sound carries vibration.
If you’ve ever been in a loud nightclub you can feel the pulsing of the bass. If you put your hand on a speaker you feel the pulse.
Sound enters our bodies physically. It’s vibration reverberates deep within us. When we hear something that speaks to us on a deep level we say it resonates.
Indeed, one of the reasons we say prayer out loud is because the frequency works through us in different ways than if we just read it silently. This is the science behind mantra and affirmations.
When we listen to the shofar we feel the vibration in the deepest recesses of our soul.
The Importance of Listening in An Age of Visuals
We live in an era defined by visuals. We are bombarded daily not just with messages, but with visual messages: an endless stream of pictures and videos that show us the amazing lives our friends and acquaintances are living. Glistening beaches. Delectable dinners. Perfect sunsets. Luxury homes. Amazing vacations.
We can forget that what we see is often not real.
When we set our goals and values based on what we see others doing or having, we end up chasing an illusion that can never be reality.
This is how we lose our way.
Returning to Truth
Rosh Hashana is when we return to our path, to our truth. And it begins with the sound of the shofar.
Rabbi Sacks explains that :
It is thus no accident that at the beginning of a new year, at the start of a holy period when we are called on to return to God — the God who is not an image but a voice, a summons, a call — we should begin with an act of pure listening to the wordless cry of the shofar, our call to God, His call to us.
The Original Call to Action
On Rosh Hashana we are stirred to action not by what we see externally to us, but by what we hear and what we feel from within.
This is the original “call to action.” It is meant to rouse us from the depths of our being to commit to a new path, to reorient our maps, to change our behaviors.
The first sound of the shofar — the long tekiya — is the Divine call to us. It pierces our consciousness, wakes us from our trance, calls us back to the path of our truth, and reminds us to stop chasing illusory visions.
In the hushed stillness of the sanctuary, the sound reaches into the depths of our being and stirs something within us.
This is the prompt to stop and go within. We are asked to examine our lives:
What do we value? How do we wish to live? How will we contribute to the world? What will we create? How will we make the best use of our lives?
Stripped bare of our pretenses and our rationalizations, exposed to ourselves and to the Divine, we have no choice but to examine our lives and take account of how we have lived so far.
If we truly listen, if we feel the vibration of the shofar’s sound, it is impossible not to be motivated — moved — to take action.
Rosh Hashana is not just about passively praying to be inscribed in the Book of Life. It is about actively choosing to embrace life and live our lives with intention and purpose, to make meaning for ourselves and others.
We are called to answer that question posed by the poet Mary Oliver:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?