The Shofar may be the least musical instrument invented. It has a shrill piercing sound, effective for calling troops to order, but not particularly musical. It is discordant rather than pleasant, startling rather than relaxing. Generally, when I listen to music I do so to unwind. The Shofar is much more about getting me to be wound, nervous, uncomfortable and startled.
The Shofar was originally a call to battle. Its shrill sounds could be heard at a great distance. Its call meant: Danger! Help! It is one of the oldest instruments and its essential primitive quality can still be heard in its piercing blasts. It is that primitive quality that draws our attention. This is why children are so riveted by the Shofar. They cannot help but pay attention to it.
It’s time to start listening to the Shofar. With summer still upon us, it seems too early. We are comfortable, settled, content in our merits but also in our failings. To listen to the Shofar means to hear that uncomfortable call. Danger! Help! All is not well inside or out. We resist that call because we don’t want to be startled.
People resist being startled and made uncomfortable. Human conservatism means that people will live in great discomfort for years before making a break with the past that offers hope. Moses frees the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, creating a moment of change and geulah, redemption. As each challenge is faced, the Israelites murmur and complain, asking again and again, “Were there not enough graves in Egypt?” They cannot see the opportunity presented by each challenge and instead see only death when they should see geulah. They would rather find the graves in Egypt than the hope of Israel.
I once saw a medical practice choose to keep a management company that had been stealing money from them. They kept this company because they were afraid of someone else being worse. Human nature means we avoid change and startling experiences even when our present situation is filled with its own discomfort.
The startle reflex, though we resist it, is potentially a creative moment. The flood of adrenalin, the breaking down of old connections, creates an opportunity for new. The Israelites can only be redeemed through a moment of change. Only by leaving Egypt can they enter Israel. How many of us choose to remain in Egypt?
A month before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we start sounding the shofar every morning. It is time to become startled, to become uncomfortable, to leave our settled places behind. During this month of Elul, it is time to begin challenging ourselves to be startled. We don’t want to hear it, we don’t want to be jostled out of our places of comfort, but redemption of self cannot occur until we are startled.
That discordant sound of the shofar makes us jump and get nervous. It reminds us that we are comfortable with our failings, that we have allowed ourselves to choose ease over good. In that moment of being startled, we wake up. Like Naval in the story of King David arising from his drunkenness, we see in an instant more clearly than we have all year. And then we can change.
Come hear the blasts of the Shofar. We are sounding the Shofar at Kol Emeth on Thurdays mornings after our 6:45 a.m. service and on Sundays following the 9am service. It is time to hear, to be startled, and to change.
Rabbi David Booth