Blogging Ellul: The crying Shofar

I have just spent ten minutes trying to find a youtube clip of a shofar blast that is as moving and impressive as the real thing. I failed. There are some beautiful and humorous examples, but nothing like the goose-bump inducing experience of hearing the real thing blast out.
There is something very primal about the Shofar, which is one of the Biblically mandated customs of Rosh Hashanah. In fact in Leviticus 23 Rosh Hashanah is called 'Yom Teruah' - a day of blasts. I think one of my favourite rabbinic duties over the High Holidays is calling the shofar blasts. In part it is the ancient power of the blast itself - calling us to repentance as Maimonides put it, or acting like an alarm clock - a wake up call to return to God and our true selves and to be the best version of our selves.

But there is a midrash which for me adds a deeper cry to the sound of the shofar. Leviticus Rabbah on Genesis 23: 1-2, which reports Sarah's death immediately after the Akedah - the binding of Isaac when the ram replaced Isaac as his father's sacrifice - informs us Sarah's death was caused by this disturbing event:

Isaac returned to his mother and she said to him: ' Where have you been, my son?' Said he to her: ' My father took me and led me up mountains and down hills, ' etc. ' Alas, ' she said, 'for the son of a hapless woman! Had it not been for the angel you would by now have been slain! ' ' Yes,' he said to her. Thereupon she uttered six cries, corresponding to the six blasts of the Shofar. It has been said: She had scarcely finished speaking when she died. Hence it is written, And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her (ib. 23:2).

It is the shock of learning how close to killing her long awaited son her husband had been that killed Sarah, and these mournful, shofar like cries bring to mind the cries of so many mothers (indeed parents) who have lost children, particularly to violence. Hearing that cry in the blasts of the Shofar reminds us all of how much pain and suffering is caused by human violence, and the responsibility we all carry to defend the powerless, and challenge violence. We begin with ourselves, and change must be revisited every year, but we must not end with ourselves.


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