What is a symbol? By definition, it is a thing that represents or stands for something else, and most often, a material object representing something abstract.
Something abstract? Yes, I can see that. Writing as an American during this highly political season, I think of the Stars and Stripes, Old Glory, the American flag. For many, the flag represents much more than a geographic region on our planet. It represents something much more abstract—freedom, democracy, sacrifice, etc. The power of this symbol extends beyond the geographic borders of the United States. Many immigrants attach their own “abstract” ideas to the flag—opportunity, success, safety—and draw inspiration from these concepts and choose to make this country their home.
Interestingly, the same symbol can evoke the opposite reaction. For some, this fabric and its pattern of colors represent abstract ideas that are negative. That’s the power of a symbol. It speaks powerfully of very emotional ideas, for better or for worse, often without making a sound.
In the celebration of the festivals of the LORD, Judaism excels in attaching powerful symbols and their abstract ideas to connect us with a deep experience with the power of God. Passover includes matzah and bitter herbs, which recall slavery and misery, yet, also in some way, bring instantly to mind freedom, deliverance, and salvation. Hanukkah ( a festival of later origin) uses the chanukkiah, the eight-branched candelabra, to recall a miracle from Heaven, holy resistance, etc. At the same time, it reminds us of the despotic rule of Antiochus over the Jewish people and yet another attempt at extermination.
Then there is Rosh HaShanah and its associated symbol, the shofar. Here, the symbol takes a new turn and climbs to a new height in terms of its symbolic power to connect us to ideas. It is a unique symbol in that now it is not only visual, it is also audible. The shofar has a voice, and that voice is incredibly powerful for those who are willing to embrace the ideas it suggests we consider.
You’ve probably experienced the power of an audible symbol quite often in your life. It’s called an anchor, and one of the most powerful representations of this concept is the power of music. Isn’t it strange that we can hear a song and instantly be transported back to a previous moment in time? We’re reminded of relationships, experiences, where we lived, what we were doing at a particular time when that song was popular. But what we often experience more than those memories are the feelings we had. Were we happy, were we sad? Were we living with fulfillment? Were we walking closely with HaShem and feeling the peace of the LORD, or had we journeyed down a wrong road and gotten lost? These memories are emotional anchors to the past, and quite often, those anchors are for better and for worse. I have often heard a song, and for some reason—one I couldn’t exactly put my finger on—I didn’t feel good when I heard it. It was anchored somewhere that I didn’t want to go. I’m willing to bet many of us have felt those feelings.
What does that have to do with Rosh HaShanah? Well, first, we should note that Rosh HaShanah is not the Torah’s name for the festival. There are multiple names for the 1 Tishrei’s holiday, but for our purpose here, the most interesting one to consider is Yom HaZikkaron, the day of remembering. Leviticus 23:24 reads, “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘In the seventh month on the first of the month you shall have a rest, a reminder by blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation.’” It’s a zichron teruah, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of the shofar—a memorial, an audible symbol designed to have us remember something.
But what should we remember? Beyond the biblical events connected to the shofar— the binding of Isaac, the giving of the Torah, and many more —there’s a unique and personal remembrance that God asks us to connect with this intense visual and audible symbol. These connections are connected to, you guessed it, some abstract but life-changing ideas we must confront, for better and for worse.
Like so many symbols, the voice of the shofar sends us backward. If we’re tuned in, it’s a spiritual anchor, like hearing a song from our past. Yet, this look to the past year is, for many, a remembrance of the negative. It’s a call to review our deeds, remember our failures, and repent before the LORD. In this anchor moment, we are unfortunately forced to confront the negative emotions the shofar arouses within us—guilt, remorse, and regret, and then the urge to return to God. It’s the abstract yearning of our heart, teshuvah. It’s a symbol doing what a symbol does— connection.
However, like the symbols we’ve already referenced in this blog, there is another side. The voice of the shofar can anchor to the not-so-good, but it is divinely capable of anchoring us to the awesome yet-to-come as well. It’s a call to action, a return to something great, and an opportunity to rise above our past. It’s the symbol through sight and sound of a right relationship.
Abraham saw the ram caught in the thicket by its horns, and God told him, “Because you have done this thing, I confirm my covenant with you.” A relationship was born.
When Israel gathered at Sinai, and the voice of the shofar grew louder, the people heard its voice, and it represented relationship. God sealed that relationship with a memorable sound. The sight and sound of the shofar are symbols for what God wants to do with us, here and now, for better in this season— to reconnect, to get re-anchored.
Yes, it is an anchor to remember our past failures, but it is also an anchor to God’s faithfulness and desire to be close to his people. Like the two sides of a coin, this symbol confronts the worst within us and, at the same time, calls us with its voice to embrace the feeling of forgiveness and expectation. How fitting that this symbol and its sound will announce the coming of Messiah and the arrival of the kingdom, for which we can only abstractly hope at this point.
May the sight and sound of the shofar accomplish its divine purpose in our lives during these high holidays, helping us to deal with our negative past and live with hope for the promised future and all that the kingdom will be.