The Sound of Redemption

[Published in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, September 30, 2019, p. 6.]

By Abraham Skorka

Blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah at the Western Wall

According to Jewish tradition, at the beginning of each Hebrew year God judges every individual, all peoples and nations, and all humanity. The Holy One determines their destinies. But through repentance, prayer, and charity, a severe judgment can be changed. The basis of the celebration of Rosh Hashanah rests upon some key elements of the Jewish faith: the gifts that God has bestowed on each human being of free will and of the ability to regret and amend errors. When a person makes proper use of these capabilities to improve their behavior, God helps them by forgiving their mistakes. The Jewish New Year is the time on the Hebrew calendar when each Jew prays for himself or herself and for all humankind that everyone will do what God desires with firm resolution.

In the Torah, this holyday is the day when the Shofar or ram’s horn is blown (Numbers 29:1), according to the rabbinic interpretation of the verse (Rosh Hashanah 33, b). The sounding of the Shofar appears several times in the Bible, but two mentions are especially significant. It is the sound that accompanied the revelation of God to the Jewish people gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:19). According to Isaiah 27:13, it will be the sound that all will hear at the time of redemption. These two images are deeply associated with the essence of this holyday. The Jew enters into a special dialogue with the One God who has created everything, who knows the feelings and actions of each individual, who judges with mercy, and who will redeem each one in the future.

Especially in the Ashkenazic tradition, a certain liturgical poem or piyut is recited with great emotion on Rosh Hashanah and again ten days later on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is known by its first words, Unetaneh Tokef, “Let us proclaim the power of the holiness of this day, for it is awesome.” It was composed sometime in the Middle Ages and fragments of it have been found in the Geniza of Cairo (Fragment Cambridge TS H8.6). The prayer has deeply moved the Jewish faithful from ancient times until the present. Its words are so stirring that a tradition developed to recite it with special fervor in the times of persecution and martyrdom.

In one of its passages, the piyut says: “And the great Shofar will be sounded and a still, soft voice will be heard.” This sentence combines two biblical verses: the one from Isaiah mentioned above about the sound of the great Shofar at the End of Days, and the verse that describes the soft murmuring sound with which God spoke to Elijah in the desert (I Kings 19:12). It seems a contradiction that only a faint whisper would be emitted from a great Shofar. However, there is a most significant message in this depiction, which is very relevant to our days.

The demagogues of the present, like those of the past, shout their foolishness in cacophonous bellows, concussing their supporters with words while numbing their minds. “Their tongues strut across the earth” (Psalm 73:9).

God, however, adjudges people in a whispering silence that penetrates into the hidden places of the heart and mind, questioning people’s sinful behavior, seeking out reason and love. Unlike the thunderous voice of the arrogant whose pretenses sow confusion, this divine voice gently murmurs in order to awaken and illuminate those who strive to perceive it.

Maimonides explains this idea by describing the blowing of the great Shofar as a “wake up call” (Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4):

Wake up, O sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise! Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth in the vanities of time and who throughout the entire year devote their energies to vanity and emptiness that will not benefit or save: Look to your souls. Improve your ways and your deeds and let every one of you abandon evil path and thoughts.

The dream of a humanity that experiences shalom and the perfection of the spiritual virtues that allow God to draw closer to humanity are what ultimately echo in the sounding of the Shofar.

Let these words be a sincere greeting from the Jewish people to the Catholic flock, who, along with all humanity, will be present in our prayers, our thoughts, and our feelings during the coming Days of Awe.