The shofar, the ram’s horn , has been used throughout Jewish history to signal important public events. It is the oldest surviving type of wind-instrument, mentioned frequently in the Bible, the Talmud and in post-Talmudic literature. The revelation at Mount Sinai was introduced by the sound of the shofar, causing all the Israelites to tremble. (Exodus 19:16). The year of the Jubilee, designed to emancipate slaves, rest the land and forgive debts, was proclaimed by the sound of the shofar. On the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah, the notes of the shofar proclaim the sovereignty of God, and symbolically, call people to repentance. An exceptionally long shofar blast (tekiah gedolah )concludes the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. It was also used to announce a new Jewish month, call people to battle, and at the coronation of a new king. The medieval philosopher Maimonides describes the piercing cry of the shofar as “an allusion, as if to say, ‘Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep! O you slumberers, awake from your slumber! Search your deeds and turn in repentance.’”
This past week as my wife and I continued our daily practice of studying a chapter of Mishnah (we have now almost completed two whole tractates!) we came across a fascinating text in the tractate Ta’anit. The tractate deals largely with matters, methods and ritual relating to fasting because of drought, epidemics and invasions. In time of drought (apparently there were lots of them in those days) after many days without rain, the Jewish court proclaimed a fast for several days. The people were commanded to bring out an Ark with a Torah scroll and recite prayers. Furthermore, if forty days passed with no rain, they were enjoined to sound the shofar immediately, signaling a calamitous drought. Similarly, the shofar was to be sounded if a city suffered from a plague, defined in the Talmud as three men dying one after the other within three successive days in a city that can furnish 500 soldiers (Ta’anit 3:4) .
The following sections elaborate that they were to sound the shofar for afflictions and destruction that increase and spread such as mildew, locusts or wild beasts (Taanit 3:5) and that the shofar should be sounded (even on the Sabbath) when a city is surrounded by hostile troops, or by a flood caused by a raging river, or when a ship is storm-tossed and in danger of sinking (Taanit 3:7). The chapter concludes with Rabbi Simon the Temanite’s opinion that the shofar should be sounded for an epidemic!
These past weeks and months have witnessed the loss of thousands upon thousands of people world-wide as a result of COVID-19. I include those suffering from this terrible virus in my healing prayers each week. I invite my congregants to pray for our first responders, our care givers, and for the scientists who are searching for a vaccine that will be safe and effective for all to use. But having learned of the incredible power of the shofar that had been used so often centuries ago, I am thinking about adding the sounding of the shofar to my prayers as a call to action.
Perhaps those who are reading this (and who own a shofar or a wind instrument) might add the sounds to your personal prayers of healing as a call to action. One thing is for certain: the sounds of the shofar were meant to rouse us from our complacency and impel us to act.
The shofar exclaims: Wake up from your slumber! Improve your ways. Take a good look at yourselves. Here are some things that you may wish to consider as your call to action:
- Continue social distancing, wearing a mask and washing your hands
- Check in on elderly neighbors and friends, and others in solitary isolation
- Provide meals or PPE to essential workers directly or by making donations
- Donate to a local food bank or a charity that supports the hungry
- Donate to support research to develop vaccines or therapies to combat COVID-19
- Continue to pray for our care givers, first responders, scientists and all those in need of healing
May the sounds of the shofar shatter our complacency, awaken the Divine within us, stir our conscience and call us to action.