Quick, what instrument do you associate with Passover? Matzah? Sorry, not an instrument. With Shavuot? What? Blintzes? Wrong again. You seem obsessed with food. With Sukkot? No, a lulav is not technically an instrument.
We don’t normally associate our holidays with instruments, or sounds. And yet, if we were to free-associate about Rosh Hashanah, perhaps one of the most important times in the Jewish calendar, we would immediately think of the blasts of the shofar. In fact, the Torah refers to this holiday not as the Jewish New Year, but as a “day of trumpeting” (Numbers 29:1). Why does this little ram’s horn, play such a significant role on this major holiday? And what does it have to do with the overarching theme of the holiday, renewal and growth?
The shofar can be perceived as an auditory metaphor for the elements involved in any change, renewal, or innovation process. Its various sounds, legato and staccato, a constant presence in the month leading up to the holiday, and during the services on the holiday itself, are reminders of the steps involved when we seek to make meaningful change in our personal, communal, and professional lives.
The shofar’s blasts can be compared to a spiritual alarm clock. Maimonides, in the Mishnah Torah, Laws of Teshuva, compares it to a wake-up call: “Wake up, sleepers; arise, you who slumber!” In any change process, the first step is usually some sort of external force jarring us into a realization that things could, and perhaps should, be different. It is an invitation to commit to change.
But it is not enough to hear the wake-up call. It is too easy to hit snooze. Often, we ignore, explain away, or try to silence those external forces demanding our attention. We can be inspired to change, grow, or innovate only when we internalize those forces, and accept the invitation to address them. The Talmud, in Tractate Rosh Hashanah, explains that if a shepherd is walking by a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and happens to hear the Shofar, unless his “heart is full of intention,” and he stops and commits his attention to the blasts, it is as if he never heard the sounds. The shofar is a reminder that we can change only if we genuinely commit to hear the blasts that challenge our reality and allow them to affect us.
The shofar is a symbol that connects the Jewish people’s past to their future. It evokes both the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus, and the chaos preceding the coming of the Messiah, described in the book of Zechariah. World peace and individual community are very different visions. Yet the shofar is present in both scenarios, amplifying their significance. The shofar inspires a model of change and innovation that allows even the disruptive elements to remain connected to the overall whole, interwoven with the larger values of the system. Sometimes real growth necessitates a break from the past. But it does not necessitate that we forget the past. The shofar’s presence on Rosh Hashanah raises questions about the relationship between past and future, and challenges us to think about how to effectively transition from one realm to the other.
Finally, the shofar is a reminder that renewal is not a process that any individual, or organization, can do alone. In order for it to be generative, it needs the perspectives specifically of those who have not previously been included in the conversation. The Rabbis derived the sound patterns (tikea-shvarim-teruah) of the blowing of the shofar from a text in the Book of Judges about the mother of Sisera, an enemy of the Jewish people. After Sisera is killed and his army decimated, the text evokes the reader’s empathy for his mother: “Through the window the mother of Sisera looked forth and wailed, she peered, through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the wheels of his chariots?’” (Judges 5:28). It seems very strange that the text pushes the reader to feel the maternal pain of an enemy of the Jewish people, and even more strange that this is the verse from which the Rabbis chose to learn the pattern of blowing the Shofar. Perhaps it is a reminder that growth and change can be adaptive only if we shift our perspectives, and include those that challenge ours. Innovation depends upon radical collaboration; the change process must involve the individual or the system being challenged to hear voices and perspectives that disagree with it, that force it to think about things in new ways.
The promise of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is that when we engage our growth in this way, we have the opportunity to renew ourselves and our community. When we heed the external calls that shake us up, commit ourselves to genuinely listening to them, reflect on where we have been and where we should be, and include the narratives and perspectives of others who think differently from us, then we are poised for genuine growth. Then we will have the opportunity to realize our new potential, and speak in what Aviva Zornberg, in her work The Particulars of Rapture, describes as “language not fitting the world, but strongly recreating it, [which can make] new and different things possible and important.”
Maya Bernstein is the Strategic Design Officer at UpStart Bay Area, a social venture and innovation consulting firm.