One of the most familiar and exciting elements of the Rosh Hashana service is the sounding of the shofar. The eerie, wailing sounds of the shofar are meant to be a spiritual wake-up call to the opportunities awaiting us in the new year, as well as a summons to self-reflection.
During Elul, there are several practices that encourage us to prepare spiritually and emotionally for the coming New Year. Psalm 27 is recited twice daily, likely because of its theme of seeking deeper faith. Selichot (penitential) prayers are recited early each morning by Ashkenazic Jews during the last week of Elul and by Sephardic Jews during the entire month. And, perhaps most familiar, is the practice of sounding the shofar each day every day of Elul except for Shabbat.
As with many Jewish customs, there is no definitive reason why the shofar is sounded during Elul. An old superstition suggests that the practice was meant to confuse Satan, an angelic being portrayed in rabbinic literature as a sort of prosecuting attorney against human beings who are being judged before God. By sounding the shofar during Elul, the idea was to avoid an evil decree by causing Satan to show up in the Divine court on the wrong day!
A more cogent reason for sounding the shofar during Elul is based on a story found in the Torah (Exodus 32-34) concerning the worship of the Golden Calf, which is essentially a tale of sin and repentance. According to the story, Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to commune with God and receive the Torah. The Israelites, fearing that he has left them for good, compel Aaron to build an idol for them and then proceed to worship it. This act of apostasy is regarded in the Torah, and in subsequent rabbinic literature, as a catastrophic sin committed by the people. God becomes furious and announces to Moses that he plans to destroy the entire people and make him the leader of a new people that will soon be created.
Moses, known in the Torah for his bold leadership, confronts God and demands that the Divine plan be withdrawn. He says, “If that’s what you plan to do, then count me out…wipe me from your Divine book as well!” God relents and, with the encouragement of Moses, ultimately reconciles with the people.
The story is deeply connected to the idea of sin and repentance. In Exodus 32:34, God says to Moses, “When I make an accounting, I will bring them to account for their sins.” Setting aside the stark tone of the passage, it hints at the idea that the pathway to forgiveness and renewal is accountability. It is not possible to make a fresh start or to receive forgiveness without being held accountable for what we have done wrong. Sometimes that accountability is a private, inner process and sometimes it needs to be shared with those we’ve wronged.
Chapter 34 opens with Moses carving two new tablets to replace the ones he smashed in anger. Here we have another hint at an important element of forgiveness and renewal- the chance to make a new beginning. The promise to renew the Divine-Human relationship is not left to a matter of faith or hope. Rather, it is represented in tangible reality by the new tablets that replace the old ones. We need to be assured, sometimes in tangible ways, that we can start over with a second chance at living our lives the we know we should.
Later in chapter 34, Moses asks God to reveal the Divine essence, so he can know Him “face-to-face.” God rejects His request, telling Moses that he could not survive an encounter with the Divine, and then proceeds to enumerate His attributes. Known as the “Thirteen Attributes of God,” the passage has made its way into the High Holiday liturgy and is recited throughout Yom Kippur services. God describes Himself as, among other things, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, and forgiving sin. The Thirteen Attributes can be understood not only as a description of God’s qualities, but, more importantly, they should be understood as aspirational for human beings. When I hear them articulated, I ask myself if I can integrate those qualities more deeply into my life.
The narrative about the worship of the Golden Calf speaks to us about core ideas connected to the High Holidays: personal accountability for our wrongdoing, a second chance to do what is good and right, and a vision for improving our lives.
So why do we sound Shofar during the month of Elul? In the Midrash (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 46:2, 8th century), we read: “On the new month of Elul, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain and let me sound the shofar throughout the camp’.” In other words, the rabbinic tradition holds that on the first of Elul, Moses ascended Mt Sinai a second time to seek forgiveness and arrange for reconciliation and as he did, a shofar sounded.
We, too, sound the shofar as we head into a New Year, as a reminder of an ancient tale of renewal and reconciliation, and a message of assurance that we will be able to do what we must to make our lives what they can and should be.