One morning at breakfast, when we were all visiting together at my mother’s house this summer, my nephew Nathan, who will became bar mitzvah next year, told us about the dream he’d had just before waking. He was back at Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire, surrounded again by the bunkmates and counselors he’d been sad to leave behind a few weeks earlier. It was the last day of camp, and they were playing a game. With everyone’s eyes closed, each of them, one-by-one, made the sound of whichever animal he chose, and the others had to guess which kid was making the sound. When his turn came, Nathan meowed. Immediately, his friends said, “Nathan.” But not just once. They said it over and over again: Nathan, Nathan, Nathan, Nathan, Nathan. Then he opened his eyes, and, for real, he was in his grandmother’s house, on that very morning, and Josiah, his little brother, was standing over him, trying to wake him up, saying, “Nathan. Nathan. Nathan. Nathan…”
I’ve thought about this charming episode a lot, speculating about the machinations within my young nephew’s slumbering brain that brought it about. Was it a coincidence that he happened to be dreaming of a name game precisely when Josiah began calling to him? It seems more likely, though no less amazing, that his unconscious mind was already dallying in the camping ambience it dearly missed when the sound of his name came echoing down from the daylight world and his agile synapses quickly wove a story around it. What we can say for certain is this: his name sank down into the murk of his fantasy and yanked him up to the clamor of his brother’s need.
This may not have been an easy transition. It can be disconcerting to discover that we are not where we thought we were. The ghosts of our nostalgia, or, worse, our self-centered illusions, often seem more conducive to our well-being than the flesh-and-blood before us, and going from the company of one to the other may feel like being broken.
But in our tradition, we believe not only that such shattering is unavoidable, but also that it is morally right, and holy, to submit to it. We know this because for millennia we have preserved the legacy of a horn, like some magical gift in a fairy tale, with this very capacity to puncture our sleep, and in just a few moments we are once again going to force ourselves to listen to it.
As you may know, I have more experience with animal horns than the average rabbi. To me, generally speaking, they’re a short-lived nuisance. About a week after a new kid is born in my small herd, I pack it into a dog-carrier on a bed of hay. As it struggles on toddling legs with the unnatural rhythm of car travel, we drive to my friend’s farm in Colrain. There, we weave our way down through a menagerie of llamas, alpacas, and Nigerian dwarves to the little milking room on the bottom floor of her immense split-level barn, where for a ten dollar bill, or sometimes a jar of honey, she and her husband perform a quick procedure on my behalf, almost as if they were a pair of caprine mohels. The air fills with the odor of singed hair, and the pained squeal of the poor creature, as one holds it tightly by the muzzle and the back of the head and the other, as carefully as possible, presses a hot iron into the two little buds that are just beginning to emerge on either side of its skull. Afterwards, cradled in my arms, the goat relaxes. Soon the only remaining signs of the ordeal are the two charcoaled spots above the ears, each about the size of a quarter, from which true horns will never grow.
I don’t enjoy this rite of passage, though it does give me partial insight into what Abraham might have been feeling as he took his son, Isaac, to the mountain to be sacrificed, the story we’ll read in the Torah tomorrow. But here, too, the offering comes back alive, only mutilated slightly, in the case of the kid, in service of its domestication. As much as I admire the beauty of a proud animal in its natural state, horns can be a danger when the keeping area is small. I don’t like the idea of such a sharp object slicing through the air at the eye-level of my human child. There’s also a possibility of the animal snagging and injuring itself, or, as the saying goes, getting “caught in the thicket by its horns.”
Horns also increase the likelihood of blood being drawn during altercations, especially if one goat has them and the other doesn’t. This was the case with Astra, the handsome white-haired Nubian buck I borrowed for breeding one winter from a herder who had kept him intact. When I tried to drag him away from a bleeding doe by the horns, he reared back at me, as if pulling a switchblade in a bar fight. Last year’s buck, Stuart, was calmer. I was told he started life as a Yoga goat. Now he lives year round on a beautiful 100-acre farm in Petersham. His keeper sent me a picture the other day to show me how well he was growing, and I marveled at the two perfect shofaroton either side of his head.
As heirs to an ancient civilization, we maintain old forms of technology and manufacture, like the parchment scroll of the Torah itself, that date from a time before synthetics, when the byproducts of the hunt or the herd served as the material basis for culture. Our shofarmay be just as old as the legbone flute, though it holds the distinction of still being in regular use. We preserve the lore of how it should be fashioned, instructions that combine aesthetics and functionality with ritual specificity. It must be taken from the carcass of a kosher animal, though the slaughter doesn’t have to be kosher. It must come from an animal whose horns are hollow, because nothing may be done, at any step, that causes the instrument to deviate significantly from its natural form, though even a hollow horn contains bone and connective tissue to be removed through boiling, prying, or letting it rot away. You saw off the top to open up the bell, and drill out the mouthpiece, which may need to be adjusted through a careful process of heating and bending. Then, depending on your taste, you might apply a coat or two of polyurethane. That was the finish on the shofarI got for my own bar mitzvah. The only thing I can recall really differentiating it from the other pieces of Jewish kitschon the mantel was the faint aroma that greeted my nostrils when I placed them to the lip of the horn, which I inexactly associated with the scent of an ear canal, and which was the only salient reminder that this artifact had been alive.
Such fuzzy hints are hardly needed when the fact of the beast is as present to human eyes as the instrument made from the residue of its body. I even wonder if the early makers of these horns prized them not only for their acoustic potential, but also out of some animistic sense that the grace and power of the being whose ornament and weapon they had been somehow inspirited the final product. The sound must certainly have possessed some primal mystery, especially in a world much quieter than ours–an animal sound that never existed before in nature, magnifying the small complement of noises we could make with our own bodies, and piercing the air and the soul.
In the ancient traditions of our people, as recorded in Torah and Talmud, it was the voice of convocation, initiating the observance of festivals and fast days, a custom still echoed in our own time by the siren that ushers in Shabbat in Jerusalem, or that sounds throughout the country, to bring it to a halt, on Yom HaShoahand Yom HaZikaron. What we know of as Rosh Hashanah was noted in the Bible only as a day on which, for some reason, a special blast of the shofar was meant to be heard. It was also the alarm of war, sounded from a hilltop to draw troops into battle, and most famously outside Jericho, where the combined cry of the ram’s horn and the warlike cheer of Joshua’s army brought down the walls. It proclaimed freedom for all when initiating the Jubilee year at the end of Yom Kippur, and we preserve a sense of it, too, as the otherworldly voice of revelation. We’ll find this in the musafsection of today’s service, when we meditate on scriptural verses that refer to the shofarand note just how many of them, like Exodus 19:16, are descriptions of the giving of the Torah: “There was thunder and lightening, a dense cloud covering the mountain, and the powerful sound of the shofar; all the people who were in the camp trembled.”
The tale that really serves as the myth of the shofar’s origin, however, at least in terms of its use on Rosh Hashanah, is one that I’ve already alluded to: the Akedah, or “the binding of Isaac.” God calls to Abraham and tells him to sacrifice his son. Abraham gets up early the next morning and sets off with Isaac on a three-day journey to the hill country of Moriah, where the deed is to be done. But as Isaac lies bound on the altar with his father’s knife raised above him, an angel calls Abraham’s name and stops him from completing the act, informing him it was all just a test of his loyalty. A moment later, Abraham notices a ram, snared in the bushes by its horns, and offers it up in place of his son.
The idea, first proposed in the Gemara, is, more or less, that the horn of this ram was the first shofar, and that we continue to blow it year after year to remind God of the merit of our ancestors–Abraham’s faithfulness and Isaac’s heroic submission–in the hope that the remembrance of their virtue will secure us a better judgment. As with most good Bible stories, though, this one is more useful if you peel away the alienating layer of piety and understand it, instead, as depicting a recognizable human dilemma. I prefer to read it in the light of my nephew’s dream, only several degrees more dramatic and less innocent: Abraham as a sleepwalker, enmeshed in the implications of his own fantasy to the point of near catastrophe, who, at the last possible minute is awakened by the echoing repetition of his own name–Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham–to address the brutal reality that lies before him. In such a reading, the shofaris not simply some door prize he gets for passing a test of faith, but a holy object imbued with the power of his awakening, that movement of soul, that tshuvah, which he achieves in his moment of truth.
But this is the fairy tale version. In the real world, awakenings of this kind are not necessarily accompanied by the sense of relief we might imagine flooded through these characters when their scene changed. The very opposite is often the case. How gratifying is it really to wake up from a mollifying fog to the full recognition that the bedrock of our lives has shifted in the night, that we are in love with phantoms, that our nation is in shambles, that our planet is burning? Just this past week, a fellow member of the Jewish clergy tried to convince me on a list serve that shofarotthemselves come from horns naturally shed by rams, who then go on traipsing merrily about their lives. We should know better, but we can’t always bring ourselves to, because the truth is merciless.
Even Abraham must have faltered when it became clear to him just what he was doing to his son. But if he really has a merit that should stand by us before God as we repent, it’s that, despite it all, he listened as the voice called his name again and again. He let it penetrate to the core of his being, and then he blinked his eyes, as if emerging from a trance, and said, “Here I am.”
Maimonides suggests that if the shofar could speak in human terms it would say: “Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep! O you slumberers, awake from your slumber!” But it is not this articulate. It has only its limited vocabulary of primal tones–like the urgent dots and dashes of a distress signal–whole, broken, shattered, and then newly whole and all-absorbing, overswelling boundaries, forcing open our minds and stretching awareness for as long as breath will hold out.
It is an ancient instrument whose task is the destruction of nostalgia. It sinks down into the murk of fantasy, demanding we present the vitality of our consciousness to the world-at-hand. If this were an easier task, we might not need to employ the instrument that God used for sound effects at Mt. Sinai that has the power to summon multitudes and bring down the fortified walls of a great city. But this is the horn that Abraham cut from the head of a ram with the knife he had nearly plunged into the body of his son, and, as any shepherd worth his salt will tell you, it’s the farthest thing fromkitschimaginable: it is flesh-and-blood.
So, now, let’s play a game. We’ll all close our eyes and do our best to make the noise of an animal, and then see if we can guess who weare as a rhythmic sound drops down through the refraction of our dreams and draws us upward to the light, until we come to see that it isn’t a game at all. And it will be hard to wake up. But we will have to, because our brother is calling our name.