To a modern person, it may seem very strange that on the highest holiday and head of the new year, our tradition is to blow through a ram’s horn. Of all the ways that people might consecrate a day, why do we do this and why has this funky practice lasted thousands of years? The simple explanation I remember hearing as a child in Sunday school was, “To call us to God.” At the time, I didn’t understand. What even was God and how does blowing through a ram’s horn call us to it?
The answer appeared to me at age 27, as I happened upon a parallel pagan practice to shofar-blowing at a music festival called ARISE in Loveland, Colorado. Under massive mountains by a clear lake with wildflowers all around, I found myself wandering among musicians, artists, dreamers and diverse humans from all over the country and international travelers. There were discussions of radical solutions for healing the problems of our culture—in our own hearts and ultimately the world.
One artist was sharing instruments he had created out of found antlers with fossils attached to each horn. As he blew through elk horns, the sound was similar to a pan flute. Also, just as different-sized instruments make higher and lower pitches by affecting the frequency of vibration, the different-sized horns on the antler caused varying pitches. The most surprising bit about the sound was that the notes created by the different-sized horns were not random—they harmonized in perfect thirds, the interval musicians often strive for when trying to create the most perfect, beautiful harmonies.
When I realized that this instrument, basically unaltered from its natural state, harmonized perfectly, it was hard to not realize a few other things too. What does it mean that the different-sized horns on antlers harmonize perfectly? The ultimate significance of this marvel of nature is found in the metaphor that we are all the horns on the same antlers, meant to be living together in perfect harmony. The ultimate message was that of the Shema, the oneness of everything and harmony of all beings. “Aha!” said I. “That’s why my ancestors blew the shofar!”
The feeling of being a part of the whole, one pine needle on the tree of humanity, and feeling compelled to help the collective because you are so blessed to be whatever you are, when you feel truly called to help other living beings and no longer see yourself as separate from them, that is being called to God.
How wild that this ego death experience can be induced by the sound of an animal horn. No wonder we make a point of blowing a shofar on the highest day of reflection. A primal instrument that would be found around and about in the desert in ancient times still has much relevance in the purest depths of our hearts today, as people ancient and modern face conflict and have always prayed for peace, freedom and for all living beings to be together and well.
This Rosh Hashanah, as you listen to the sound of the shofar—a direct messenger from nature that can connect to something true in your heart that no words can—see if you can let the sound inspire you to recognize all of your blessings and help the collective. Some questions to inspire contemplation:
- What unique blessings do you have to share?
- What part of the puzzle are you called to fill? It may look like career goals or it may look like just being a kinder, more compassionate person.
- The ram’s horn does not make a sound without human breath and intention, so what will your intentions be this year?
- How will you spread peace, joy and blessings?
- In a time when humans have come far from the garden and natural ways of being, how might this unification of human and horn symbolize people reuniting in spirit with all living beings?
- Think hard and challenge yourself to delve into thoughts of what truly makes you happiest and why. Ultimately, you will likely find that your truth somehow involves helping a community and the larger network of beings.
As ancient as the tradition is, the blowing of the shofar is highly relevant this year, and brings with it a great power of the prayers and life spirit of our ancestors. In trying political and cultural times, with an over-emphasis on separation and often a higher value on consumption of things than compassion, these times call for radical reflection and a renewal of love within our hearts and the collective spirit. As you hear the sound of the shofar, see if you can picture the dissolving of separation between living beings. Feeling one with everything and feeling so blessed to be a part of the holy sacred experience of life is feeling connected to God. This sacred ability to think and reflect and have conscious ability to change our experience is too beautiful and impactful to ignore, especially during troubled times. The choice is yours to spend the day being bored and disconnected from the symbolism of the holiday, or radically reflecting about becoming a more loving being. If you want to see change in the world, how can you be that change?
Think about the times in this past year when you may not have treated people with the divine respect of being cast from the same mold and sculpted from the same mud as you. See those people now as feeling just as deeply as you do. You might be picturing acquaintances or the people closest and most significant to you. Forgive yourself, as we are human and meant to make mistakes so that we might better be able to forgive others for theirs. Mistakes sometimes lead to discoveries and growth, so don’t beat yourself up for this thing that is hardwired into our human nature for a reason. Ask for forgiveness where needed. This Rosh Hashanah, don’t underestimate the power of forgiveness. It has a powerful healing affect, as letting go of what holds you back creates space to move forward and focus your energy on what is most important now. Forgive people, even if they do not ask for forgiveness. No one ever became happier or a brighter beacon of light for the world by sitting around dwelling in memories of those who have harmed them.
One exercise to help in letting go of grudges or negativity that does not allow you to freely go about being your highest self is the phrase, “Love them, bless them.” If you find yourself going down the rabbit hole of overthinking or dwelling in negativity, know that what’s at the other end of that black hole is the supernova of love and light. You’ll ultimately find that whoever harmed you was hurt themselves and compassion is what they need and what can resolve your issues. Have intentional conversations to resolve issues with people in your life, or, if a conversation is not possible, send compassion to them in your mind with the words, “Love and bless them,” and in doing so relieve yourself of heavy negativity and use the mental energy for more creative space.
Speaking of creative space, the shofar also helps us think about and wonder about creation and the divinity of being here. I read recently in a book about mantras about the holy nature of sound. When God created light, he said, “Let there be light.” Because light was brought into existence by spoken word, this implies that sound is a powerful force of creation. What does this mean for us? Speech comes about when there is intention for communication. This year, strive to make all your words compassionate. Something that can make this challenge more manageable is to practice cultivating the seed of compassion in your heart, and then the words flow more freely and easily. When the intention of compassion is at the core of your speech, the exact words do not matter so much.
Simply put, what the world needs, now and always, is love. Everybody is born with this truth in our hearts, but sometimes the complexity of the world and in our own minds can make it easy to forget that what we’re really here to do is share love. I’m not typing here claiming to be an enlightened Buddha or perfectly loving and compassionate being all the time, just a person sharing the nature of my reflections this year and the significance I find in the shofar through unexpected sacred happenings. I hope by sharing them to help you with reflections as well. Let the powerful, primal sound of the shofar not teach you, but remind you of your connection to nature, each other and God this Rosh Hashanah, so that you may have a happy and impactful year full of love and light.
I encourage you to color the artwork I made. To download the first design in this post, inspired by the elk horn experience, click here. To download the second design, which is centered around the apples and honey symbolism of a sweet new year, click here.
Find more of my art here.