The Bible Says What? The shofar reminds us to repent… and go to war!

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The Bible Says What? The shofar reminds us to repent… and go to war!

Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers reflects on a central message of the High Holy Days

Shofar on top of a prayer book
Shofar on top of a prayer book

As we dash towards the High Holy Days, communities began blowing the shofar, a ‘warning’ sound so visceral it rarely fails to give me goosebumps. But taking alarm? That’s not what normally happens, even if the first time we hear it is on Rosh Hashanah. 

Moses Maimonides describes the shofar blast as being like an alarm clock; a wake-up call asking us to open our eyes and look at who we have become – it is a call to repentance. But we hear in the book of Amos (3:6) that it was also, perhaps primarily, a call to war, playing a pivotal role when Joshua led an attack upon Jericho when the walls came tumbling down. 

It is strange an instrument that feels like a crucial piece of spiritual technology was also a cry rallying the troops to battle; something that is the polar opposite of spirituality. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised – most things in the Jewish world have multiple meanings. It’s possible the battle cry issued by the shofar is still needed. What battles should we be called to this year? 

We are beginning a special year known as the Shmita – the seventh, sabbatical year when the land lies fallow. We are asked to look after the land so it might be more fruitful. The earth this year has been calling out in pain. Forest fires, floods, a pandemic – our behaviours have waged war on the planet’s resources and health. So perhaps we do need a rallying battle cry – a fightback to defend the planet.

Religious war is not a concept that sits well with me. But perhaps the shofar can call us to battles that need fighting in other ways, waking us up to behaviours that need to be turned around. 

  •  Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers is part of the rabbinic team at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue 
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