What the Shofar Means to Me

This piece contains references to the accidental death of a child.

What the Shofar Means to Me by Jessie Schwalb - Photo by Elena Eisenstadt

The author delivered a version of this piece as a speech at Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 2019.

I stand within a circle of my classmates, grasping the ebony ridges of the shofar I had carted from home with all the care my seven-year-old self could muster. Eyebrows pinched as I looked just to the side of the camera. I don’t actually remember this moment—like so many supposed memories from my childhood, it is built from the pictures I saw so often that they were etched in my mind.

There is a line from Peter Pan which lodged itself in my mind when I first encountered it years ago, and its essence is that all children are selfish. I know that this was at least true for me. Looking back, I cannot relate to that person, naive enough to think I was the center of everything.

How did I manage to change? How does a child gain empathy, never to return to neverland? There are so many moments which caused this transition, but the event in my life that extracted the most growth from my spirit was also the most painful. My sister ran in front of a car as we walked home from Rosh Hashanah dinner five years ago. I watched my parents weeping, but all I could muster was confusion. All I could do was wrap my arms around their heaving shoulders, because they understood what I did not.

I couldn’t comprehend for a long time what had happened to my sister, because it is impossible to imagine oneself not existing. Try. Close your eyes and picture what it is to lack being, to not see because you aren’t there. I concluded after a while that no soul existed beyond my neural pathways and gray matter because it seemed like a cop-out to believe that death wasn’t final. But before this conclusion, I spent my time trying to relate to the sadness my family was feeling. Although I didn’t understand their grief, I felt for possibly the first time that I had to take care of those around me, and in that feeling was the admission that they were as human as I and required care and support. The Rosh Hashanah night when my sister died set me on the path toward empathy, just as Rosh Hashanah is meant to do.

I do not mean to fetishize pain, because many kids are able to grow as people without the universe so obviously forcing them to do so. There are many who experience pain and are embittered by it. The reason that pain made me a better person in some respects is because I was able to reflect on how my actions had changed and how those changes have affected those around me.

Every time I hear the ear splitting cries of the shofar rising through my abdomen, I think of that picture and that version of myself who was able to bully her siblings with barely a shred of guilt. I envy her a bit. But I also know that my life is much richer now because of all I have learned. And it occurs to me that maybe I will look back on this Rosh Hashanah with the same bewilderment I feel looking back on my seven-year-old self, surprised that I could understand so little.

That is what the shofar does and why Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Hazikaron, or day of remembering. Those blasts force us to look into the past and see where the previous years have taken us, so we can decide if we are traveling a path we want. I realized after my sister died that caring for my family had made me less focused on myself, and I understand how necessary that was for those around me. Every year, I have attempted to continue on that path of compassion.

I read recently that the shofar was seen by some kabbalists as a way to draw God’s attention back to the world after witnessing a year of us misbehaving. I don’t believe in a God, but I do see the shofar as a call for action. It is a nudge to humanity, forcing us to look back in order to better move forward. Like the shofar blasts, every year we go through these holidays with the hope we are a little bit clearer, more determined, and comforting to those around us.

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