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Shofar in the Year of Corona

September 3, 2020 | by Rabbi Shlomo Buxbaum

Let this year’s shofar blast take on a whole new meaning.

Most of us take breathing for granted. It's something that just happens on its own. But as we approach Rosh Hashanah and look back at some of the takeaways from the Jewish year 5780, there has been a focus on breathing.

This year will be remembered as a year of Covid-19 ventilators and masks that inhibit our breathing. This year will be remembered as the year that we were forced to slow down from the rapid pace of our daily lives and just breathe. And with every breath we learned to humble ourselves, to relinquish control, to take each day as it comes, and to live a little more in the present.

For the many who suffered losses, trauma, or disappointments, 5780 will be remembered as a year of challenges and pain. But many will remember this year as one that snapped them out of the trance of daily repetitive living, giving them a chance to learn how to focus on what matters, to get to know their families and themselves a little better, a year that taught them how to truly breathe.

On Rosh Hashanah there is a commandment to blow the shofar, a unique mitzvah in that it is fulfilled by using our breath. The shofar blasts mark the birthday of mankind when God "blew" into man's nostrils his soul, giving him the "breath of life" (Genesis, 2:7). Breath is symbolic for the soul, as the two share a common Hebrew root. The word for soul, "neshama", is almost identical to the Hebrew word “neshima”, breathe. It's no wonder that one can become more aware of the higher levels of their soul by slowing down and focusing on their breathing.

Blowing the shofar teaches us how to discover our soul. The shofar is nothing more than a hollow shell, yet it transforms a fleeting breath into a powerful victory cry. When we make ourselves hollow, letting go of our egos and relinquish the false sense of control, only then can we fully experience the spiritual essence that is inside of us.

Commenting on the verse "Lift up your voice like a shofar" (Isaiah 58:1), one the early Hassidic masters, Rabbi Avraham Chaim of Zlotchov, known as the Orach L’Chaim, writes: When we view ourselves like a shofar that has no voice besides for what is blown into it, in that we have no power outside of what God gives us, we can awaken the Divine love and bring upon ourselves great kindness and compassion.

This past year we learned how to do just that. We saw how quickly our entire life can change, and how the entire world can be thrown into chaos. We saw that most of the external structures that we build are really hollow and powerless, like a shofar. We learned that without breath – without a spiritual connection, without meaningful relationships, without personal growth – our lives can turn very empty very quickly.

As the virus first began to spread, many took note of its name corona, which means crown, pointing out how this virus would wake up the world to realize how dependent we are on the King of Kings to protect us and to keep world order. Jewish tradition teaches us that the shofar is the very instrument that we use to coronate God as King, proclaiming that everything we have is dependent on God Who is constantly breathing life and sustaining us with His Divine energy.

As we look back on a year when we learned how to pay attention to our breath, when we saw the hollowness and fragility of our control, when the word corona became a household word, perhaps we can view the entire year as one great shofar blast, one great reminder of who is really in control.

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