Shofar Service and Our Longings

By Rabbi Sandra Cohen

One of the highlights of Rosh Hashanah (at least in shul) is the blowing of the shofar. We hear its notes, the pleading sounds and the triumphant sounds as they mix together with our prayers. The shofar’s call seems to reach out to the Holy One. Many of us look forward to this moment — if not all year, then at least once we get to synagogue and open our machzors (High Holy Day prayer books). 

This year is slightly different, because of the calendar. The first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat. It is minhag in many shuls (Orthodox and Conservative, usually) not to blow the shofar on Shabbat but to leave its ringing tones to day two of the holy day. On the first day, we instead read the words, the prayers and the verses from the Bible as a way to remember the sound of the shofar. In more progressive Jewish contexts, Reform and some Reconstructionist synagogues will sound the shofar even on Shabbat and then again the next day, to a considerably smaller crowd. How much praying is enough, we wonder.

In any case, the shofar service, located in halachic shuls in the midst of Musaf, while standing alone in more liberal synagogues, has three parts, three themes: Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot.


Malchuyot/מלכויות, means “Kingship” or “Ruler.” In this section, the machzor discusses what it means for people to “enthrone” God, as it were, and to then accept God’s leadership. 

This is tricky, especially when our world — external or internal — is not going well. Where is God in the midst of my depression? I reach out to the Holy One and feel nothing; I look to the heavens, and the world seems enveloped in darkness. 

When struggling with a mental health challenge — or loving someone who is — I find it hard to believe this is the way God wants my life to be. I do not believe God gives out illness as little punishments for who knows what kind of sins, just as I do not believe God only tests the “strong.” Here we are, all of us, strong — and suffering. Why?

No human knows. I certainly don’t. But the idea of enthroning God on Rosh Hashanah is powerful. It allows us to say to ourselves, quietly, persistently: “I do not have to run the world. I do not have to ‘fix’ those I love who are hurting.” I can embrace my experience of mental illness, bemoan it and then hand it back to the Divine Presence to sort out. My job is me. And we can always ask God for help, in whatever form we would like. 

We might find God in the communal singing at shul or in the beautiful forest in our backyard. We might be terribly angry with God and need to tell God exactly where to get off, as it were. My prayers may be petitionary, or full of praise, or shouting internally into the great unknown. But even as we protest the mess the Holy One is making of our world, we are also affirming that God is present. We are, perhaps, like babies, crying and making a fuss when we hurt and cannot fix ourselves. We cry out, and, I believe, God hears us. How and what is a mystery. But as we start the new year, we affirm even through our tears that God exists. And the hope is that we will find God once again walking beside us.


The next section of the shofar service is Zichronot/זיכרונות, which means remembrance. God remembers us over and over again. The verses in the traditional machzor cite how God remembered Noah, ending the flood and placing the bow in the sky. Our Torah service reminds us of how God remembered Sarah and gave her a son; God also heard Hannah and gave her a son. Finally, the service notes that God will remember all of us, will find us in our exile and gather us home once again.

This is a service of hope. If we struggle to believe God runs the world in an equitable fashion, the stories of God’s promises and then God’s fulfillment of those words might give us a branch to hold. 

We should note that remembrance is seen here as an embodiment of hope, an act of fulfilling long-held dreams and long-ago promises. This is not a “God remembering all the sins I did this year.” This is God saying, if you will, that you are God’s child, and the Holy One will someday help you to make whole the broken places. God will redeem our pain in ways we can’t possibly imagine and will give meaning to our suffering. Maybe not now, not this year, but someday. 


The final section of the shofar service is Shofarot/שופרות — the ritual sounding of the shofar but also the sounding of our voices in prayer, in song, in tears and laughter. If God remembers us during the Zichronot section of the service, then our actions, our crying out, is how we connect back to God.

On the other side of God’s remembering is our remembering God. Do we set aside times to talk to God, to bless, to remember God in moments wonderful and difficult alike? We don’t have to censure what we say to the Divine. But we do need to practice looking for God, creating spaces for the Divine Presence to dwell among us.

I believe patience will win out. Hope will win. 

But…if I, for example, light Shabbat candles four times a year, and God “shows up,” as it were, four times a year… then the odds of us meeting each other are low. But if I invoke God regularly, doing mitzvot, praying, blessing, celebrating and mourning, if I actively remember God, I am more likely to experience God remembering me.

So, in this season of self-reflection, of the sounding of the shofar, we need to find our own voices. Because certainly the painful cry from deep within us at this season goes directly to the One who loves us, each of us, for who we are. 

Traditionally, the shofar is sounded in the month of Elul to help us prepare for the High Holy Days. Look inward, it urges, and then let the pure sound of a soul looking for God or meaning or help — let that sound of your voice cry out. It is the best we can do. And, God willing, it will be enough.

May we all be written for a year of health and blessings.

Rabbi Sandra Cohen works in mental health outreach, helping synagogues and other institutions be more welcoming and inclusive to those with mental illnesses and their families. She sits on the NAMI Colorado state board and teaches in a variety of settings.

Sharing is Caring: