Religion & Beliefs

The Ram’s Horn: A Midrash for Elul

On the second day of Rosh haShanah, the Torah reading tells the story of the binding of Isaac, in which a ram is sacrificed.  The ram’s horn or shofar is also a central part of the ritual: the sounds of … Read More

By / August 25, 2009

On the second day of Rosh haShanah, the Torah reading tells the story of the binding of Isaac, in which a ram is sacrificed.  The ram’s horn or shofar is also a central part of the ritual: the sounds of the shofar are said to call one to repentance.  It is also appropriate to meditate on the ram at the beginning of Elul because the new moon of Elul is the new year of the animals according to Mishnah Rosh haShanah 1:1. "Ten things were created on the eve of the [first] Sabbath at twilight. They are: the mouth of the earth, the mouth of the well, the mouth of the donkey, the rainbow, the manna, Moses’ staff, the shamir, the writing {of the tablets of the Ten Commandments), the writing instrument, and the tablets.  Some say: the demons, the grave of Moses, and the ram [sacrificed in place of Isaac on Mount Moriah]. Pirkei Avot 5:6 Abraham grabs the ram hidden in the thicket and heaves it onto the altar in place of his son.  This is the innate instinct of a life form to devour other things to survive.   The binding of Isaac is not the lesson; it’s the sacrifice of the ram that is the lesson. The ram is life, and we have to kill and eat other lives; we sacrifice them in place of ourselves.  Our contemplation of this is the beginning of our knowledge of tragedy.   This is why the Greeks mourned Persephone with her pomegranate and why the Sumerians wept for Dumuzi, and it is also why we sound the ram’s horn on Rosh haShanah: to remind us of this innate tragedy, which God for some reason wrote into the DNA of animal life.    In the face of this truth, we try to make our lives valuable; how else can we deserve the countless sheep, plants, ecosystems sacrificed for our needs?  We are all Isaac staring into the eyes of the dying ram.  To deserve this gift, we must become… what?   This is the new year’s question. Another lesson of the ram: the ram encodes the hidden spiral of all things.   The ram’s horn we sound represents the double fallopian tubes; also the power of the male; also the space-time continuum with its startling curves and hollows.   Also it represents the tzimtzum: the empty space at the beginning of creation; the space that allows creatures to come into being.  Or, the ram’s horn is the winding serpent of everything, the life-leviathan, the universe-umblicus.  It dances in space and in song, filled with our voices, yet alien, vast, gorgeously terrible.  This is why we blow the spiral horn during Elul: to teach us that everything is connected.  Every action reverberates through the web; no string is plucked in isolation.  The sound vibrations of the shofar lap against our ears like the great mother sea, murmuring: Thou art not alone.   The ram’s horn is the demons, the spirits who came into the world without bodies, and the grave of Moses, whose spirit did not want to leave his body.  Its voice teaches us of the unexpected, the wrench in the works, the separation without farewell, the never-made promise of safety.   The ram’s horn is the voice of the tangled thicket in which we all find ourselves, the unsorted pile of circumstance.  The dark space inside the ram’s horn is the dark of the moon, the labyrinth, the empty hours when we have to feel our way at night, unsure of the path.   The mouth of the ram’s horn is the mystery of the mouth of the earth and the mouth of the well.  The mouth of the earth swallows (as Korach and eventually even Moses were swallowed), and the mouth of the well heals and saves (as Hagar and Ishmael were saved).   These two mouths of earth and water exist side by side inside the shofar.  The ram’s horn speaks of birth and death.  The Talmud says that the sound of birth and the sound of death resound through the world and no one hears.  At the season of the new year, we cause ourselves to hear these sounds, and meditate on living and dying and living and dying and living…. The mouth of the ram’s horn is the mouth of the donkey who once spoke to its master.  This mouth represents the speech of us animals, the words of prayer.   The ram’s horn speaks our eloquent hearts, and also our articulate finite bodies.  The body’s language is blood-rhythm and bone-growth, nerve-pulse and vocal cord, power and decay.  The body is the rainbow of thought and feeling: all the colors of the moods and subtleties of the mind.  And it is Noah’s rainbow: the promise that flood will not come again to destroy the world, that nature’s mysteries will never cease.  The body is the manna of simple air, gathered in as large or small an amount as the body needs, not too much or too little, just as the manna was once gathered in the wilderness.  The ram’s horn also contains the shamir: the magical worm that cuts stone.  The shamir, it is said, once cut all the building blocks for the Temple so that no blade needed to be raised against the rock.  The ram’s horn cuts us apart and uses our wounded parts to build a new temple, a new beginning.  The ram’s horn is not a blade: it is not violent, but rather finds all the secret fracture points that long to be broken open.  There are two horns that come from the primordial ram: one that was sounded at Sinai, and one to be sounded at the time of the Messiah.  We never know which one we are hearing: the wisdom of the past, or the truths of the future.   We stand listening, trying to hear a sound so multiple it is like the waves of the ocean.  We, the present, stand listening for past and future.  For a moment, the ancestors whisper; ova and spermatozoa sing; words we have woven from our memories slip between these two books of life to write our names.  Millennia ago in ancient Sumer, the scribe-goddess Nanshe presided over the writing of the harvest accounts, at autumn when grains and deeds were gathered in.  In a later age, the Holy One became the scribe of the seeds: seeds of the earth, seeds of the soul.  The book of the Holy One is opened on Rosh haShanah and closed on Yom Kippur.  The curves of the shofar are the curves of the letters, and the sound of the shofar is the ink: the shofar itself is the book of life, written with breath at every moment.  The shofar is the crying child entering the world.  The shofar is the cry of the one who leaves the world.  The shofar is the breath, running and returning while life lasts.  We who know we are all this: we are the ram, emerging from the hairy thicket onto the altar, voicing the long ache of the soul-sound. *

Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is an author, educator, midrashist, myth-weaver, and ritualist. She is the director of Tel Shemesh, a website and community celebrating and creating Jewish earth-based traditions, and the co-founder of Kohenet: The Hebrew Priestess Institute. She is the author of two books: Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women (Jewish Publication Society, 2001) and The Jewish Book of Days (Jewish Publication Society, forthcoming 2006). She is a poet and essayist whose work has been published in many journals and anthologies such as Lilith, Bridges, Response, Natural Bridge, Zeek, The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion,The Jewish Spectator, Biblical Women in the Midrash, and The Women’s Torah Commentary

Shofar image courtesy of Ahuva.com