Ancient Egypt was obsessed with immortality – after death. The Book of the Dead, countless pyramids and tombs and crypts… they wanted to “live” forever, and they meant to do it using materials and structures designed to withstand whatever time could throw at them.
The Torah never stops contrasting the Jewish people to Egypt, because the differences help define who we are: we look up to heaven and not down to the Nile for our blessings; we are called to be spiritually-minded instead of merely materialistically satisfied; Egyptians harmonized with nature, creating bread and beer, while we seek instead to improve nature (going so far as to specifically reject natural aids when we avoid chometz and eat matzo); we Jews are here for the living, while the Egyptians lived for the dead. Egypt saw the world’s as inherently repetitive and cyclical, while the Torah gives us a linear sense of mission, of a pathway to a destination.
But we share Egypt’s interest in immortality. Instead of investing in buildings, however, we have, for thousands of years, invested in mere words: the words of Torah. And those words teach us in turn to spend our energies on relationships with G-d and man. We pray and try to improve ourselves. We invest into visiting the sick, making others feel better, avoiding gossip and trying to be good. We invest all that we have, all our energies, into our children and into the children of others.
Unlike the Ancient Egyptians, or, frankly, any decently half-bred people, we Jews barely have institutions at all. For the vast majority of our history we have had no grand buildings or idols or temples, no central synagogue or court or even a single leader. We built no pyramids, and we certainly have avoided the kinds of national symbols and tribal markers that usually allow a country or a society to identify themselves almost instinctively. Jews have no flag, no sports team, no national colors. In every generation, there is nothing to fall back on besides the ideas that we communicate to the next generation. Which sounds like an awfully thin and tenuous thread upon which to hang thousands of years of continuous Jewish existence as strangers in strange lands.
What is amazing, though, is that this is the secret of the Jew. We do not live in stasis: there is no rock-solid thing to fall back on. We Jews do not stay in any one place long enough to pretend that we have “ancestral” land. (Even the Land if Israel is merely “on loan” for as long as we behave ourselves.) We have no pyramid to fall back on, no safe identity or border. We ultimately have nothing but words and ideas.
Ironically for a people who existed without a land of our own for almost 2,000 years and who have taken the very longest view of the world in the history of humanity, we Jews are forced to “live in the moment.” This is the secret of being Jewish. Every single moment is an opportunity to grow, to connect with others, to choose holiness. If the world was created for each one of us, then it follows that the world may well have been created for the very next decision that you make. We live and act as if our mere moments may in fact be momentous. Because they might be.
And this is why the sounds of the shofar are so important. Sound is the least physical thing we can perceive with our senses: sounds comes and goes and leaves no trace behind except in our souls. But when the sound of the shofar hits us, something in our souls resonate, changing and moving us, reconnecting us to who we are and whom we serve. And it all happens in the moment: there is an immediacy and vibrant power of being in that place, and in that time. This is being Jewish – somehow both living in the moment and perpetuating the oldest extant civilization in the history of mankind. The shofar is our ever-present link to real immortality.