"What's that?" I asked pointing at something very green and organic looking.
"Interesting... and that?"
"Uh huh... is that a fish head?"
"Leadership. Take initiative. Remember to be a head and not the tail. Some people use a goat's head."
"I think it's staring at me."
This was my first Rosh Hashana with observant Jews. The smorgasbord from the unknown had thrown me for a loop.
My host was a young rabbi type in a black suit. He had a face full of beard.
"Rosh Hashana is the day of radical Jewish consciousness," he said matter-of-factly.
"Judaism is radical?" I asked.
He grabbed his beard and glowered at me in mock rage. "Do I look like a conformist goon to you!?" he shouted. "Our people have been outside the mainstream since the beginning of time. Being a Jew means to be a part of the counter-culture. Didn't you eat your fenugreek?"
"I don't get it. What's this have to do with Rosh Hashana?"
"On Rosh Hashana the Jewish idealist declares his dream of global unity. He prays for the day when the whole world will work together under a unified banner. It's revolutionary."
"How? Every hippie wants global unity."
"The shofar, man, the shofar. Weren't you listening?"
I was very confused. I asked if I could leave the table.
"Sure," my host said. "We don't believe in religious coercion."
I was agitated. I walked around for a while thinking. "What is he talking about?" I thought to myself.
I went back to my room and looked through a copy of the Rosh Hashana prayer book. I read some of the commentaries. My host had been right. The prayers did talk about global awareness. Unity was a big theme. I noticed that not only was the goal to unify humanity, but if everything worked according to plan, then on a spiritual level all of creation would be operating in unison, from rocks and plant life, all the way up to the highest metaphysical realms.
It was a beautiful image. But what was the point? How was this different from any other utopian vision?
I reluctantly wandered into synagogue the next morning. I sat in a corner reading about more themes of the day as the people around me prayed. It was hot in the room and there wasn't air conditioning.
A few hours into the service, everyone stood up in silence. The only audible sound was the hum of the fans. I felt guilty, so I stood up, too. A man in the center of the room took out a shofar. He blew a number of blasts on command.
I closed my eyes. I felt myself back in the desert. The hot sand kissed my bare feet. I saw camels and Bedouins. I began to appreciate what my host had been talking about. Judaism was earthy.
The jagged blast of the horn reverberated in my spine. I woke up. I hadn't been asleep, but I had been. I had been deaf to the real message of Rosh Hashana. The shofar was a wake-up call. It wasn't about paying lip service to ideological platitudes about a better world. It was about waking up and doing something about it. The shofar was screaming, "Be real. If you want this world to be amazing then get off your butt and do something!"
I wanted to change the world but first I had to change myself. This is what the shofar had taught me. This was the message of Rosh Hashana.
After services I ran over to my host.
"I understand you!" I yelled. "I want to put on a robe and wander off into the sunset. I want to dramatically affect humanity. I can make a difference. Where do we begin?"
"After lunch, brother. You can't conquer the world on an empty stomach. Tonight we're eating starfruit."
I was ready for anything.