There are trumpets, there are flutes, and the Jews have their Shofar. The Ba’al HaTanya zy’a teaches: Every year on Rosh Hashanah when the shofar is blown each one of the Jewish people transform to a new being. By creation, it says “G-d blew a breath of life into Adam’s nose” (Bereshit 2). The entire world becomes a new entity on Rosh Hashanah. In the prayers we say “HAYOM HARAT OLAM” – ‘today the world is created’. It doesn’t say the world “was”, it says the world “IS”. Therefore, Rosh Hashanah is an ideal time to change one’s behavior and ways and act like an entirely different person.
Nothing is by chance and one learns wisdom of life from experiences and seemingly coincidences. There was an individual who relates this story. “One Rosh Hashana I was hospitalized, and someone was blowing the shofar for us. There was a non-observant Jew in the room who was intrigued by the shofar, and asked us a lot of questions, because he wanted to understand what it was all about. Then he told us his story.
”I served in the Israeli Navy’ he said, ‘in a submarine. Under the water, the means of communication is with Morse code. (Morse code is a signal system involving sound. Two sharp beeps represent one letter two long beeps is another letter. One long beep and one short one is a third letter and so on). I was an expert in the Morse code. I could send and decipher messages very quickly. A couple of years after serving in the Navy (and after spending a long time in India) I saw an advertisement: The army was looking for a Morse code expert and oversee numerous submarines. To apply for the job, we had to be we had to be at a certain office between 10:00 to 12:00 in the morning. I arrived at 11:50. I saw a packed room of applicants, but no one was being called inside. There was music playing in the background and I sat down for a few minutes and listened. Then I got up, brazenly opened the door to the office and said I came for the interview.’ ‘There are many people waiting in line ahead of you’ the secretary said. ‘You just came wait your turn. But I didn’t listen to her I walked into the room and talked to the person in charge. After speaking for a few moments, I was hired for the job.
The interviewer went out to the waiting room and informed everyone they can go home. “Thank you all for coming and I’m sorry for the delay. We’ve already chosen someone. You can all go home.” “It isn’t fair the man came in last. Why did you interview him before us?”
“Did you pay attention to the music that is playing?” the interviewer said. “Listen carefully. Don’t you get it? It is Morse code and it is saying ‘If you come for the interview just open the door and come inside.’ This man heard the message. You didn’t hear. You’re not fluent enough in the language.”‘
That is how the irreligious man in the hospital understood the meaning of the shofar. The shofar is speaking a language. What is the language of the shofar? First, its starting mission is to turn vulnerability into strength. The Shofar recalls Akeidat Yitzchak (G-d tested and commanded Avraham to sacrifice his son. Yitzchak to reaffirm his belief), which represents a new lease on life, quite literally a resurrection of the dead. Yitzchak was apparently doomed, bound to the altar, the slaughtering knife across his neck – until G-d said, “No – he will live on; the ram shall take his place.” Thus, the Shofar represents תחית המתים, bringing the dead, the doomed, back to life. This is a gift of life, directly from the lips of G-d.
The Sages relate that when we sound the Shofar, when we blow into it and awaken sounds of life from that hardened shell, we are reenacting what G-d did on this day at the beginning of time, זה היום תחילת מעשיך זכרון ליום ראשון. This is the day that commemorates when G-d first breathed life into the first human being. דין – the judgment of Rosh Hashanah – renders us vulnerable, undeserving – כי מי יצדק לפניך בדין – and requires G-d to step in and reaffirm our right to life. To bring us back to life. And so today He is breathing renewed life into us.
This is the unique strength we are to derive from Rosh Hashanah, a strength born of vulnerability. We can feel G-d once again blowing into us the breath of life, and we can awaken in ourselves a sense of wonder at the opportunity we are being granted to live again, to live on. The vulnerability is real. And that should make us feel the gift of life. This gift is only given to the Jews, who are the descendants of Avraham and Yitzchak, because of the Akeidat Yitzchak.
The Baal Shem Tov’s grandson, R’ Moshe Chaim Ephraim, related that the Baal Shem Tov once told of a fiddler who played a cheerful tune. It was so compelling that people began dancing. A deaf person came along but because he could not hear the music, he thought that all those who were dancing had gone mad. We hear the music of G-d and we dance to it. The rest of the world is deaf to the music and assumes that we are mad. When the Shofar is blown what should we listen for? What should our mindset be?
There is a misconception that the more powerful the Shofar blower blows the better. I remember I once sublet office space to one fellow, who wasn’t observant. As a side job he would perform in a band playing the trumpet. So naturally the Rabbi of his reformed temple chose the good ol’ bugle boy to blow the shofar. He would tell me at work the following day after Rosh Hashanah how powerful the sounds were and that he blew the shofar like a pro. Unfortunately, this bugle boy is missing the message and the deep meaning of the shofar. I read this touching story from one who became observant later on in life:
“Many years ago, I visited a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah for the first time. The prayers were appropriate and uneventful. When it came time to blow the Shofar I noticed an elderly gentleman gingerly making his way up to the bima. I thought, please don’t tell me he’s going to blow the Shofar? But sure enough, he ascended to the top step picked up the shofar and through a series of effort-filled huffs and puffs, he managed to make it through the entire series of blasts – barely. Although he did everything according to the letter of the law-Halacha, I went home feeling cheated. The situation only got worse when I ran into two friends who had prayed at different synagogues. They were discussing how each of their respective Shofar blowers had belt out mammoth blasts. I had to listen to their conversation while remembering the petite toots that the shofar blower had generated in the synagogue in which I attended.
Fast-forward a year and I found myself back in the same synagogue. When it came time to for the Shofar blowing I looked up and sure enough the same gentleman making his way towards the Bima with even greater difficulty than in the prior year. As he ascended, the expression on my face must have betrayed some disappointment, where some of the elderly gentleman noticed my expression and they whispered to me that he was a concentration camp survivor. At that point, I felt guilty, but at least I had my answer as to what must have been going on. The Rabbi must have been asking the Shofar blower each year to consider relinquishing his role to someone younger and stronger, however, the shofar blower must have resisted and the Rabbi must have felt that he could not take the job away from someone who has survived the camp. How could I blame the rabbi? I wasn’t happy about the situation but at least I now understood it.
That understanding and train of thought, is what I felt until one evening around 15 years later, when I was sitting as an attendee at a lecture and the Rabbi was speaking about Rosh Hashanah he pointed out that most people have a common misconception namely that God judges the shofar blowing based on how loud and powerful it is. I thought to myself, He doesn’t? How else could He judge it? And I even had support from this thesis because they Sages tell us that the Shofar blast are supposed to awaken us from our spiritual slumber. How could a modest toot do that job as well as a BOOM? The Rabbi went on to explain that, in fact, God judges the shofar blast based on the personal merits of the person blowing the shofar. That person is representing the congregation. God wants to know what mitzvot- good deeds and sterling character traits make up that person. That’s what matters to God when he judges a Shofar blast. At that moment, I could not help but remember those modest blasts that I heard so many years before. I wanted to get up and go to the back of the room and start banging my head against the wall. Those shofar blasts that I mistakenly thought barely filled my obligations had in fact been the most powerful and important ones I had ever heard. They were blown by someone who had endured the worst inhumanity in history. Yet never did his faith falter. Never did he feel that God had abandoned him even in the moments so dark that it is difficult for us to even imagine them. By blowing the shofar, he was showing God and showing each one of us that our enemies can take our bodies, but they can never take our faith. He was going to take that merit and going to blow it into through the shofar and by doing so, lift up the entire congregation straight to the Gates of Heaven.
Think about what the shofar blasts represent, they are wordless prayers summoned up from the essence of the person blowing. They are meant to reach out to every single Jew to tell each of us that it doesn’t matter if you don’t know the words to the individual prayers, it doesn’t matter if you speak Hebrew, it doesn’t matter whether you feel Jewish, every single Jew counts. Each one of us is important in God’s eyes and each one of us is welcome in the congregation. When anyone of us does the right thing, God cheers and when one of us does something wrong, it provokes his tears. On Rosh Hashanah, particularly on the day we crown him King, he’s like a third base coach waving us home, home back to our father in Heaven telling each of us that he misses and wants us, and we reply in unison via the Shofar.
When we listen to the shofar we think of our commitment to G-d similar to the commitment and love our father Avraham had on that faithful day of the Akedat Yitzchak. That pledge infused life-a resurrection of the dead to Avraham, Yitzchak and to their descendants. We listen to the sounds, the sounds of commitment, the sounds of sacrifice and pain which Jews endured for G-d throughout history, the sound of love for our faith. It is a sound that only the Jews can hear and oh what a beautiful sound it is