Monday, September 10, 2012

Reflections on the Rosh HaShanah Liturgy: The Great Shofar

Reflections on the Rosh HaShanah Liturgy: The Great Shofar

In the Rosh HaShanah prayers, we read the following: 
"And the Great Shofar will blow, and the still small voice will be heard; and the angels on high will tremble, proclaiming: the Judgment Day is at hand!”

What “Great Shofar” is the machzor referring to?

On Rosh HaShanah 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook delivered a famous sermon on this subject in the Old City of Jerusalem.

He explained as follows: According to Jewish Law, there are three types of Shofarot:
Best: Min Hamevuchar – the ram’s horn;
Better: From any kosher animal (except a heifer [think golden calf, duh])
Minimally acceptable: From any animal, even a non-kosher animal – but no brachah
These three shofars of Rosh Hashanah correspond to three 'shofars of redemption', summoning the Jewish people to be redeemed and redeem their land.

The preferred 'shofar of redemption' is the divine call that awakens the people through holy motivations — out of faith in Gcd and the sanctity of the people of Israel. This form of awakening corresponds to the ram's horn, recalling the holy dedication of "Akeidat Yitzchak" (the Binding of Isaac). The inspiring call of this 'shofar' brought Maimonides, Nachmanides, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy, Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, the disciples of the Vilna Gaon, and the Hasidim of the Baal Shem Tov to return to the Land of Israel. It is for this "great shofar", an awakening of spiritual greatness, that we pray.

There exists a second 'shofar of redemption', a lower level of awakening. This shofar calls out to the Jews to come to the Land of Israel, to return to the land of our ancestors, our prophets, and our kings. It beckons us to live as a free people in our homeland, educate our children in a Jewish environment; where being Jewish is normative, where the whole country shuts down for Shabbat, where everybody celebrates Purim (Hallo-what?), where you can eat in virtually any restaurant and fress on kosher Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken to your heart's content. This is a kosher shofar, albeit not as great a shofar as the first type of awakening. Yet we may still recite a bracha over this shofar.

There is, however, a third type of shofar. (At this point, Rav Kook burst out in tears.) The least preferred shofar comes from the horn of an unclean animal. This shofar is the wake-up call that comes from antisemitic nations, warning the Jews to escape while they still can and flee to their own land. Our enemies force us to the path of redemption. They sound out the trumpets of war, bombarding us with deafening threats of persecution and torment, giving us no respite. The shofars of unclean beasts are transformed into the messianic shofar.

Whoever ignores the calls of the first two shofars will be forced to listen to the call of this last shofar. On this shofar, however, no blessing is recited. "One does not recite a blessing over a cup of affliction." (Berachot 51b)

The shofar we blow on Rosh HaShanah calls out to the A-lmighty – the stuttering articulation of the mute soul, the uncontrollable sobbing of the human heart. The anger of every parent melts away before the gushing tears of an inconsolable child. The cry of the shofar calls out as if to say, ‘Dear Father, we are keenly aware of our deficiencies, yet how can you be angry with us when we cry openly before you?’
But even as the shofar pierces the veils of heaven, the prayerbook calls out to us:
All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severe Decree!"
“Who shall live and who shall die.” Sometimes people read these words and misunderstand them to mean that everything is cast in stone for the year to come.  Nothing could be farther from the truth. These words are not a statement of predestination, that all is pre-ordained for the coming year and we are but pawns in some cosmic chess game. Rather, Rabbi Amnon’s dramatic words speak out to us from across the centuries to say exactly the opposite: we possess the power to influence the outcome of events in the coming year.

How? The machzor tells us: U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah, i.e., "And repentance, and prayer and charity will suspend the evil decree."

Notice the words aren’t “Teshuvah…” but U’teshuvah. The letter vav connects the two concepts. Yes, the book of life and the book of death are open before the A-lmighty on this, the Day of Judgment, but our actions influence the verdict, because it is through our actions that Gcd’s Light will illuminate the world.

The great shofar calls out to us to give tzedakah, because the act of giving tzedakah is, by its very nature, a redemptive act. Why should this be so? When a person gives tzedakah - freely, willingly and with an open heart, such a person is proclaiming that Gcd is the source of all sustenance. Many people labor under the misapprehension that the one who earns the money owns it and is free to do with it as he pleases. And so most people see charity as highly optional, choosing to donate or not according to the caprice or whim of the donor. Because of this error in thinking, charities must devise all sorts of demeaning artifices and inducements to stroke the egos of donors – plaques, honors, awards, ceremonies, dedications, etc.

But tzedakah is not almsgiving. We must understand that we are only trustees of Gcd’s munificence; giving tzedakah demonstrates that we are responsible stewards of that which ultimately belongs to Gcd. In so doing, we recognize Gcd’s sovereignty in the world, and as instruments of Gcd’s will, we become worthy of redemption.

How many of us have driven by a beggar, a homeless person, holding up a sign on the side of the street? How often do we drive by without rolling down a window? How often do we hear ourselves rationalize our actions by saying, “he’d probably just use the money to buy booze,” or “McDonald’s is hiring; if those people need money, why don’t they get a job?”

Did anyone see the movie which came out a few years ago called “The Blind Side?” It’s about a family that felt the call to give tzedakah to the needy as they crossed paths. One of the times they rolled down that window, they stumbled across Michael Oher, a homeless boy of exceptional talents. They brought him into their home, adopted him, and he went on to become an exceptional student and athlete, eventually becoming a successful left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens.

You see, it doesn’t matter what the recipient does with the money – that’s out of your control. Maybe the person you give to is another Michael Oher; you may never know. But the act of unrequited giving brings redemption to the world and like the Blind Side, has positive effects way out of proportion to the deed.

The great shofar calls out to us to pray; in Yiddish, we say to daven. Davening – tefillah – means so much more than prayer. It is also praise, petition, supplication, connection – the synchronizing of our souls, the spark of life, with the source of all life. Daven passionately! The more we daven the liturgy, the more we appreciate it’s poetry, it’s structure and symmetry, it’s complexity, it’s elevated and inspired qualities.

The Midrash Tanchumah says that tefillah is greater than good deeds. How do we know this to be true? The Midrash teaches that all of Moses' good deeds could not reverse Gcd’s decree preventing him from entering the Land of Israel. But his tefillah was so effective, that he was commanded by Gcd to stop davening for this request. The meforshim, the commentaries, tell us that had he persisted, Gcd would have relented and allowed him to enter the Land. Such is the power of tefillah – all of Moses' mitzvoth did not equal his impassioned plea from the heart. The implications of this Midrash are amazing for us all.

There is a prayer called tikkun hatzot. Many people are unaware of it, but the idea is to get up in the middle of the night and mourn for the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Tikkun Hatzot has a reputation for being a very, very powerful and effective tefillah. Why? Think about it - where must the heart of a person be to arise from a warm bed at one o’clock in the morning, and sit on the floor and cry – truly cry - over the sins which led to the destruction of Gcd’s house? Tikkun Hatzot can move mountains, as can all sincere tefillah.

The Siddur is our most overlooked sefer - we say in Psalms, "Turn to Gcd and pour your heart out like water". Every Jewish person has an obligation to daven every day. Not to mumble a bunch of meaningless syllables in a strange language, but real tefillah, soul-level tefillah. The heartfelt tefillah of every Jew is urgently needed in the world; when even one Jew doesn’t daven, the rest of Knesset Yisrael acutely feels the vacuum made by that absence.

A small personal revelation: everything I have ever passionately davened for in my life the A-lmighty has granted me, from little things to big things. True, the answers don’t come right away, and often the way the petition is granted is not the way you expected it! So pour your heart out to Gcd, and be careful what you ask for!

Finally, the great shofar calls out to us to do teshuvah. We live in extraordinary times; in some respects, in very frightening times. We hear the bleating of the traif shofar Rav Kook referred to. We worry about our families, our kids and our parents; we worry about a collapsing economy and irredeemable sovereign debt; we worry about disintegrating families and the moral breakdown of society; we worry about the steady assault and encroachments on civil liberties and personal freedoms; we worry about the rising tide of anti-semitism in the world, and a nuclear capable Iran and an indifferent world community.

True, we worry about these problems, and many others besides, but what can we do? After all, we are not politicians or generals. Well, there is something we can do – we can do teshuvah. Rav Kook teaches that the truly righteous don’t complain about evil in the world, they flood the world with goodness.

The Torah says that through us, the Jewish people, all the nations of the world will be blessed. In other words, to the extent that we fulfill our mission of being ambassadors of Gcd’s light in the world, of rising to the calling as a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation, of being teachers and moral guides to humanity, is the extent to which true peace and goodness flourish in the world.

Teshuvah means so much more than repentance. We are, as the bumper sticker says, spiritual beings having a physical experience. Teshuvah is the yearning of the soul, the spark of life, to connect with Gcd, the Source of all life. Teshuvah is the vivication of the body and spirit. It is literally the spiritual force which enables all life. When we keep kosher, when we observe Shabbat in all its particulars, when we joyously build a sukkah and decorate it with our children, when we perform all of the 613 that apply to us, we are tapping into the Eternal Source of Life.

And the converse is true: aveirot (transgressions) cut us off from the Life Source. Every aveirah a Jew commits delays the ultimate redemption. Every bite of traif we eat, every mile in the car on Shabbat, every juicy morsel of gossip, every petty theft, every business or personal indiscretion, allows conditions to prevail in the world where darkness and confusion abound; a world where 40 million children are abandoned in sub-Saharan Africa; a world that responds to mass murder in Syria with a yawn; a world that has become desensitized to the outrages and abominations that have become an almost daily occurrence. The headlines alone demonstrate how darkness proliferates in the absence of Gcd’s light in the world. 

The way to begin fixing what’s wrong in the world is to begin by fixing ourselves. And it begins with the shofar we blow on Rosh HaShanah. If we all rededicate ourselves to the performance of mitzvoth, we, bound together with Jews from around the world, can change the world. U’Teshuvah, U’Tefillah, U’Tzedakah. 

The Great Shofar calls out to us to take Hashem’s commandments seriously. In Parshat Nitzavim, the parashah of teshuvah, Moses addresses the most common objection of living  Jewishly – its too hard. 'Shabbat conflicts with hockey and football and basketball and dance - it's too hard.' 'Keeping kosher means I can't eat out - it's too hard.' To these Moses responds: (Deut. 30:11 – 14) "For this commandment that I command you this day – it is not insurmountable and it is not distant. It is not in heaven, for you to say, 'Who can ascend to heaven for and take it for us, so that we can listen and perform it?' Nor is it across the sea for you to say, 'Who can cross the ocean and take it for us, so that we can listen and perform it?' Rather, the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and your heart – to do the mitzvoth.” We must begin to change the world by changing our hearts and our attitudes.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. The Great Shofar calls out to us to do something truly exceptional, something truly epic this year. So nu, what are you waiting for? Do something crazy good this year. Flood the world with goodness! Break out of your comfort zone; push yourself harder. Find a mitzvah you've neglected - just a teeny one! - and commit to do it every day. Perform random acts of unrequited goodness; adopt a child from Africa; give a ten dollar bill to a beggar exactly because he doesn’t deserve it; squelch the urge to share gossip; become a literacy volunteer; give a job to someone who is unemployed; call your mother and tell her you love her even though she drives you crazy; commit to spending just 15 minutes every day studying Torah; teach Torah to someone, anyone!; make new friend; open an aliyah file with Nefesh B’Nefesh; write a book; learn to sing or play an instrument; daven with passion and intensity and emotion – renew your acquaintance with the siddur.

I issue an open invitation to share stories of what we accomplish in the coming year to make the world a better place; of how we stand up and count among the Kingdom of Priests and the Holy Nation. There is much work to do, and time is exceedingly short.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life, and may Hashem grant you all the requests of your heart in the coming year. Hag Sameach.

***Important Note*** Attributions and thanks to R' Channan Morrison for the section about Rav Kook's 1933 speech. R' Morrison hosts the important website