The shofar is unquestionably the heart and soul of Rosh Hashana. In fact, while
many Jewish holidays have multiple names in the Torah (Passover, for ex- ample,
is both Hag Ha’aviv, the holiday of spring, as well as Hag Hamatzot, the
Festival of Matzot), the only name given to Rosh Hashana is Yom Terua, the day
of the shofar-blasts. Why is that? What is so important about the shofar that it
permeates this entire 40-day period of teshuva, being sounded from the ﬁrst of
Elul through Rosh Hashana, up to and including being the very last sound we hear
on Yom Kippur – the tekia gedola? A number of mysterious customs surround this
ancient instrument. When we sound the shofar, we are careful not to take it out
until the very last moment, keeping it concealed under a cloth or in our tallit
bags. Why do we do this? What are we hiding? And why don’t we sound the shofar
right away, at the very beginning of the prayer service on the day of Rosh
Hashana, rather than wait until the middle of the service? Isn’t it more common
for the pious to perform a mitzva as soon as humanly possible? Moreover, every
month, on the Shabbat preceding the New Moon, we publicly bless the coming month
by reciting a special prayer in the synagogue, the Birkat Hahodesh, with a great
deal of solemnity and seriousness. Every month, that is, except for the month of
Tishrei. I would have thought that this month, the ﬁrst of all months, would
receive even more emphasis, and yet we are strangely silent. Why is that? The
reason for all these unusual customs, say the Sages, is that we are engaged in
the act of “fooling the Satan.” What does this mean? Who, or what, is the
“Satan”? Do we enlightened intellectuals actually believe in some red-robed,
hideous, horned monster with a pitchfork? I rather doubt it, so let us therefore
try to unravel these mysteries and gain insight into the true character of the
Jewish New Year.
THERE ARE two classic approaches to teshuva, the act of
repentance: One is to repent out of a sense of yira – fear and foreboding; the
other is to repent out of ahava – love. The Talmud (Yoma 86b) teaches that
depending on the type of repentance we employ, we are granted different types of
If one repents out of fear of punishment, any intentional
sins he has committed are now given the less-serious status of accidental sins.
There is still a blemish, but it’s now much less signiﬁcant.
one repents not out of fear, but out of sincere love for the Almighty, not only
are his sins completely forgiven, they are actually transformed into
What is the operative dynamic at work here? Service of God that
ﬂows out of a sense of awe, out of recognition that God is our Creator who is
all-powerful and bound to reward and punish us, is no small accomplishment. It
suggests that we have a strong allegiance to and faith in God, that we follow
His commandments not because we necessarily enjoy or approve of them, but simply
because God said so. It strips our lifestyle down to one that seeks consonance
with the Almighty for no other reason than that we acknowledge that He is in
control; He makes the rules, He commands and we obey.
All good and ﬁne,
but there is a problem with this approach. As long as we perceive God’s presence
– perhaps with drawn sword in hand – hovering over us, we will be faithful
servants and obedient subjects. But the moment we forget that God is watching,
the moment the “fear factor” disappears, we may very well revert to doing that
which we lusted to do before we got scared off. And that is why we only get
partial credit when repenting out of fear or trepidation. It lessens our sins,
yet it doesn’t erase them completely, let alone transfer them to the plus
But repentance born of love is a very different phenomenon. Here,
based on our well-thoughtout, careful examination of our deeds and actions, we
come around to an enhanced relationship with God from a much more elevated
perspective. We become convinced that living in accordance with God’s ways is a
genuinely good thing, designed to make our lives better, healthier, fuller,
richer, happier, more meaningful. A sense of joy comes over us as we realize
that, “Hey, this Jewish lifestyle is actually a good thing!It works, it feels
good inside!I like it, I love it!” While I may still accept that there are
penalties for non-conformance, that is not what motivates me. I genuinely relate
to Judaism; I “get” it. I internalize the commandments so they become a part of
me, they ﬂow naturally from me.
And we can understand why this approach
is so much more powerful and rewarding than the other.
It is sin-changing
because it is life-changing.
It converts sin to its opposite – merit –
because now, when confronted by the sins of our past, not only are we able to
rebuff and repel them, we are stronger because of them.
Having been down
that road before, and having moved on of our own volition, we are actually
fortified by our past misdeeds; the temptation factor has been enormously
reduced, if not eliminated.
We have openly faced our sins and given them
up for something much more meaningful, and so we have zero desire to go back
there. We have met the sin and overcome it, discarded it, placed it in our
NOW WE can return to the issue of Satan and the shofar. In
mystical terms, each of us has both a heavenly accuser – a “Satan” – and a
defender during the 10 Days of Repentance. The prosecutor argues for our
punishment, while the defender represents our better interests. The accuser, no
doubt, has ample evidence against us, for we are far from perfect; we all sin,
even the greatest tzaddik).
But just before the prosecutor presents his
indictment, we suddenly pull out the shofar. It’s been hidden all this time; we
haven’t used it right away in the morning, as would normally be
We haven’t even announced that we’ve entered the month of
Now, the shofar is the symbol of Abraham, for it comes directly
from Abraham’s ram at the end of the Binding of Isaac (Akeda) story. Abraham
epitomizes the virtue of love. Everything he does, from welcoming guests into
his tent to gently teaching others about monotheism, is a function of the
overwhelming love he feels for all of God’s creation.
He even argues for
the salvation of Sodom and Gomorrah, those twin cities of terror. Abraham is the
ﬁrst person to embody the commandments solely out of his great love of
And now the Satan is confused. He desperately wants to present our
sins before the heavenly court, so as to convict us, but he has a problem: If he
presents those sins – and we have repented through love – then all those
demerits are automatically changed into merits, into points for our defense and
our innocence, and will result in our exoneration. If so, the prosecutor will
have become our defender!And that is a role he cannot, and will not,
So in his confusion, as the presiding angel demands that he make a
move or be held in contempt, the Satan is frozen with doubt. He is dumbfounded;
he cannot act. And in that split second, as the accuser hesitates, the gavel
comes down and we are pronounced innocent, guiltless, entitled to another lease
on life – at least until next year.
BEYOND THE vivid metaphor of the two
attorneys going at it against one another, we can understand this whole scenario
on an emotional level. We have to make a decision: Are we going to deﬁne our
Judaism as a lack of sin, or as an embrace of God? As a withholding of the
negative, or as a pursuance of the good? Fear restrains us from sin, while love
frees us to connect to God and all things good. Fear may be able to make us
safe, but only love can liberate us.
But to love something or someone,
you really have to want it. You have to invest your soul in it, you have to
develop a passion for it. That takes concentration, commitment, time and energy.
A relationship with God, like that with your spouse or your children, is an
all-consuming, “all-in” proposition. But it’s worth it.
Over the days of
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, give this a lot of thought. Think about where you
want to be this coming year, and all you have to gain by coming closer to God.
Think about fear vs love, as reﬂected in the many prayers of the High Holy Day
mahzor that speak with alternate voices: Will you relate to God as Father, ﬁlled
with love, or as King, demanding and dictatorial? Will you connect to the God
who is a gentle shepherd, lovingly watching over each of His ﬂock; or the stern,
fear-evoking ruler who decides who will perish by ﬁre, who by sword, who by
drowning? Will you fashion yourself as a dear child, wishing with all his heart
to please his adoring parent, or as a servant, forced by circumstances to adhere
to his master’s will? These are the choices we can and will make, and they may
mean the difference between a rigid, uncompromising, frightening Judaism, and a
tolerant, giving, forgiving, loving faith.
At the end of the day, do not
ask For Whom the Shofar Blows – it blows for thee. ■
The writer is director of
the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.
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