In Plain Language: Satan and the shofar

The choice between fear and love.

September 4, 2013 10:26
Original painting depicting a Cohen blowing the shofar in the Holy Temple.

Painting Cohen blowing shofar in Holy Temple 370. (photo credit: (Courtesy The Temple Institute))

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 absolution.

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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.

If, however, 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 merits.

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 column.

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 “past” file.

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 expected.

We haven’t even announced that we’ve entered the month of Tishrei.

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 God.

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, play.

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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