Listening

The Baal Shem Tov offered a parable. There was a king who, through some very adept magic, built a palace that appeared to have many walls  that protected him from his people. The walls were very high, straight and  curved, one higher than the other in a maze leading up to a mountain. And from  the outside, through this sleight-of-hand, it also appeared that the palace had  many rivers and moats, and armed guards, and bears and lions and other wild  animals. And so no one dared approach the king, and the king was feared throughout his kingdom, and his glory filled the provinces.

One day, the king issued a proclamation that whoever enters the palace to greet the king will be granted honors and riches, and serve the king as a trusted minister. Some people came, saw what appeared to be the multiple walls, were intimidated and retreated. Others penetrated the first and second layers, and despite seeing no great obstacles – no rivers, no walls, no ferocious animals, and the king’s retinue dispensing great riches to all visitors, they still shied away from approaching further.

Only one person persisted – the king’s son, who yearned to see his father. And so he forced his way into the palace, past the magical walls and the bears and the lions and the guards – he fought and struggled until he arrived at his father’s inner sanctum. When the king saw his son’s dedication, he removed his
sleight-of-hand, and the son saw that there were really no walls, nor any
partitions or separations – just gardens and orchards and all the delights one
could imagine – and the king sitting on his throne, surrounded by his retinue.

And the son cried out to his father – why did you hide from me ? Why did you conceal yourself – “you concealed Yourself and I trembled” (Tehillim 30:8)? And the king answered that it was all done for you, to test you, to reveal
what is in your heart, the extent of your love and reverence for me.

There are times when we sense a distance between us and G-d – when G-d appears remote and inaccessible, when we feel forlorn and abandoned to a chaotic and unruly world. “You concealed Yourself and I trembled” – we tremble at the distance, at the concealment. It is when we call out to G-d – “to You, G-d, I call out, to G-d, I supplicate” (ibid 30:9) – that we realize that the barriers
are illusory and the obstacles are all of our own making. G-d is wherever we
let Him in.

Why does man build walls – why does man resist surrender to G-d’s will ? Primarily fear. Fear that our lives will be less enjoyable, fear that we will have fewer friends, fear that we will lose our jobs and our money, fear that the nations of the world will oppress and persecute us. We run from the covenant, or we attempt to re-define it on our terms.

We conclude – “I can’t learn Torah (no background, no time, no fun); I can’t observe Shabbat as a complete day of sublime holiness for 25 hours (I have to commingle it with the activities and deportment of the weekdays); I can’t give charity, I can’t make aliya, I can’t avoid speaking lashon hara, I can’t dress appropriately, I can’t behave in shul, I can’t treat others with respect and courtesy, or I can’t feel G-d’s presence in my life…” Each “can’t” is a wall, a moat, a roaring lion, a mighty soldier that blockades the door to the palace. King David said “my soul thirsts for G-d” (ibid 42:3). We might say – “I don’t want to thirst for G-d; I want to retain my autonomy, my independence – I don’t want to surrender, I want to engage G-d on my terms. I don’t want to feel a spontaneous gratitude to G-d – too limiting, too demanding.”

But, if we choose, we can dismantle these barriers on our own – one by one. Or, sometimes, the barriers fall away by themselves, because we are left with no choice. We fear the consequences of sin, we’re adrift, we sense something is amiss, and we finally want to enter the palace. Our fears are replaced by a yearning – “as a father has compassion on his children, so too G-d has compassion on us.” And we finally admit that “there is nothing but  Him” (Devarim 4:35).

The Rogatchover Gaon said the blessing for the commandment of shofar is “to hear the sound of the shofar,” rather than to “blow the shofar” because we don’t all hear the same thing. And it is not the technical “hearing” of the shofar
that fulfills the mitzvah, but rather the mitzvah is to listen to the sound of
the shofar that breaks through the walls of our creation, the figments of our
imagination, the sources of our rebellion. If one hears the shofar and is not
moved, and the walls don’t crumble, and the heart is not bent, then there is no
mitzvah. It is the sound we hear, each and every one of us, that defines the
mitzvah, and our surrender to G-d on the day of judgment.

Rav Saadia Gaon wrote that we listen to the shofar and surrender to G-d, because that is the nature of the shofar, the instrument of coronation.

May the sounds of the shofar this year cause G-d to ascend, and enable us to break down all the barriers, and confer the blessings of life and health, prosperity and tranquility, on us and all Israel.

Shana tova  to all !

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