(NOTE: I am happy to announce the publication in Israel of my new book, entitled “Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.” It is available now in Israel and should arrive in the United States in a little over a month. Then, it will be available at fine Jewish bookstores. Even now, it can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com or Bn.com. Enjoy!
And Ktiva vachatima tova to all! – RSP)
Is there an instrument in Jewish life that is as enigmatic, as mysterious, as the shofar? The other mitzvah items to which it is linked in halacha – Matza, Succa, Lulav – each have a defined purpose and a clear connection to the holiday on which they are used. But nothing in the Torah indicates why on Rosh Hashana day at this time a shofar has to be blown.
Rav Saadia Gaon famously filled in that gap, and offered ten reasons why the shofar is blown, ten allusions of the shofar that recall historical events, moments of national significance or personal inspiration. The best known are the first two – we blow theshofar as an act of coronation of God, on this anniversary of man’s creation; and we also blow shofar as a clarion to man to examine our ways and repent. But how can both of those ideas co-exist – how can the same instrument and the same notes used in a coronation of the King of kings speak to us as well? It almost seems disrespectful. Imagine the flourish that welcomes the president to his inauguration – and then imagine that those same trumpets have a secondary purpose – to call a meeting to order, to start a football game. Lèse-majesté. It would lose its magnificence. How do we get away with that?
When Rosh Hashana came in the year 1959, the Brisker Rav, Rav Velvel Soloveitchik (known also as the GRIZ), was critically ill; in fact, he died a week later, on Erev Yom Kippur. As he lay ill, he wondered “what will be?” And he took comfort in the famous Yerushalmi (Masechet Rosh Hashana) that we always ponder this time of year: “It is customary that a person who is being judged by a human court is worried, wears black, grows out his beard, and fears for his future. But the Jewish people – while the Jury is out – wear white, and shave, and eat and drink and rejoice, knowing that G-d performs miracles for us.” The GRIZ asked: how do we know? What is the source of this confidence?
He answered by quoting from one of the well known piyutim of Rav Shlomo ibn Gabirol, “so even if You slay me, I will still yearn for You. If You seek [justice] for my iniquities, I will flee from You towards You.” How does one run from G-d and towards G-d at the same time? They would seem to be polar opposites.
What a beautiful phrase – “Evrach mimecha eilecha” – “I will flee from You towards You!” It is a beautiful description of faith and bitachon and what has sustained Jews for millennia, that gives us strength and succor in difficult times, both nationally and individually. When we run from G-d, the only refuge we have is to run towards G-d. It is the natural state of the Jew.
It is astonishing – and inspiring – that every tragedy of the Jewish people has been followed by a period of spiritual growth and wonderment that was unanticipated before. The bondage in Egypt was followed redemption and the gifts of Torah and the land of Israel; the destruction of the first Temple was followed by the systemization of the Oral law, and that of the second Temple by the publication of the Mishna and later the Gemara. The Crusades were followed by the era of the Baalei Tosafot and the Rambam, the Expulsion from Spain by the return to Israel and the glory days of Tzefat – the Ari and Rav Yosef Karo – the Chmielnicki massacres by the rise of Hasidut and the eternal contributions of the Vilna Gaon, and the Holocaust by the re-establishment of the State of Israel.
When trouble comes, and the Jew wants to flee, we run from G-d – and towards G-d at the same time. Wasn’t that the story of Yonah – “I will flee from You towards You”? The anxieties of life can erect a barrier between us and G-d, and induce us to hide from the day of travail until it passes over us. But ibn Gabirol continued: “I will hide from Your wrath – in Your shadow.” On Rosh Hashana, we seek out G-d’s protective shadow and thus rejoice, “knowing that G-d does miracles for us” As we reflect on this past year, the Jewish people have been the beneficiaries of open miracles and divine kindnesses that have our enemies shocked and dismayed. For that, we give thanks to the Creator and proclaim his greatness to all.
The GRIZ said to bury our heads in the sand and just say “all will be good,” is not bitachon. Bitachon only exists in the person who is afraid, who has strayed and sinned, and runs to G-d to do more, to be better, to supplement our own spiritual lives with another Torah class, another act of chesed, another kind word, another commitment to the Jewish people, a better davening, something that can expand on what has come before.
That is why the same shofar that crowns the King also exhorts man to return and to repent, “so that all who wish to return can return.” We cannot crown G-d the King of Kings dispassionately, from a distance, without a personal stake. G-d’s coronation itself awaits our commitment. In a world where G-d’s name is often sullied by those who cite Him as their motivation for pure evil and wretched behavior, only we can redeem Him by our dedication and enthusiasm, by our fearless defense of His truth that He has entrusted to us, by our sacred impulse, “I will flee from You towards You,” by the sounds of the shofar that link us to G-d for all eternity.
In so doing, we hear echoes of the other shofarot – of the Ingathering of the Exiles and of the great and awesome Day of Judgment to come in the near future, and prepare ourselves for them, and thereby merit inscription for a year of life, good health and joyous occasions, of good tidings and redemption, for us and all Israel.
Shana Tova to all!