The Sound of Heaven
On Rosh Hashanah, the shofar reminds us of a higher calling.
From my earliest childhood, I recall standing next to my mother in synagogue as the shofar was sounded. A feeling of awe and trepidation descended on the congregation as the call of the shofar reverberated throughout its walls. Time stood still, no one moved. And though I was young, I was struck by the sanctity of it all.
Overnight, our fate changed. Our synagogue became a wistful memory as the suffocating darkness of the Nazi concentration camp, Bergen Belsen, enveloped us. But even in that hell on earth, as Rosh Hashana of 1944 neared, we yearned to hear the ancient sound of the shofar and were prepared to make every sacrifice to see our dream fulfilled.
Through heroic efforts and at great risk and sacrifice, we managed to collect 200 cigarettes, which we bartered for a shofar.
Adjacent to our Hungarian compound was a Polish camp, and they somehow got wind of our treasure. When Rosh Hashana came and we sounded the shofar, our brethren in the Polish camp crept close to the barbed-wire fence separating us so that they too might hear its piercing cry. The Nazis came running and beat all of us mercilessly, but even as the truncheons fell on our heads, we cried out, "Blessed art Thou Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to listen to the sound of the shofar."
Many years later, I was lecturing in Israel in Neve Aliza, a village in Samaria. It was late summer, just before the High Holy Days, and I related the story of the shofar of Bergen-Belsen. When I finished, a woman in the audience stood up. She had a strong, handsome face and appeared to be a little bit older than I was.
The miracle of that shofar left us breathless.
"That shofar that you spoke of," she said, "I know exactly what you are talking about because, you see, my father was the rabbi in the Polish camp. You may not know this, but the shofar was smuggled into our camp, and my father blew it there."
I looked at her, dumbfounded. My eyes filled with tears. There were no words to express the awe that filled my heart.
"I have that shofar in my home," she went on to say, and with that, she ran to her house and returned with it a few minutes later. We wept, we embraced, we reminisced, all the time clutching the shofar in our hands.
The miracle of that shofar left us breathless. The entire world had declared us dead. Hitler's "final solution" had taken its toll. Millions of our people were gassed and burned in the crematoria, but the shofar triumphed over the flames. And as if in vindication of that triumph, God granted me the privilege of rediscovering it in Eretz Yisrael, in the ancient hills of Samaria. Who would ever have believed it: the shofar from Bergen- Belsen in our Holy Land, held by two women who were young children in the camps, and who, by every law of logic should have perished in the gas chambers. After almost 2,000 years of wandering, oppression, torture and Holocaust, we returned to our land and the shofar accompanied us. Indeed, who would have believed it?
What is it about the shofar that makes it so special? Why is it incumbent upon every Jew to hear its call? What is the meaning behind those hauntingly primitive sounds? What gives them the power to enter our innermost souls? And why does the Torah designate these sacred days as "Yom Teruah," the "Day of Blowing," rather than Rosh Hashana, the New Year?
Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgment, when all of us stand trial in front of God. The Books are opened, our lives are examined and our every act, our every word, is carefully scrutinized. Who shall live? Who shall die? Who shall be at ease? Who shall be tormented? Who shall be elevated? Who shall be demoted? The list goes on. Who would not tremble on this day? Indeed, even for our brethren who have long disassociated themselves from our faith, on Rosh Hashana something pulls at them. And even if ever so briefly, they go to synagogue to hear those timeless ancient sounds.
My husband, Rabbi Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis, of blessed memory (also a survivor of the Holocaust), was a pioneering rabbi in Long Island, N.Y. For most people in our community, prayer was a foreign concept and it was a struggle to get a daily minyan. But on Rosh Hashana, we had to open the movable walls leading to an adjacent hall to accommodate the overflow. My husband put all his energy into those Rosh Hashana services. He was determined to touch the hearts of even the most alienated congregants so that those Rosh Hashana "visitors" might become full-time attending Jews. By the time he returned from synagogue, his shirt was soaked with perspiration, he was totally exhausted, but instead of relaxing and unwinding until the evening services, with shofar in hand, he visited ill congregants so that they too might hear those sacred sounds.
What compelled my husband to make that sacrifice, to ignore his fatigue and walk from house to house sounding the shofar? What is it about the shofar that makes it the symbol, the very essence of Rosh Hashana?
The shofar is a call for reconciliation with our Heavenly Father. It is a call to undo our mistakes, renew ourselves and realize our God-given potential.
Who among us has not indulged in wishful thinking? Who among us has no regrets? Who among us has not day dreamed, "If only I could do it all over again...If only I could have another chance...If only I could undo the mistakes of the past..."
For most of us, those words remain wishful thinking. We grew up with a nursery rhyme that has subconsciously left an indelible mark on our psyches: "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men, couldn't put Humpty together again." The message is clear: If we fall and crash, even all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put us together again.
The shofar tells us that we can we can undo our past and reinvent ourselves.
The shofar, however, comes to tell us that we can reinvent ourselves, we can undo our past, we can convert our mistakes into learning experiences and start anew. But, you might wonder, how does the shofar convey this?
Our holidays are not merely commemorations of historical events. They are also celebrations of the special energies that those days represent. For example, Passover is not only the remembrance of our exodus from bondage, but it is also a reminder that those days were created for redemption for all eternity - a time of liberation from every form of bondage and addiction, be it material, spiritual, or emotional. We need only will it and we too can free ourselves.
Similarly, all our holidays have a cosmic energy all their own. On Rosh Hashana, God created man. Therefore, it follows that, if we so desire, on Rosh Hashana, God can recreate us, and the shofar comes to remind us of that awesome, miraculous opportunity.
Let's go back to the beginning of time and ask, "How did God create us?"
God shaped a clump of earth into the image of a man, and then breathed into it. That breath of God became man's neshama, soul, transforming that clump of earth into a living being. Man can corrupt his mind, he can taint his heart, but he can never destroy his neshama, for the neshama is a divine spark. Every morning upon arising, we declare in our prayers, "Almighty God, the soul that You gave me is pure. You created it. You breathed it into me..."
To be sure, if Humpty Dumpty falls, he cannot be put together again, but we who carry that Divine spark within us, can. And the shofar is testimony to it. We begin by blowing tekiah, a long, unbroken sound, reminding us that within ourselves we carry the pure breath of God and therefore are holy. The tekiah is followed by shevarim, broken sounds, which tell us that we strayed from our path, lost our way, and forgot our purpose. But once that realization hits us, we are overcome by contrition and we cry out to our God with broken hearts, symbolized by the third sound of the shofar, teruah (tu-tu-tu-tu), the sound of weeping.
Our sages teach that there is nothing as whole in the sight of God as a broken heart, for God is not only our God, our King, but He is Avinu, Av HaRachamon, our Father of compassion and love. And no compassionate father would shut the door on his contrite, weeping children. No father punishes for the sake of punishing. A compassionate father only takes disciplinary measures to bring about correction and change.
And so, we merit the final sound, tekiah gedolah, the great, long, unbroken blast that signals our rebirth. Our pure, God given souls have the power to triumph over our sullied minds and hearts. Once we absorb that truth, God can recreate us. Is it really as simple as that? Can the sound of the shofar have such magical power?
I believe that it can. The power of the shofar goes back to the genesis of our history when our father Abraham and his son Isaac were prepared to sacrifice for the sake of God. It goes back to that moment at Sinai when the shofar was sounded and we declared in one voice, "Na'aseh V'nishma," "We will do and we will hear," and study Your sacred Torah. And thus we coronated God as our King for all time.
THE THREE-FOLD FORMULA
But still, you might protest: can merely listening to the shofar bring about such a transformation? To be sure, one must know how to access its energy.
There is a three-fold formula that we must follow: Teshuva, Tefilah and Tzedakah. Repentance, Prayer and Charity. That three-fold path activates our souls, enabling the sound of the shofar to enter its innermost crevices and recreate us.
In the limited space of this article, I cannot possibly expound on all three, so I will confine myself to just one part of the formula that has often been misused and misrepresented: prayer.
Ostensibly, we enter the synagogue to pray, but sadly, most of us never truly experience the wondrous healing balm of prayer. We go through the motions: we open the machzor (the High Holiday prayer book), mouth some words, repeat some prayers with the rabbi or the cantor, but that's where it ends. Our words fall flat; they never take wing. We spend some time chatting with our fellow congregants, wish everyone a Happy New Year and make our way home for our holiday dinners. Meanwhile, we've been distracted from the deep prayer magic of Rosh Hashana.
Imagine for a moment receiving an invitation from the White House. The president would like to get to know you, and hear about the important issues affecting your life. The designated day arrives. You arrive at the White House but somehow become sidetracked with conversations with the other guests. When your turn to speak to the president comes, you can't recall what you wanted to say; your focus is on the other guests and the festive dinner that has been prepared for the occasion.
Think for a moment about this scenario and multiply it a thousand-fold, and you will have a glimmer of the tragedy that our modern day Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services have come to represent.
Tragic, you say? Isn't that rather extreme?
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are just around the corner. How will you pray?
Unfortunately, it doesn't even begin to convey the lost opportunity of today's Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We live in a turbulent, menacing world. The specter of terror, devastating disease and natural disasters hovers over us like a dark shadow. We are in desperate need of the intervention of our Heavenly Father, the King of Kings. But instead of seeking Him out, we consult those who are equally in need and helpless, such as friends, family, therapists, or anyone who is willing to listen. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur come and go, and the opportunity presented by those awesome days is sadly lost. How sad that we often forget to turn to the most powerful source of all when seeking guidance and healing in our lives.
A man came to see me with a painful problem. Following an acrimonious divorce, his teenage daughter refused to communicate with him.
"Could you speak to her, Rebbetzin," the man pleaded. "I would like to have a relationship with her, and I've heard that you are very good with young people."
I explained to him that, as much as I wanted to help him, since I had never met his daughter, it was unlikely that she would take kindly to my calling her about such a personal matter.
"You are my last hope," he pleaded, "please give it a try."
"I'll give it a shot," I assured him, "but it will take a miracle for me to succeed. You must pray for God's help." "
Me, pray?" the man responded incredulously. And for the first time in our conversation, he actually laughed.
"Rebbetzin," he said, shaking his head, "you've got the wrong person. I'm not religious. I haven't been in a synagogue since my bar mitzvah."
"Has it every occurred to you," I asked, "that God, your Father, would like to have a relationship with you too...that He would like you to visit...that He yearns to hear your voice?"
For a long moment, the man was silent, and then he said, "O.K., you got me, but I don't know how to pray."
"Prayer," I assured him, "is part of the spiritual DNA of every Jew. You need only take your cue from the three sounds of the shofar of Rosh Hashana."
He looked puzzled.
"We sound the shofar," I explained, "by blowing our breath, a part of ourselves, into that ancient instrument. Similarly, prayer must emanate from your innermost soul and cannot be mere empty words. The second step is to simulate the broken sounds: see where you erred and examine your life. Confront it in its naked truth. The third step, the crying sound of the shofar, is an expression of genuine regret and tears.
"If you follow this three-fold formula, you will discover the magic of prayer, prayer that has the power to grant you a new lease on life, symbolized by the final blast of the shofar, tekiah gedolah, the long, unbroken sound. Try it," I urged, "it's a guaranteed formula, going back thousands of years."
The man accepted my challenge. He prayed and I succeeded in prevailing upon his daughter to reunite with her father.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are just around the corner. How will you pray? How will you reunite with your Heavenly Father? Will your visit with Him have meaning, or will it be "same old, same old"? Take your cue from the shofar. Your life and the life of your people are on the line. How will you pray?