Thursday, September 20, 2007

Rosh Hashana - Tishrei (Months)

Rosh Hashana: Two Meanings of Shofar

For whom is the Shofar meant: for man or for God? The tradition interprets the blowing of the shofar, the central religious event of Rosh Hashanah, in two almost diametrically opposed ways. In one view, the shofar is a kind of non-verbal prayer, an inarticulate cry to God, like that of a small child. Indeed, the vibrating sounds of the shevarim and teruah are seen as modeled, respectively, after groaning and weeping. Or it might be compared to the tze’akah, the urgent prayer of public fast days, a pained cry or shout, only more so. It is the most elemental prayer, a plea for life itself. The midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 29.3) portrays God on Rosh Hashanah as seated in awe-inspiring majesty upon the Throne of Judgment, as all the beings in the cosmos pass before Him. Suddenly Israel blow the shofar, and “He rises from the Throne of Judgment, and sits upon the Throne of Mercy.” The shofar is here seen as a theurgic act, a way of “forcing God’s hand,” as it were. Hence Shofarot, the last of the three special middle blessings of Musaf, concludes with the words “for you hear the voice of the shofar, and listen to the teruah-warbling, and there is none like You. Blessed are You, O Lord, who hears the shofar-blasts of His people Israel with compassion.”

On the other hand, it is seen elsewhere as a kind of wake-up call to each individual. A famous passage in Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuvah 3.4) depicts the shofar as saying, “Awake, o sleepy ones, and slumberers, shake off your torpor. Search out your deeds, turn in repentance and remember your Creator…” The shofar is a call to return, to repent, to mend our ways, to become aware of what life is really about, to become truly awake, to live truly conscious lives. In this view, it is God Himself, so-to-speak, who calls to the Jews by means of the shofar: the baal toke’a serves here, not as the representative of the congregation interceding before God, but as a kind of agent acting on His behalf to perform this task (the two opposed positions being somewhat reminiscent of Moses’ dual function). The shofar blasts are thus a kind of echo of that first shofar blast at Sinai, alluded to in that selfsame Shofarot blessing, this time in the opening section: “You revealed Yourself in Your cloud of glory to Your holy people to speak with them. Your voice was heard from the heavens… You were revealed in thunder and lightning, and manifested with the sound of the shofar ….” And indeed, in halakhic terms it is of course we, and not God, who are commanded to hear the shofar, as indicated by the blessing lishmo’a kol shofar—“to hear the sound of the shofar.”

It seems to me that these two approaches reflect two diametrically opposed aspects of the human being. On the one hand, man is frail, needy, dependent upon God’s grace for every morsel of food and for very breath he takes. Our lives are utterly contingent, and insecure in the deepest existential sense. In principle (and increasingly, in this perilous new century, in reality), catastrophe, changing or destroying our life, can overtake us at any moment. This is why a prayer such as Untaneh Tokef, “Who shall live and who shall die!” strikes such a deep resonance even today.

On the other hand, “you have made him little lower than the angels.” The human being is gifted with reason, with understanding, with a whole gamut of talents and potentialities and, most important, with a certain moral and spiritual sense and the freedom to choose his/her path. One of the primal axioms of Jewish belief is behirah hofshit, the idea that we are free to choose our path in life, and that consequently we are responsible for our actions. Our moral and religious life does not center around our groveling in our helplessness and relying upon Divine grace to atone for an alleged fundamentally sinful state, but rather in right action in the world. Hence, the season of these Days of Awe revolves around teshuvah, man awakening and turning towards the right path, making the choice between good and evil.

Which of these views is the correct one? Surely, one must say: both, and neither. Man is, as Pascal put it, “but a reed, the weakest in nature, but a thinking reed”; that is, he is frail and subject to forces far greater than himself, but imbued with consciousness and capable of reflecting upon his own life—and, we would add, thus capable of changing himself. Judaism is all about the balance between the two attitudes, and allows ample room for both. The Musar moment had a Slobodka, whose motto was Gadlut ha-Adam, the greatness of man, but also a Navarhadok, which emphasized the smallness and fallibility of man. Similarly, one of the great Hasidic teachers was said to have kept two slips of paper in his pockets, on one of them written “for you are dust and to dust you shall return,” and on the other ”for my sake was the world created.” The wisdom, he said, consists in knowing when to use each one.

We have now come full circle in our studies of the months of the year, returning to the first one, Tishrei. Its astrological symbol is Libra (Moznayim), the scales. Traditionally, these are seen as the scales of judgment upon which the Almighty weighs the deeds of each person on Rosh Hashanah. But perhaps it can be seen differently: as a scale of balance, of reconciling two opposites, of knowing how to weigh the Rebbe’s two slips of paper in a balanced manner. To know how to avoid despair and fatalism; and equally to avoid the arrogance of thinking that “I am master of my fate and none can stop me.”

One more comment: this year Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, hence the shofar will not be blown on the first day. Perhaps on such an occasion the shofar (or better, zikhron teruah, the memory or echo of the shofar in our hearts) assumes a third meaning: the shofar as song. (For my teachings about Shabbat Rosh Hashanah, one of my own favorite teachings, see my blog).

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But Rosh Hashanah is not only a day of judgment for individuals, but is also the time when entire nations are judged, nay, all of humankind and the earth as a whole. “And it is said concerning the nations: which for the sword, and which for peace; which for famine, and which for plenty… the remembrance of every creature comes before you, man’s thoughts, and the impulse of each man’s heart.”

We live in a time of dire threats to the future of mankind on this planet, and of Mother Earth itself—not to mention the renewed threats to the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael. Threats of atomic warfare; ecological threats; threats of far-reaching changes to our civilization once the petroleum begins to become scarce. It is a time for prayer—but also a time for deep, far-reaching thought; for wisely considered action on behalf of tikkun olam; time that there be heard an upswelling chorus of the masses of humanity, calling upon our leaders everywhere to abandon petty disputes and hateful demagoguery, and to think of the long-range survival of us all.


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