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  • Writer's pictureGabbai

Rosh Hashanah – The Wordless Sound of the Shofar

They tell of a visitor who showed up in shul one Shabbat, and the Gabbai thought it would be nice to invite him up for an aliyah. When the Gabbai asked for his Hebrew name the man said, “Esther bat Yaakov.” The Gabbai gave him a puzzled look. The visitor explained that he had been experiencing financial difficulties so everything is now in his wife’s name.

A good friend of mine has not yet forgiven his father for putting the family’s failing business in his name so his father’s assets would be protected. He has terrible credit ratings as a result. Everybody does this, right? We don’t want a lien placed on our property – we need to keep it safe for our retirement, for our children, for anybody except the bank or government. So we transfer official ownership to someone who doesn’t face the liabilities we have incurred. The title of the car can be transferred to one of the children, the deed for the house can be put in the spouse’s name. And it’s legal. So why does it smell like a fish?

We have a natural tendency to dodge responsibility, and we were blessed with the wisdom to find ways of doing so. We like to pass the buck, avoiding accountability. I’m not disputing the legality of such practices, nor is my intent to judge its ethics. The point is that we don’t like to be accountable and we take deliberate steps to avoid accountability. Consider malpractice insurance. The very concept of such an insurance policy connotes an evasion of accountability. In practice it doesn’t mean one is immune from any effects of malpractice. We understand that a doctor can be doing his or her best, but a patient may sue and the doctor will then be bogged down with expensive lawsuits, prevented in the meantime from healing people. Malpractice insurance enables the doctor to practice in good faith without having to constantly second guess how the patient will react. Nevertheless, the institution of malpractice insurance is a little bit troubling.

God doesn’t play with such legal loopholes. The Musaf prayer on Rosh Hashanah expresses the spirit and meaning of the festival. The only Musaf prayer of the year which has more than one central blessing (the opening three and concluding three blessings are the same in every prayer), the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service has three central blessings which articulate three elements of the day. The first, malchiyot, expresses the coronation of God as our King. Although God is our ruler regardless of our acceptance of Him we profess on Rosh Hashanah that God is our King, thereby defining our relationship with God as the loving subjects of a benevolent king. The second element, zichronot, means remembrance. It expresses the omniscience of God and His meticulous accounting of every movement and action we take. There is no getting past God’s notice and nothing is forgotten. The third, shofarot, portrays the shofar as the means through which the coronation and the recalling is achieved.

The Talmud describes Rosh Hashanah as the Day of Judgment, the day the Lord conducts an audit of His books. Every person, indeed every creation, has a file, and each file contains a log of everything that has happened to that individual and everything that person has done or attempted to do. Nothing escapes God. No good deed is ignored, no Mitzvah performed goes unnoticed. Similarly, no tragedy is unaccounted for. Every loss we incurred, every bit of pain we endured, is entered into the equation as a debt paid. God holds us accountable, but God is also accountable, down to the last red cent.

Rabbi Frand relates a story written by Rav Tzvi Hirsch Meislish in his introduction to a book of responsa he wrote concerning questions that surfaced during the terrible years of World War Two. Rav Tzvi Hirsch spent the war in numerous concentration camps. He survived and relocated to Chicago. He writes that one year he managed to smuggle a shofar into the camp. A group of young men in a nearby cell block were slated to be cremated alive the day after Rosh Hashanah. They begged Rav Tzvi Hirsch to blow the shofar for them, so they can fulfill the precious Mitzvah of shofar before they marched into the furnace and toward their death.

Rav Tzvi Hirsch had a dilemma. He wanted very much to fulfill the wishes of this wretched group. Opportunities to fulfill such Mitzvot in the camps were rare, but they were very risky. If the Nazis heard of this Rav Tzvi Hirsch was likely to be shot. His son was terrified of becoming an orphan in the camp and he pleaded with his father to not risk his life. Rav Tzvi Hirsch also had a halachic dilemma. Martyrdom is not permitted in such cases. The value of the Mitzvah of shofar does not exceed the value of life itself, and it would be sinful to endanger his life for this Mitzvah.

In the end Rav Tzvi Hirsch decided to go ahead and blow the shofar for the group. He felt that risking his life was justified under the circumstances since he was unlikely to survive the war anyway. He felt that the normative halacha prohibiting martyrdom did not therefore apply. He similarly accepted that his son would be orphaned regardless. Before commencing the shofar blowing Rav Tzvi Hirsch offered the group some words of encouragement. One of the verses we recite in the context of shofar is: “Sound the shofar on the new month, on the covering of the day of our festival.” (Psalms 81:4) The classic interpretation of this verse is that the “covering” refers to the moon. This is the only festival that occurs at the beginning of the month when the moon is not visible. At the start of the lunar month the moon is covered, in hiding, and only during this festival do we sound the shofar. Rav Tzvi Hirsch, however, offered a different explanation. “Sound the shofar on the new month, during the festival that God’s providence is under cover.” The Rebbe urged the group to remember that God is with them in the horrors, although His presence is not visible, not even recognizable.

The message in that cell block, on that fateful Rosh Hashanah before the group of young men was led to the crematoria, was a message of accountability. The Almighty is accountable. He may appear to be missing in action, everything points to the absence of God at difficult times, but He is there, inscribing every tear, recording every cry of pain into His log. We just read in Parshat Vayelech a verse which gives some expression to this idea. “And I will surely hide My face on that day over all the evil that he has done, for he turned to other gods.” (Deuteronomy 31:8) Although God hides “His face” at times, there is never a time when God ignores us. He is “supervising from the window, peering from between the cracks.” (Song of Songs 2:9) Even when things make no sense, when despair seems the only sensible reaction, there is nevertheless One who is pulling the strings.

A verse in Numbers alludes to the three elements of Rosh Hashanah. “On the day of your rejoicing, your festivals and your new months you shall sound the trumpets with your burnt offerings and your peace sacrifices, and they shall be for you a remembrance before your God, I am the Lord, your God.” (Numbers 10:10) Rashi points out that the sounding of the trumpets is shofarot, ‘they shall be a remembrance’ covers zichronot, and the concluding phrase of the verse, ‘I am the Lord your God,’ is the reference to malchiyot. We can readily understand the role of shofar in malchiyot, in the coronation of God as our King. Trumpets are used to announce important events, and certainly they are used for an inauguration or coronation of a king.

The function of a shofar in remembrance is less intuitive. What bearing does the shofar have on God’s memory? How does it invoke the idea that nothing misses God’s notice and nothing is forgotten from His accounting ledger? It is specifically the wordless, and mostly tuneless cry emitted from the shofar that expresses this. Words are rational, they must makes sense and have rhyme and reason. If we don’t understand words that are spoken then they have failed in their task. The shofar, however, sounds no words, only a cry. It is a recognition of our limits of understanding, of our inability to comprehend the calculations of God. With this wordless sound we hold God to account for all that we are, for all that we have been and for all that we will be. We know and understand that God’s providence is guiding us at all times, through the good and the better. We also know that we cannot evade accountability with God, but neither does God shirk His responsibilities to us.

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