THE SHOFAR BECOMES MUCH MORE THAN A HOLLOW HORN OF RAM WHEN THE SPIRITUAL BREATH OF MAN IS BLOWN THROUGH IT.

By Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun

Dear readers, Shalom!

The shofar—it has an aura of awe and holiness about it. Its blast can shatter hearts of stone and wash away layers of sin. Its call is capable of bringing us back to places inside ourselves impenetrable by any other means.

The Baal Shem Tov once said, “In the palace of the king there are many chambers and each one needs a different key. There is one key, one instrument, however, which can open all the doors—the ax! The shofar is an ax. When a person passionately breaks his heart before the Almighty, he can smash any gate in the palace of the King of Kings.”

The Baal Shem Tov is teaching that the shofar is a powerful emotional tool for gaining access to the deepest recesses of our heart, of divine experiential self. The wordless sound of the Shofar speaks to the heart in a way that all the inspiring words of a preacher cannot.

King David, on the other hand, seems to contradict this. In reference to the shofar he says, “Happy is the people who know the truah [i.e. the shofar blast]” (Psalms 89:16). King David does not say, “Happy is the people who hear the truah.” The emphasis seems to be on intellectualization.

The physical shofar is nothing more than the hollow horn of a ram. When the breath of a human being is blown through it, however, it undergoes a transformation. It becomes a living embodiment of the heart and emotion of the human being expressing the Divine Self it senses pulsing within, crying out to its Master and Maker in heaven.

Accordingly, we would need to use our intellects with great effort if we truly wanted to benefit from the shofar.

Which is it? Is the shofar an emotional, intuitive experience, as the Baal Shem Tov suggests, or is it an intellectual one, as the words of King David imply?

The Dubno Maggid offers a parable that can perhaps help answer this question.

A poor farmer had a wealthy uncle who lived in the city and who once invited him for a visit. Thrilled with the invitation, the farmer wasted no time setting out for his rich uncle’s home. When he arrived he was greeted warmly and led immediately through a magnificent foyer into a large, lavish and exquisitely furnished dining hall with a long table.

As they spoke and shared stories about family, the uncle picked up a brass bell and clanged it. Immediately, a troop of servants emerged from side doors with trays of appetizers. The farmer had never seen such enticing food in his life. The servants returned to the kitchen quarters and the two relatives continued the conversation. Shortly thereafter, the uncle clanged the bell again and the servants reappeared, taking away the old trays and bringing out new ones with the first course. The farmer’s eyes bulged. He had never seen such enormous quantities of food and such dedicated service.

This pattern continued throughout the evening. Each time the uncle rang the bell an entourage of servants answered his call, removing the old food and replacing it with the new. And with each clang the poor farmer was more dumbstruck. When it was time to leave, the farmer thanked his uncle heartily and made a stop at a local hardware store before rushing home.

When he arrived he woke up his wife and excitedly told her:

“You’ll never believe what I did?”

“What?”

“I spent our last penny!”

“You what?”

“Don’t worry. I spent it on something you will thank me a million times for buying. Here, look.”

And he took out of his pouch a brass bell just like his uncle’s. “This,” the farmer said, “is a magic bell.” His wife looked at him as if he was crazy. Undaunted, the man said, “You’ll see, all I have to do is ring it and, immediately, servants will come out and serve us the most exquisite food which we can eat to our hearts content.”

Of course, the servants didn’t appear and platters with food did not become suddenly visible. As for the brass bell…it was an ordinary bell. It possessed no magic; it only worked when used as a signal to servants already waiting in the wings.

So, too, the shofar.

If, beforehand, we have no reservoir of response waiting in the wings, then the shofar has as much ability to move us as that farmer’s “magic” bell. For it to work we need to prepare.

This is what King David meant when he emphasized the importance of “knowing” the truah. We have to work on ourselves prior, inducing the proper frame of mind, for the shofar to really take effect. And this, indeed, is why we blow the shofar every weekday morning during the Hebrew month of Elul until the day before Rosh Hashanah: to sensitize ourselves to its message.

G-d, who created the first human being on Rosh Hashanah, first created him from the ground: “And G-d formed the human from the dust of the earth…” The human being was physical. Afterwards, however, the Torah informs us that G-d blew the “breath” of life into him—and man became a spiritual being.

We are physical human beings. We cannot avoid the pitfalls of human frailty. And we are not supposed to deny our physical natures. In living a physical life, even our best efforts cannot prevent at least occasional backsliding and failures.

The physical shofar is nothing more than the hollow horn of a ram. When the breath of a human being is blown through it, however, it undergoes a transformation. It becomes a living embodiment of the heart and emotion of the human being expressing the Divine Self it senses pulsing within, crying out to its Master and Maker in heaven.

We too are able to blow the “breath of life” into our daily lives by being more spiritually involved with Yiddishkait throughout the new year, and by promoting each other’s good qualities.

We too must feel the desire to continue our tradition from generation to generation. This “breath of life” we are to instill into our children’s young minds and tender hearts, so they too may love, admire and take pride in our Jewish heritage.

Everyone wants to belong to a higher purpose. It’s the core of our structure as humans to crave for identity. How fortunate we are to have a Jewish identity!

May it be G-d’s will to grant you a heart of wisdom in order that you behold His never-ending kindness. For He has given you everything you have.

Wishing you a sweet and healthy new year! 

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