The meaning of the title “Blow the great shofar, to announce our redemption”.
Sitting at my computer for a few moments, waiting and wondering what the upcoming Yom ha’din will bring. I decided to share some thoughts from last weeks Parsha that might help me and others to have a more meaningful day and more empowering, inciteful Rosh HaShanna.
Towards the end of last weeks Parsha, Moshe Rabbenu says (Devarim 30:15-18)
(ט”ו) רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם אֶת הַחַיִּים וְאֶת הַטּוֹב וְאֶת הַמָּוֶת וְאֶת הָרָע: (ט”ז) אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לְאַהֲבָה אֶת ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו וְלִשְׁמֹר מִצְוֹתָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְחָיִיתָ וְרָבִיתָ וּבֵרַכְךָ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ: (י”ז) וְאִם יִפְנֶה לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִשְׁמָע וְנִדַּחְתָּ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לֵאלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וַעֲבַדְתָּם: (י”ח) הִגַּדְתִּי לָכֶם הַיּוֹם כִּי אָבֹד תֹּאבֵדוּן לֹא תַאֲרִיכֻן יָמִים עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹבֵר אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן לָבוֹא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ:
(15) See that I have placed before you on this day the life and the good, and the death and the evil: (16) That which I command you today to love HaShem, your G-d, to walk in His ways and to guard His commandments, and His statutes, and His laws, and you shall live and grow numerous and HaShem, your G-d, will bless you in the land that you are coming to inherit. (17) And if your heart shall stray and you shall not listen (to His commandments etc.) and you separate yourselves and you bow down to other gods and you worship them. (18) I say to you today that you will surely be destroyed, you will not have length of days on the grounds to which you are crossing the Jordan river, to go there, to inherit it.
In these verses Moshe sums up what life is all about: follow HaShem’s commandments in order to have the best, truly “good” life that a person can have, or go down your own path, find other “gods” to worship, and suffer a life of death and evil … of your own choosing.
Pondering life, my own and that of the people that I know in my family, among my friends and students and more makes me realize just how true the above statement is.
One of the more popular lectures that I give in Nefesh Yehudi is a lecture called (in Hebrew) Tizrom, achi. Tizrom. (Which translates as “Just go with the flow, brother. Flow with it”). The lecture is about the meaning of life, what man is really looking for and how the only place that he can get it is the holy Torah. Among the hundreds of students that I have said this to, not once has anyone interjected “Rabbi! That’s just not true”. Consider the following:
Out of all the things that I do in the course of my day, I can break my time up into two categories: those things that I have to do, (despite the fact that in most instances I have no desire to do them. Think “go to work”), and those things that I want to do. One would think, therefore, that after a long day at work, doing that which I have to do, that when I get home, after finishing (hopefully) all of the stuff at home that I also have to do, that I would find a productive way to use my “want to do” time. The reality is that the significant majority of my “want to do” time is spent on things that allow for the time to pass in a relatively enjoyable way. Reading novels, playing video games, watching TV or movies, surfing the net, looking at Facebook and more. So, do I do these things because, in reality, I want to do nothing with my life except waste it away, hoping that it will pass painlessly … until I die? Or is it just that I really need to “unwind” so much, so that I can get back to living my “real” life, which is… the one that I don’t enjoy, and yet I have to do it?
B”H! That isn’t the portion of those people who love HaShem and want to delve into His Torah!
Which brings us to the following story that I recently heard (and shared with my students last Shabbos at our oneg Shabbos):
The story is of a young man who was learning in Yeshiva and suddenly contracted a debilitating sickness. He was informed that he only had a few weeks or days to live and he was lying, despondent, in his bed at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem. Despite all of her best efforts, his mother couldn’t get him to do anything. Not to eat, not to drink, not even to carry on a conversation or even acknowledge her presence. Exasperated with the situation she called a Rav whose shiurim her son enjoyed, Rav Azriel Tauber, shlit’a, and asked him to please come and try to get the boy back to life. Hearing the desperation in the boy’s mother’s voice and the story of what was happening he immediately came.
Entering the room, he found the boy laying in his bed, staring blankly at the wall while his mother looked at him wringing her hands. Noticing the Rav, his mother stood up and thanked the Rav for coming.
“Shalom aleychem!” the Rav said to the boy. There was no response. “Shalom aleychem!” the Rav said again. Still nothing. (At this point I was thinking that if it were me, in this situation, I probably would have just shrugged told the mother “I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do” and left downheartedly).
The Rav mustered his posture and strength and said to the boy “Listen here! I have come from very far away, made a long journey just to visit you. The least that you can do is respond to my welcome.” “Shalom aleychem!” said the Rav again, sticking out his hand. The young man took the hand a responded weakly “Aleychem haShalom.”
“As you are a yeshiva man,” said the Rav “I want to ask you a question. Please let me know if you know the answer.”
“What is the halacha if a non-Jew were to come up to a Jew holding out a piece of meat, chazir (pig-meat), and says to this Jew “Either you eat this meat, or I will take away all of your money”, what is he to do?” “He should give up all of his money,” said the young man. “Excellent,” said the Rav. “Why is that?” the Rav asked, and then answered “It’s to teach us just how terrible it is to do an aveirah, to transgress that which the Torah forbids,” said the Rav. “What would happen if the person in question was a gevir (a wealthy Jew) who supports Torah institutions, chessed projects, needy children and more? Would the law be different in that case?” asked the Rav. “No,” said the young man, “it wouldn’t.” “Do you understand why that is?” asked the Rav. “I don’t either” answered the Rav. “Despite all of the wonderful things that he would no longer be able to do, the halacha is the same. This shows us how severe it is to transgress a lo ta’aseh (a forbidden act) of the Torah.”
“Now,” said the Rav “which is a worse aveirah? Eating pig or transgressing the Shabbos day?” he asked. “To transgress the Shabbos” answered the young man. “Exactly!” said the Rav. “However, what is the halacha if there is a Jew who is deathly ill on Shabbos?” “Under the circumstances, it is permitted to transgress the laws of Shabbos in order to save him” answered the young man. “That is correct” answered the Rav. “This is because if I transgress this one Shabbos, this person will be able to keep many other Shabbosim,” said the Rav. “But, what is the law if to save this man 10, 100, 1000 or more Jews need to transgress the laws of Shabbos to save him?” he again asked. “The halacha is the same. All of those Jews must transgress the laws of Shabbos in order to save the other Jew” he answered. “Do you understand this?” asked the Rav. “No” he answered. “Neither do I. How could the few Shabbatos that this Jew will keep allow for thousands of Jews to transgress Shabbos on his behalf? Yet, that is the halacha. This is teaching us just how important one Jewish life is.”
“Would the law be different if it was only a safek (a questionable outcome) as to whether or not this Jew would live?” asked the Rav. “No,” said the young man. “Would the law be different?” asked the Rav “if all we could give the man by saving him on Shabbos would be a few more hours, a few more minutes, or even just a few more seconds?” Silence. “We both know the answer,” said the Rav. “Even for only a few minutes or seconds of life, it is the responsibility of every Jew to transgress the Shabbos in order to give this fellow Jew even a few more moments of life. Do I understand this? No, I don’t. However,” said the Rav “this teaches us the incredible importance of every moment of life that we are given. It’s more precious than almost everything and HaShem gives it to us a gift”.
With that, the Rav got up and left.
A few weeks later the Rav saw the young man’s name posted on the walls, saying that he had passed and where his family was sitting shiva (the week of mourning). The Rav went. As soon as he entered the room the mother of the young man stood up and told him the effect that Rav’s words had on the boy. “From that point on he was totally different,” she said. “He utilized every spare moment to learn Torah, to pray, to say Tehillim, to do something with the gift of life that HaShem had given him. Up until his final moments”.
I heard this story and it impacted me. I thought about some of the elderly people that I know from America and Israel, and how they spend (or spent) their last days. Having gone on their pension they now had time to focus on what they really wanted to do! Which was… playing golf. Or sitting in a chair, reading a novel, letting the time slip by… waiting for death to take them.
What a sorry existence. What a waste of the life that HaShem gave. But if you don’t believe in HaShem, in G-d, what do you have to look forward to anyway? Nothing.
Yet throughout history, there were plenty of Jews who took that path. Who left the ways of HaShem, to follow the ways of strange gods. Listen to the words of the lament of the prophet Yirmiyahu (2:13) concerning these people:
כִּי שְׁתַּיִם רָעוֹת עָשָׂה עַמִּי אֹתִי עָזְבוּ מְקוֹר מַיִם חַיִּים לַחְצֹב לָהֶם בֹּארוֹת בֹּארֹת נִשְׁבָּרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָכִלוּ הַמָּיִם.
For there are two evils that my nation has done. They have left me, the source of living (life-giving) waters, (the first evil) to dig for themselves water holes, watering holes that are broken and cannot hold the waters (the second evil).
HaShem, who has forever been the source of life, of meaning and purpose, of blessing and goodness for the Jewish people. To leave Him is one thing. To say that there is no G-d of Israel. That is bad. But to replace Him with something that isn’t even “half-baked”, whose claim to Divinity is questionable at best, and whose ability is not as clear as HaShem’s – who does that?
The world is fond of saying “if it isn’t broken – don’t fix it”, so if it’s clearly amazing – isn’t it even clearer that we should not only keep it but give it it’s proper due?
The Rambam (Laws of Repentance chapter 3 halacha 4) says that the sound of the shofar on Rosh HaShanna, even though we don’t really know the reasoning for it, there is a secret that it holds:
It screams “Wake up, o’ sleepers from your (waking) sleep. Those who are drowsy – wake up! Search your actions and do teshuva (return to the path) and remember your Creator!”
Sefer HaChinuch (mitzvah 311) tells us that the day of Rosh Hashana is a chessed from HaShem so that once a year we stop and think about where I have been with my life, and where it is going to. So that the amount of aveiros (sins) that I have done doesn’t pile up and grow beyond redemption. SO that I have the opportunity to renavigate my life if it has been going the wrong way.
On this Rosh Hashana let’s take the opportunity to understand that I have nothing to lose and everything to gain by becoming closer to HaShem and His Torah. A life of goodness and of real life awaits me behind that door. Or, I can choose door number two, and spend the rest of my life spending the rest of my life.
To me, it seems like an open and shut decision. I hope that I have the fortitude to follow through.
Shanna Tova to all.