The Shofar of Elul
The more important something is to us, writes the Avnei Nezer, the greater the preparation we will devote to it. Athletes prior to a major competition or an important game, for instance, will train harder.
Elul is our preparation for the most crucial period of the year: the Yomim Noraim. Too frequently we do not utilize this period to the maximum. In Eastern Europe, it was not uncommon for married men to return for the entire month of Elul to the bais medrash in which they had learned in their youth, and to spend the entire month immersed in preparation for the Yomim Noraim. Our frenetic, fast-paced lives today seem to offer us no such opportunity. We consider ourselves to have done well if we can snatch a few hours during the month to really think about the Judgment that awaits us.
The metaphor of the athlete training for a big game, however, does not do full justice to the demands of Elul. If an athlete fails to train, he has increased his chances of losing, but he has not yet lost. Not so with us if we let Elul pass by without focusing on the task at hand. In that case, we are not in the same place we were before; we have further distanced ourselves from Hashem.
The great Jerusalem maggid Rabbi Shalom Schwadron used to give the moshol of a young man who emigrated from Eastern Europe to America. After many years of separation, his elderly father was consumed with a desire to see his son again. He sold everything he owned to purchase a ship ticket to America.
The father endured the long journey in steerage sustained by his visions of a joyous reunion with his son. When at last his ship docked, however, there was no son at port to greet him. The old man tried to console himself that some unavoidable emergency must have detained his son, and he set out by train for his son’s address.
At the train station, there was once again no one to meet him, and he hired a cab to take him to his son’s house. There he expected to find a house festively lit in his honor, but the house was completely dark. The father knocked and knocked on the door until at last a light went on upstairs and a weary voice called out, “Who is there?”
The father could not contain himself and he called out joyously, “It is I, your father, who has come all the way from Europe to see you again.”
“Oh, it is you,” replied the son. “I’ve already undressed for the night, and I cannot possibly come downstairs to greet you.”
During Elul, our Father gets down off His celestial throne, as it were, and draws close to us. That is the meaning of the hint to Elul in the verse, Ani l’dodi ve’dodi li (Shir Hashirim 5:6). If we do not rush to greet our Father when He comes closer to us, we have spurned Him and distanced ourselves twice as much as before.
There is another sense as well in which days wasted in Elul represent something irretrievably lost, and not just a failure to prepare that lessens our chances of future success. The period between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur corresponds to the Moshe Rabbeinu’s third period of forty days on Har Sinai. If Moshe Rabbeinu needed a full forty days on Sinai prior to the receipt of the Second Tablets, then clearly we do as well. Days lost cannot be replaced.
YET EVEN IF WE HAVE lost something irreplaceable thus far in Elul, that is no reason not to start today with our own efforts to reciprocate Hashem’s move towards us. That drawing close begins with paying real attention to the morning Shofar blasts, and not just treating them as a reminder that we have to sign up with the gabbai for our seats for the Yomim Noraim.
It would be hard to think of another symbol so fraught with associations as the Shofar. The blasts are supposed to make us tremble – “Can the Shofar sound in the city and the people not tremble” (Amos ¬3:6). They remind us of the blasts that heralded the entry into battle. The Shofar blasts awaken us – or at least they should – from our spiritual slumber and the patterns of habit that dull our awareness our purpose in being.
In addition, the Shofar recalls the first moment of Divine inspiration, when Hashem first breathed into Adam HaRishon’s nostrils the.breath of Life. “One who blows,” say our Sages, “blows from Himself.: With that breath of life, Hashem planted within us a part of Him – cheleik Elokim mi’m’al.
The sounds of the Shofar remind us, as well, of groans, sighs, and shouts – each an unarticulated sound that precedes speech. Speech is a quality of a being aware of its own existence. The sounds of pre-speech precede our awareness of ourselves as independent beings. Again, they hint to the Divine soul that is the root of our Being, and which pre-exists our self-awareness.
Finally, the Shofar blasts are symbols of freedom. The Yovel (Jubilee) year, in which every Jewish servant returned to his family and his place, began with sounding of the Shofar. And on the day of our final salvation, when Hashem destroys the Satan once and for all, He will blow the Shofar (Zechariah 9:14). That is why the Satan is confused when he hears the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah: He fears that the time for his final annihilation has arrived (Sukkah 52a).
The freedom hinted to in the Shofar blasts is twofold. On that day when Hashem sounds His great Shofar we will be freed from all that enslaves us – both the Satan, the yetzer hara, and the dominion of the nations (see Berachos 17a). Both prevent us from doing Hashem’s will. The yetzer from within; it is the leaven in the dough, our material, physical side that dulls our senses and makes it more difficult for us to apprehend our spiritual root. And the nations from without by imposing their will upon us, and rendering us slaves to slaves rather than servants to the Holy One Blessed be He
And the Shofar shows us the way back to our freedom by reminding us of our twofold Creation: the first – “the beginning of Your works” – when Hashem breathed into Adam’s nostrils the Divine breath; the second on Rosh Chodesh Elul when Hashem acceded to Moshe’s implorations not to destroy the Jewish people and told him to once again ascend Har Sinai to receive the Second Tablets.
The Second Tablets did not contain within them the same freedom as the First; they did not return us to the state of Adam HaRishon before the Sin. The first were engraved on our hearts. They were not just experienced as prohibitions, but as statements of fact – the possibility of murder does not exist, the possibility of coveting does not exist — because you are connected to Hashem in the same way as Adam prior to the Sin.
But the Second Tablets at least offered the way back to the First. Had we held fast to them, Moshe Rabbeinu would have led us into Eretz Yisrael, and we would never have gone into exile and fallen under the dominion of the nations. Not until the Sin of the Spies were we cut off from that possibility.
If we listen to the Shofar in Elul, really listen, we will hear its reminder that our essence is our Divine soul, the part of Him within us, and its call to reattach ourselves to that essence, to Him, by removing all the encrustations of physicality that have attached to us. How? Through His Torah, the giving of which on Yom Kippur is referred to as the wedding of Hashem and the Jewish people (Taanis 26b and Rashi ad loc.).
This article appeared in the Yated Ne’eman on September 5, 2007.