The Shofar of Elul

4 Sep

Yesterday I had the privilege of officiating at a Bar-Mitzvah at the Western Wall, the Kotel haMaaravi.  Our services were often interrupted by shofar blasts.  Some from old grey-bearded men, blowing the traditional blasts on modest rams’ horns, others by young, strong men using long twisted antelope horns, blowing many more than the traditional fours sounds usually blown each day after the morning Shacharit services.

It made me think seriously as to why it is we are all blasting on the shofar this whole month. 
The Rambam writes in the Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentence, in reference to the blowing of the shofar:

“O sleepers, arise from your sleep! O slumbers, arise from your slumber! Scrutinize your deeds and lovingly repent! Remember your Creator! Peer into your souls, improve your ways and your deeds.” (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 3:4).

Yet, in looking around, it doesn’t seem to move people spiritually, it doesn’t seem to be “waking them up to repent.” Instead of concentrating on teshuva, people seem rather to be concentrating and comparing the various performance qualities of the ‘trumpeters.”

And with all due respect to the Rambam here, I’m not convinced that these blasts are about teshuva.  While it is true that the shofar was sounded during ceremonies to bring rain, or in the event of local disasters, to awaken people to repent in an effort to bring divine mercy upon us, it doesn’t seem that this was its main use. Mainly, the shofar and the silver trumpets were intended to signal encampment movements especially during times of battle. (See Numbers 10) In addition, like battle cries, they were meant to arouse fear and dread, to produce panic in the ears and hearts of the enemy (Shall the horn be blown in a city, and the people not tremble? – Amos 3:6)

That being the case, then I would like to suggest that rather than serving to awaken us to repentance, the shofar of Elul is actually a rallying call to our fellow Jews. As the New Year approaches, we are calling out to all those around us to join together in an effort to make the coming year better than the one that has past.  We are calling out: “All hands on deck!”  We need everyone to be a part of taking advantage of the fresh new start that lies before us.
There is a source for this, I believe, in the Midrash.  After Moshe came down the mountain with the first set of tablets and found the people worshipping the golden calf, he prayed on their behalf that they be forgiven, and then he was invited by God to once again ascend the mountain.  As it is written in the Midrash:

On Rosh Chodesh [Elul] the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: Ascend the mount unto Me. And they sounded the shofar in all the camp, that Moshe ascended the mount, so that they shouldn’t further err after idols. And the Holy One, blessed be He, ascended in that shofar, as it is written, (Tehilim 47:6) ‘God ascends in the [shofar] blast’. Thus the Sages established that the shofar should be sounded every Rosh Chodesh [Elul] (Pirkei deRebbe Eliezer, chapter 46).

I suggest that the Midrash is teaching us about “second chances.”  The shofar was blasted as Moshe re-ascended Mt. Sinai in order to indicate to the people that they were being given a second chance – “Don’t squander it on some golden idol again!”

How will we use the New Year that lies ahead of us?  What steps can we take so as not to squander all that it promises?

An interesting thought: The blessing over the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah refers to the mitzvah as “lishmoah kol shofar,” “to hear the voice of the Shofar.”

Since that voice speaks without words, the message that is heard depends a great deal on who is doing the listening.


2 Responses to “The Shofar of Elul”

  1. Yanki Wednesday, September 5, 2007 at 9:58 am #

    Khazak uBaruch!

  2. Vivienne Burstein Wednesday, September 5, 2007 at 2:19 pm #

    Dear Morey,
    Thanks so much for this very thought-provoking piece – a shofar blast will never sound the same again, now that I know what’s behind it.

    One thought though: It seems to me that the ‘second chance’ that the shofar heralds – the reminder not to squander or betray, again, all the promise and potential that have been given – is in effect an opportunity for tshuva; tshuva not in the sense of repentance, i.e. regret/the search for forgiveness, but the tshuva of recognizing my mistakes and charting my future path in light of my new understanding.

    Thanks again, and Shanah Tovah!

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