Sounding the Alarm

It is peaceful and quiet on a sunny day, and all seems calm in this town not far from the southern border of Eretz Yisroel. Suddenly, the tranquility is shattered by the sudden piercing sound of a siren, an alarm indicating that a missile has been fired by the enemy and that everyone should run for cover.

We, who live so far away, cannot imagine the terror that enters people’s hearts. Although they have experienced this before, it does not minimize the panic that sets in. They can literally visualize the deadly missile that is rapidly approaching, and without a second thought they flee to the bomb shelter. Parents are in a frenzy. Are the children all here? What a frightening experience, people scrambling for their lives from all corners, terrified that they won’t survive the attack.

There is the sounding of an alarm that we hear from time to time. Chazal established that we should blow the shofar on Rosh Chodesh Elul every year and the entire month to caution us that we should do teshuvah, as it says, “Is the shofar ever sounded in a city and the people do not tremble” (Amos 3:6)?

Do we get shaken up by the sound of the shofar? Are we in a state of panic? The novi says that, as a matter of fact, the sound of the shofar causes people to tremble. If so, we must wonder about ourselves: How is it that we hear the sound of the shofar every year and we seem almost indifferent? Not only are we not shaken up, but our lives go on as usual.

This can be explained with the following moshol. A peasant from a far-out isolated hamlet visited the big city for the first time. He was never exposed to the hustle and bustle of the great metropolis and observed everything with wide open eyes. Everything there was new to him. One of the things that caught his eye was a tall mechanism planted at the center of the city. It was a loud siren, its purpose to alert the firemen to come to the rescue when one of the houses was on fire. The peasant inquired about this and was told simply that it was the fire alarm. Never having seen how a fire is extinguished, he thought that the siren had some special hidden powers of putting out a fire and he didn’t ask any questions.

When he returned to his hometown, he immediately had a siren erected right next to his house, so that if there was any fire in town, it would easily be taken care of. Sure enough, a couple of months later, a house caught fire in the middle of the night. Smelling the fumes, the peasant quickly ran to the alarm and sounded the siren. Although the townspeople heard the siren, they had no idea what its implications were and continued sleeping peacefully. Unfortunately, the house burned to the ground, the siren a total failure.

The peasant scratched his head, dumbfounded. What could have possibly gone wrong? If it worked in the big city, why couldn’t it work in his hometown? He quickly made the trek to the big city and asked the people there why his alarm could not extinguish the fire. The people laughed at him and said, “Fool, did you really think that the alarm could put out the fire? It is merely a siren, a piercing sound to wake up the firemen from their sleep. They all know that the special alarm alerts them that there is a fire, so they hurry at full speed to the rescue. But if people are not aware of what the sound of the siren signifies, they will continue to sleep and no one will come to the rescue.”

In previous generations, the shofar was an alarm, similar to the ones in Eretz Yisroel that signal the firing of missiles. In those days, all of the people, even the simple folk, believed in reward and punishment. The same way today people feel the ramifications of the firing of a missile, they literally felt the fear of gehennom, suffering, and the judgment of the Yom Hadin. Who will live and who will die were not merely theoretical concepts, but real outcomes decided by their actions. Therefore, when the shofar sounded, they were gripped by a natural fear and they sensed the danger at hand. They quickly made every effort to seek refuge through Torah, tefillah and maasim tovim.

 This is what we are lacking. We don’t literally sense before our eyes the Yom Hadin and gehennom. Therefore, the alarm of the shofar no longer frightens us and we remain asleep. We are almost like that peasant who thought that the siren would solve the problem by itself. The key to our success during the days of Elul and the Yomim Noraim is to picture ourselves standing before the Heavenly Court with our future at stake. We must do this over and over again and internalize it. Then the shofar will work for us as well (Mizkeinim Esbonan).

“Like poor and destitute we knock on Your doors” (Selichos). We must imagine what it would be like not to have a penny to our name. There are children to feed and bills to pay. One is forced to go begging from door to door for donations. Picturing this would certainly awaken us to help our less fortunate brethren who actually live like this every day. And we don’t have to look far to find them. But it also awakens us to the reality of this crucial time. We stand before Hashem pleading for a good and happy life for this coming year. We asked for the same thing last Rosh Hashanah. We promised to better our ways, to improve in our limud haTorah, to intensify our kavanah in tefillah, and to be more generous in our tzedakah. We vowed that we would, but did we live up to our commitments? Now, once again, we stand before Hashem. Once again we beseech Him without having kept our part of the deal. How embarrassing.

But embarrassment is a good thing. It can get us very far, much further than we can imagine. We can learn a lesson from the wicked Achaz Hamelech. He served avodah zarah and sacrificed all of his children to Molech, except his son, Chizkiyahu, who was saved by his mother. So great was his depravity that Chazal ask why he is not mentioned amongst those who forfeited their portion in the World to Come.

Yet, this miscreant merited having a son who would bring Klal Yisroel to the highest spiritual levels and lead one of the most outstanding generations in our history. Chizkiyahu stuck a sword into the ground by the door of the Bais Hamikdosh and declared, “Whoever is not engrossed in Torah should be pierced with the sword.” They searched throughout all the corners of Eretz Yisroel and did not find anyone ignorant of Torah. Young boys and girls, men and women, were all fluent in the complicated laws of tumah vetaharah” (Sanhedrin 94b).

Chazal also say that Hashem wanted Chizkiyahu to be Moshiach and Sancheirev to be Gog Umagog, but because he didn’t say shirah when Hashem saved him from Sancheirev, he did not merit this (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 4:8). How could it be that the wicked Achaz had such a son?

Rav Yosef said that the reason Achaz is not included amongst those who lost their Olam Haba is because when he encountered the novi Yeshayahu, he turned his face away in embarrassment for his sins. Others say that he covered his face with a laundering vessel (Sanhedrin 104a). For this very same reason, he merited having a son like Chizkiyahu, and what a treasure he was, for children bring zechuyos to their parents in Olam Haba.

Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer once asked Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld why it was his custom to go to the mikvah so often. Rav Yosef Chaim answered that Chazal say about a gentile who becomes a ger, “One who undergoes a bris milah but does not immerse himself in the mikvah is not a ger until he is toivel in the mikvah” (Yevamos 46a).

“Now,” said Rav Yosef Chaim, “if tevilah in a mikvah can transform a goy into a Yid, then surely it can turn someone who is already Jewish into a ben Yisroel who is on a higher, more refined level.”

We may use this same kal vachomer for our point. If just one moment of embarrassment was able to bring such blessing to a rasha like Achaz, then surely if one is an upright G-d-fearing Jew who only wants to serve Hashem, a moment of feeling humble before Hashem brings one tremendous broadband merit.

When Moshe Rabbeinu went before Hashem after the chet ha’Eigel to plead for mercy on behalf of Klal Yisroel, his opening words were, “Ana chata ha’am hazeh chata’ah gedolah. I appeal! This people has committed a grievous sin…” (Shemos 32:31). Imagine an attorney representing a client accused of a crime who opens his defense by saying, “Honored judge, I am here today to represent a man who is guilty of the crime he was accused of.” That would be the end of his career as a defense lawyer. Why, then, did Moshe begin his plea by admitting Klal Yisroel’s guilt?

The seforim say that this may be compared to a mischievous child who did something that made his father very angry. He realized that he was wrong and now would have to face the consequences. He was very much afraid, and when his father called him, he stood there before him expecting a strong reprimand. There wasn’t much he could say to defend himself and avoid being punished. Now he started crying and said, “Totty, I’m sorry. I did something stupid.” Seeing the boy’s sincerity and contrition, the father’s anger was immediately calmed and his love for the child was aroused.

During these yemei ratzon, we have ample opportunity to stand before Hashem humbled. During Selichos, we recite vidui many times. And on Yom Kippur, we klop al cheit twice during every tefillah. We tap ourselves on the heart and speed through the various transgressions, thinking in our hearts that we were not really guilty of these sins. Perhaps in a different gilgul we committed these aveiros and for this we need to confess. Or maybe we are saying that there are members of Klal Yisroel who are guilty, and since we are responsible for one another, we, too, must confess.

But were we really to think about what each aveirah represents, and that it has many branches and nuances, we would realize that these confessions very much apply to us as well and we would feel remorse. For example, gozalnu. Am I a thief? I would never take something that doesn’t belong to me, but there are more subtle ways of gozalnu. If I don’t return a sefer to its proper place in shul and I cause someone else to waste time looking for it, that is gozalnu. If I take a shortcut through someone’s property without asking permission; or if I leave a shopping cart in a parking space and prevent others from parking there, causing them to waste time; or if I stop at a corner and look at my cell phone, thus holding up traffic, that is gozalnu. And with just a bit of contemplation, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we can find our guilt in many of these aveiros. If we feel just a bit of embarrassment and remorse, we can merit tremendous blessings for the coming year.

Once, Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev said, “Ribono Shel Olam, you wrote in your Torah four words regarding shofar: yom teruah yihiyeh lochem. But the chachomim darshened this to mean tekiah, shevarim and teruah. Since we blow one hundred sounds each day of Rosh Hashanah, there are a total of two hundred sounds heard in every shul. If we multiply this by the number of all the shuls throughout the world, the number of sounds is immense. Now multiply that by all of the shuls throughout the years of our history. The number is staggering. It is in the billions. This is what we did for You, Hashem. And what do we ask from You, Hakadosh Boruch Hu? Teka beshofar gadol lecheiruseinu.”

 May we merit for Rav Levi Yitzchok’s tefillah to be answered this Rosh Hashanah and that we indeed hear the shofar of Moshiach this year.