There are various reactions to the sound of the shofar’s cry. The sensitive soul hears several messages as the plaintive sound forms a song like no other. It is a tune of triumph mixed with recollection and tones of introspection.
The Rambam, who compiled and clarified so many of the halachos that govern our lives, heard a unique message in the sound of the shofar and, deviating from his usual practice, provided a reason for the mitzvah.
He writes in Hilchos Teshuvah (3:4), “Even though [the commandment to blow the shofar] is a gezeiras hakosuv, there is a hint to the reason, for it is as if the shofar is saying, ‘Uru yesheinim misheinaschem. Wake up you who are asleep from your slumber. Search through your actions, repent, and remember your Creator.’”
The Rambam then quotes from the Pesikta: “These are the people who get caught up in the frivolities of the period – havlei hazeman – and forget the truth, spending their time with silliness and emptiness. The shofar calls out to them and says, ‘Look inside your souls and improve your ways, and let each one of you leave behind his bad ways and improper thoughts.’”
Then the Rambam writes the eternal words that Jews have in their DNA: “Lefichoch, therefore, all people should see themselves during the entire year as if they are evenly divided between being zakai, innocent, and chayov, guilty. Every person should view the world the same way.”
Meaning, if he commits one sin, he will have caused for himself and for the entire world to be guilty. If he does one mitzvah, he will have ensured that he and the entire world are found innocent and he will bring about salvation for everyone.
“This is what it means when it says, ‘Tzaddik yesod olam.’ The tzaddik himself is the foundation of the world, because he has caused the entire world to be judged positively and to be saved.”
The Rambam’s words are often repeated and analyzed, especially at this time of year, by people seeking to do teshuvah. His teachings are so direct and touching, deeply affecting every person who studies them. But more than that, he codifies and organizes for us the teshuvah process so that we are able to progress along the path to achieve absolution of our sins, refinement of our neshamos, improvement of our character, and, most all, perfection of our shemiras hamitzvos. It would behoove any of us who has not done so to read through the words of the Rambam, softly and slowly, absorbing them and using them as an impetus to proper teshuvah.
While studying these perokim, I was pondering why the Rambam uses the metaphor of sleep for people whose time is consumed with trivialities. These people are far removed from asleep. In fact, they appear to be very much awake and occupied with fulfilling their various desires. Perhaps he should have referred to them as wayward, lost, or confused people who are wasting their lives away. Why is their condition referred to as slumber?
Furthermore, how does the second part of the halacha follow the first? Why does he say that lefichoch, because people waste their time, man should therefore view himself and the world as having an equal number of merits and sins – chatzi chayov and chatzi zakai – and thus seek to perform a mitzvah in whose merit he will tip the scale towards zakai and bring salvation to himself and to the world?
How does the way we view the world follow the admonition regarding those who are asleep behavlei hazeman?
The transitional word, lefichoch, indicates that there is a connection between the call to arise from our slumber and the mandate to see ourselves as chatzi chayov and chatzi zakai, perched on the dividing line between the abyss of evil and the path leading to eternal life. What is the connection?
The words of the Rambam, whose every nuance and hint reflect truth and Divine inspiration, require explanation. Are we, in fact, asleep? What is the meaning of the repeated references to slumber?
The story of Yonah Hanovi, which we lain on Yom Kippur, provides us with a strong allusion of what the Rambam means when he uses the word slumber, nirdom. Yonah sought to escape from following Hashem’s directive. He fled to a ship that was to take him to a far-off land. But Hashem caused a stormy tempest at sea, and the ship was rocked about and threatened to break apart. Everyone aboard began to panic, throwing all non-essential items overboard as they fought for survival.
With the ship rocking and commotion all around him, Yonah went to his room to take a nap, as if nothing was happening.
The captain finds him and is incensed. He calls out to Yonah, “Mah lecha nirdom? What are you doing, sleeper?”
How can a person be calm enough to lie down when the boat he is on, with all of its passengers, is at risk of sinking? The waves are lapping at the ship, threatening to rip it apart. How could a person rest comfortably when his life is in jeopardy?
The captain was thus infuriated at Yonah. “Mah lecha nirdom?” he said. “What is with you, apathetic person? How can you be so indifferent to reality? How can you ignore what is transpiring around you? Kum kera el Elokecha. Quickly, pray to Hashem that He save us all from certain death.”
The posuk in Shir Hashirim (5:2) states, “Ani yesheinah velibi eir…” Rashi explains that the posuk is referring to the era of the first Bais Hamikdosh, when Knesses Yisroel, sedate and serene, became lax in their avodas Hashem. They no longer felt that they were under pressure to perform properly. Everything was going well for them and they became like a sleeping person who slowly relaxes his limbs.
We see from these pesukim, and others, that when the metaphor of sleep is used, it is indicative of a person who is apathetic and has ceased to feel the pressure to do and to be, to produce and to accomplish.
To be asleep means to be oblivious to what is going on around you. It means to be blind and deaf to the realities and opportunities inherent in every moment and, most of all, to the potential that lies dormant within.
The famed Yerushalmi baal mussar and darshan, Rav Shalom Shvadron, was visiting Rav Eizek Sher, the Slabodka rosh yeshiva, in Bnei Brak, when Rav Sher said to him, “Let’s go to the window. I want to show you the cemetery.” Rav Shvadron was wondering how he would be able to see the far-off cemetery from Rav Sher’s window, but he followed.
Rav Sher began gazing out the window and pointing to the street below. I’m paraphrasing what he said to bring out my point, but he said something like this: “Do you see those people down there? They are wasting their time with the havlei hazeman. Instead of learning Torah and being productive, they are engaging in triviality, in matters of little importance. They are alive, but they are burying themselves with the havlei hazeman.”
Those people are nirdomim. They may be alive and awake, but their souls are dead. They are aimless. They don’t think about the preciousness of time and the many opportunities Hakadosh Boruch Hu gives them to spend their time productively, benefiting themselves, their families, their communities, and the world.
Says the Rambam, we cry out to them during these precious days and say, “Mah lochem nirdomim! Wake up! Uru yesheinim misheinaschem!” The shofar is the vehicle we use to convey that message.
A person’s potential is immeasurable, limited only by his lack of ambition, effort and belief in himself. The worst thing that we can do is rob people of their self-esteem, because that inhibits them from seeking to grow and excel. Our yeitzer hora excels at telling us that we cannot succeed in pursuing a goal. He convinces us that it is not even worth making the attempt. When we allow him to convince us, we fail.
A beautiful photograph of two young boys in a Shuvu school in Lod in Eretz Yisroel was taken this week. A boy is seen holding a siddur and davening. He is tugging at the tzitzis strings of the boy in the seat in front of him and kissing them as he recites Shema.
His parents have not yet come to appreciate the mitzvos with which we are blessed and have not yet purchased for this boy a pair of tzitzis. But he doesn’t let that hold him back. He wants to grow, he wants to lead a full Jewish life, and he wants to be productive and do mitzvos, so he reaches for the closest pair of tzitzis and grabs on to them and kisses them.
He doesn’t listen to his yeitzer hora. He doesn’t accept his fate and console himself with his situation. His soul is awake. He yearns to grow and do mitzvos properly. He doesn’t just shrug his shoulders and move on apathetically. He gets out of his seat, going beyond his comfort zone. He shows that he appreciates that Hashem has blessed him to be in this school, where he will receive a proper chinuch and be guided and nurtured toward becoming a proper ben aliyah.
We are all that boy. We all have excuses and reasons why not to, why we can’t, why it isn’t for us. But we need to be like him in the other way as well, ignoring the negativity of the yeitzer hora and responding to the tug of our neshamos and the shofar, which call on us to propel ourselves further, doing better, working harder, and leading a meaningful and productive life.
The greatest tragedy is when a person becomes unaware of, or indifferent to, his own abilities and begins to believe that he won’t realize his dreams and doesn’t even bother to make the attempt. The Daf Yomi cycle starts a new masechta and he really wants to try to get on the bandwagon and begin learning masechtos as he sees others doing, but he gives in to the yeitzer hora’s arguments that he won’t understand it anyway, and even if he does, he will soon forget it, so why bother expending the effort? Meanwhile, his friends are marching through Shas and he is checking out everyone’s status pictures. He is a nirdom.
The shofar tells us that we need to extricate ourselves from floundering in apathy and cold indifference. The Rambam says that this is accomplished by each person realizing how much latent strength he possesses and the difference he can make.
Lefichoch. Therefore, says the Rambam, when the shofar awakens you from your apathy and you realize what you can accomplish if you would only try, you have the power to tilt the balance of the world and bring it to its tikkun.
Lefichoch is a call to us to exit our bubbles and shelters of selfishness and indifference and to make a difference. The beginning of teshuvah is for a person to accept that what he does makes a difference.
A person must realize that Hashem created him with a purpose and a plan. Until man accepts that he has a calling, he cannot truly serve Hashem. This may be the depth of the reason why the two days of Rosh Hashanah are counted among the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, even though on Rosh Hashanah we do not stress teshuvah, but rather the malchus of Hakadosh Boruch Hu. On Rosh Hashanah, we do not recite viduy, but reassert the fact that the world has a Creator and He is the world’s King ruling over all. Since He placed us in His world, there must be a reason and a purpose to our existence. Recognizing that is the first step of teshuvah.
The posuk in Tehillim (89:15) that we recite prior to tekias shofar on Rosh Hashanah states, “Ashrei ha’am yode’ei seruah, Hashem be’Ohr Ponecha yehaleichun.” Dovid Hamelech praises the nation that knows the teruah of the shofar. The Medrash (Vayikra Rabbah 29:4) asks why Am Yisroel is deserving of that praise. After all, the nations of the world also know how to blow a shofar.
Perhaps we can explain that while the nations of the world are capable of emitting sounds from the shofar, the second part of the posuk, “Hashem b’Ohr Ponecha yehaleichun,” does not apply to them. They are able to emit sounds from a shofar, but because they don’t follow in the light of Hashem, those sounds don’t provoke them to shake off their sheinah and tardeimah. Thus, they continue being swept along and swallowed up by the havlei hazeman.
Lefichoch. We who follow the “Ohr Ponecha,” the Light of Hashem, are referred to as yode’ei seruah, because the sound of the shofar touches our neshamos and awakens us to follow that light. When the havlei hazeman draw the shades that block the light from reaching us, we become yesheinim. The shofar causes us to roll up those shades and allow the light to shine through. We are then awakened to fulfill our purpose in life.
The Zohar (3:18b) speaks of the merit of the yode’ei seruah, those who know the secret of tekias shofar: “Zaka’ah chulkhon detzadikiya deyadin lekavnah reusah lekamei mareihon veyadin lesaknah alma behai yoma bekol shufrah. Praised are the pious ones who know how to channel the awesome power of the shofar and to rectify the universe on the day of Rosh Hashanah through the sound of the shofar.”
Tzaddikim, the righteous ones among us, hear and understand the message of the shofar and utilize that knowledge to bring merit to the entire world, because that is the purpose of blowing the shofar.
The shofar reminds us of who we are and what we can accomplish. Each one of us has the ability to tip the balance of the cosmos and change the course of the world. The shofar tells a person that he is also a tzaddik, and all are looking to him to utilize his potential to attain greatness and bring salvation to the world.
A person who hears this message is a tzaddik in din. The Heavenly tribunal will pronounce him as zakai, and in his merit, those around him and the world will be saved.
After Yonah was brought out of his tardeimah, the winds continued blowing and the deadly waves crashed against the ship. The other passengers huddled together to figure out why they were being punished so. They asked, “Shel mi hara’ah hazos lonu? Who is the cause of these conditions that are affecting us so terribly?”
Yonah immediately responded, “Ki yodeia ani ki besheli hasa’ar hagadol hazeh aleichem. I know that I am to blame for what is happening to you.”
Yonah was a novi, surrounded by ovdei avodah zarah. Why did he so quickly conclude that he was the cause of the raging storm? There were no doubt other sinners on board. Why was he so sure that it was his fault that the boat was being destroyed?
It was because Yonah understood the lefichoch of the Rambam. He was a recovering nirdom. After accepting the mussar of the captain, he went further, as the Rambam prescribes, and looked at what was going on, as if he himself could bring about the necessary change and the yeshuah to the people on the boat, to Am Yisroel as a whole, and to the entire world.
This Rosh Hashanah, as we hear the song of the shofar, we can think of many role models, human beings who are attempting to realize their potential, rising up to confront the new challenges that keep coming our way.
We should all take a moment to look deep within our own hearts and determine if perhaps we are asleep, oblivious to the great things we could be doing, leaving our talents untapped.
Too often, we concentrate on the negatives, on the problems in our world, on the things going wrong and being done wrong. Yet, despite all that, there are so many good people, so much good being done, so many learning and supporting Torah at unprecedented levels. There are so many baalei chesed and baalei tzedakah, people who change lives because they are not asleep to what is going on and to their abilities. They appreciate the gifts Hashem has given them and entrusted them with, and they utilize them for the purposes for which they were intended, to help others and improve the world, preparing themselves and others for the great day we are all waiting for.
May our tefillos be answered and may this be a year of yeshuos, brachos, hatzlocha, gezunt, parnossah, and nachas, and may the great light finally shine over the yode’ei seruah, as the great shofar is sounded and we will all be gathered to Yerushalayim. Amein.