August 15, 2022 |

Wake-up Calls

Periodically, Uriel (my 3-year old son) will bring me our shofar (usually during breakfast) and ask me to blow it. Sometimes, I refuse. Sometimes I am indulgent. If I fail to blow well and it comes out sounding like a dying goose, he laughs at me and my funny sounds. If the shofar sound comes out clear and piercing, he giggles at the wonderful noise it makes and begs me to do it again and again. I refuse, so that our building won't evict us. But he really loves the sound of the shofar, so I say to him: "Uriel, soon it will be the month of Ellul and then I will blow the shofar for you EVERY DAY!"[1]

This coming Wednesday, we will begin to blow the shofar, which it is our custom to do throughout the month of Ellul. It is only four blasts - the straight and strong teki'a, the pulsating shevarim and the jagged staccato bursts of the teru'a., followed by a final teki'a. It is only 10 seconds, but it drives home the message that Rosh Hashana is 1 month away. Yom Kippur, only 40 days. It is a wake-up call.

Why do we blow the shofar in the month before Rosh Hashana?
In the Torah, it seems only to suggest that the shofar be blown on Rosh Hashana itself, which is called a "day of shofar-blowing" (yom teru'a), but not on any of the preceding days. Nonetheless, the custom seems to be a very ancient one. In "The Teachings of Rabbi Eliezer" (a collection of Rabbinic homilies, Pirkei Dr' Eliezer, chapter 45), it explains that the first day of Elul was the day on which God invited Moshe to ascend Mount Sinai to receive the second set of two stone tablets (luchot).

The first time that Moshe had gone up the mountain, the people had, according to tradition, miscalculated the timing. When Moshe did not return on time, they thought the worst and gave into despair. Casting around for something to believe in, they built the Golden Calf, an act so repugnant to God and Moshe that when Moshe DID return shortly thereafter, he smashed the tablets rather than giving them to the children of Israel.

As Moshe prepared to ascend the mountain for the second tablets, a shofar was blown throughout the camp so that everyone should come together and witness Moshe's journey. The sound of the shofar commanded them to note down the exact time and to etch the moment in their hearts. This time there would be no Golden Calf. This time they would pay attention and keep their eyes on the prize. The opportunity to get a second precious gift from God (2nd set of tablets) after the first had been squandered is not to be taken lightly.

The Rabbis ordered that we commemorate this day each year by blowing the shofar on the first day of the month of Elul. It reminds us - during the season of repentance - to gather together, to pay attention, to not rush to false conclusions, to keep our eyes on the prize and to remember not to squander the gifts that God has showered upon us.

However, this does not explain why we blow the shofar for the entire month! Certainly, the first day of Elul is a wake-up call, a starter's pistol for the race to Rosh Hashana. But why do we need to blow it every day afterwards[2]? Certainly, the Israelites in the desert blew the shofar on that one day. But they didn't blow it for the next thirty days, so why should we?

My answer to this connects it to a profound aspect -- which is both a strength and weakness - of the human personality: we tend to forget about things.

Human beings have a hard time paying attention to one thing for too long. Especially in the world we live in, where we are literally assaulted 24/7 with information and solicitations - from text messages to towering billboards in Times Square - we are often just trying to cope with keeping up with the bare essentials of what we need to know. It is very easy to pay attention to something when it is right in front of your face, when everyone else is paying attention to it, when it is new and fresh, when it is a fad. But what happens the day after?

Most of the time, this is OK. If we could never forget or move-on, life would be impossible. There is actually a mental disorder in which people are unable to selectively block visual stimuli and it overwhelms their systems, causing them to be unable to function at all. But there are some things that are too important to be forgotten. In juggling all of our details - from taking out the trash to doing our taxes to making time to connect to God -- we do not want to drop the important balls and be left with the derivative ones clutched to our chests. You don't want to remember to pick up your dry cleaning but forget to get the kids at school. You don't want to remember to send out Rosh Hashana cards but forget to do teshuva.

One of the differences between love and infatuation is that infatuation is a fad and love lasts. In a marriage of twenty-five years, can the same passion and love and tenderness be maintained as on the wedding day? The answer is YES. If we find a way to remind ourselves to recharge it.

I meet so many Jewish people who return from Israel inspired to learn more about their Judaism, to learn Hebrew, to become more in-touch Jews. But will they still be committed to these passions six month later? The answer is YES. If they find a way to remind themselves of that passion.

So the way we keep our priorities - our most important items - at the forefront of our attention is by being annoying and reminding ourselves of them.[3] When your alarm clock goes off and you hit snooze, it will wake you up again every 5 minutes until you get your tuches out of bed. (Of course, you could turn it off, throw it out the window (unless your alarm clock is your kids) or sleep through the bleeping, but that just goes to show that - to really get through to us - reminders have to be super-annoying and in-your-face so that you can't get away from them. We should have a shofar squad that makes unannounced house and office calls the week before Rosh Hashana...)

So, there's no way that we could ONLY blow the shofar on the first day of Elul. Even its most distant echoes would be gone by the time Rosh Hashana rolls around a month later. The message of the shofar would be yesterday's news. The only way to stay on the Rosh Hashana track is to blow it - loudly -- every day. Which is exactly why we do it. You might find it annoying, you might find it inspiring, but try to make sure to let its wake-up call re-center you on your core values every day of Ellul.

May the sound of the shofar remind us the things that are most precious to us and allow us not to neglect or forget them. May the sound of the shofar 'remind' God of how precious we are to Him and may He keep us in mind for a year of blessing this year. Shabbat shalom!


[1] I must note that this only sometimes works. "Now!" is something all children really value in gratification of their desires.

[2]For my more textually experienced readers: Pirkei d'R' Eliezer says that Chazal were metakein to blow on Rosh Chodesh Elul. The Tur adds the words "v'chol ha-chodesh" to this. See the Bach and the Perisha and the hagahot v'hearot in the Machon Yerushalayim Tur for my question here and their explanations.

[3] This, by the way, assumes that you know what your most important values are. Before you can remind yourself of what they are, you should take some time to put them down, so you can be sure you know what they are.

Shabbat shalom!


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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