Two Shofars on Rosh Hashana:  Which is yours?

058Two people walk by a synagogue just as the shofar is being sounded on Rosh Hashana.  Shul windows open, the thunderous notes of the shofar fill the street.  

Upon hearing the sound, the first person thinks to himself: “Wow.  What am I doing outside here?  There is something special going on inside.  I wish to be included in this special moment.”  

The second person, head down, scanning through his emails, pays little attention thinking to himself: “Hmmm, maybe I’ll come back later, I have too much going on.”  The sound of the shofar quickly becomes drowned out with the noise in his mind and from the street.

Both people heard the same sound, but did neither, either, or both of them fulfill the mitzvah of shofar?  More significantly, what is the role of intention in our Jewish lives and in our religious commitments?

Yes, indeed, both did heard the sound of the shofar, but only one of them listened to it.  Intention is what distinguished the two friends’ experiences, and therefore only one fulfilled the mitzvah.

According to Maimonides (Hilchot Shofar 3:4):

“Although blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana is a mandate of the Torah, there is a hint in it. As if to say, ‘wake up sleepy ones from your slumber and the dozing ones arise from your sleep and examine your deeds and return with teshuva and recall your Creator, those people who forget the truth with the silliness of the times and waste all their years on foolishness and emptiness that will not help and not save. Look to your souls and improve your ways and mistakes and abandon each one of you his mistaken path and his intention that is not good.’”

The shofar’s purpose, while it must be musically in tune, is not meant only to be good entertainment.  The shofar’s purpose is to awaken us and to call us to action.  This can only be achieved with a level of intentionality of the listener, even if it’s just a little amount.

We each engage in our Jewish lives in different ways and at different levels of intensity.  Often determined by our upbringing, the circumstances of life, and even the day’s mood.  Some of us connect more intellectually, some more emotionally, some more socially, some more nationally and some more spiritually.

But, what is our intention, what is our purposefulness in those interactions?  Are we hearing or are we listening?  Are we just passing by or are we engaged?

Over this High Holiday season as we congregate together, we must ask ourselves these questions.  Why am I here as part of the collective? Why am I here as an individual? What is my intention? And subsequently, how do these answers influence my level of enthusiasm and my level of engagement?

Are the prayer services, the shofar blasts, the camaraderie, the sermons stirring up something meaningful in me, moving me to positive action?  Or am I pretty much the same coming out as I was coming in?

Of course, there is onus on the sweet sounding Chazzan, the powerful shofar blower, the devoted lay leadership and the passionate Rabbis to inspire, but to be truly inspired, to be transformed by Rosh Hashana and all of Jewish life it takes intentional listening to the prayers, intentional listening to the Torah reading, intentional listening to the shofar, intentional listening to the sermons, and most importantly intentional listening to ourselves.

Being genuinely moved is dependent on each and every one of us.  To listen we must quiet down the noise and be fully receptive to the powerful messages that are around us.

Blessings for a Shana Tova filled with health, happiness and meaning and most importantly, a good listening ear.


The False Prophet in Us

Swept away by election season drama, the airwaves, print, online and social media are abuzz feeding us the most recent scandal, misspeak, or blunder.  Rather than fueling a conversation on key issues and the candidates’ views on them, we are being bombarded with the character, behaviour and association flaws of candidates.

This is an old story, as old as politics and leadership itself.  While character analysis remains critical, attention to the message has taken a WAY back seat to attention on the messenger.

Why is this?  What does it say about our society?  And is there something to do about it?

We seem to be a generation of skeptics, a generation reluctant to trust, a generation that lacks loyalty.  Some will say this is unique to our generation caused by new realities.  In the age before free agency in sports, players spent their entire career with one team.  In the age before globalization, people moved around less.  In a time before social media, people took membership to community institutions and their commitments and friendships more seriously.

Or perhaps we can say that generations of hustlers, manipulators and swindlers have finally taken their toll on society and we are tired of being fooled.  The consequence? If integrity and honesty slapped us in the face, we would not be able to recognize it.

In this last week’s parasha we are given a stern warning of the so-called false prophet, a person who comes with the razzle and dazzle of miracles, wondrous feats and a silver tongue to lead the Jewish people to other gods. (Devarim 13:2-3)

The Torah recognizes the inevitability of spiritual sharks in our midst, accepts the reality that there are plenty of phonies out there, and really good ones at that. It also gives us counsel on how to recognize and be proactive in seeking authenticity.

First, the Torah tell us, we must use our built-in phony meters and simply not listen to them – לא תשמע אל דברי הנביא ההוא

What ARE we supposed to do?

– אַחֲרֵי ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם תֵּלֵכוּ, וְאֹתוֹ תִירָאוּ וְאֶת מִצְו‍ֹתָיו תִּשְׁמֹרוּ וּבְקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ, וְאֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹדוּ וּבוֹ תִדְבָּקוּן.

“Hashem your God shall you follow and Him shall you fear; His commandments shall you observe and to his voice shall you hearken; Him shall you serve and to Him you shall cleave” (Devarim 13:5)

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the “Netziv”, understands the false prophet as an external spiritual attack on a community in crisis, to which the Torah offers counsel (Haamek Davar, Devarim 13:2-5).  I believe his formula for combating the attacker can also be applied and adapted to the internal false prophet as well.

In this verse, the Torah counsels us with five critical steps towards authenticity:

  1. “Hashem your God shall you follow and Him shall you fear” – Follow Hashem with full faith and confidence;
  2. “His commandments shall you observe” – Look carefully at our actions, and shore up our commitments to  Torah and Mitzvot;
  3. “and to his voice shall you hearken” – Make sure that there are trustworthy messengers of the voice God in our midst, namely teachers of Torah and spiritual guides;
  4. “Him shall you serve” – Those teachers and guides model the service of God;
  5. “and to Him you shall cleave” – Connect to them in order to connect to Hashem;

Today, Rosh Chodesh Elul, we begin a 50 day process asking Hashem every day for one and only one thing – אחת שאלתי,

– שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית ה’ כָּל יְמֵי חַיַּי לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם ה’ וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ

Return me to the house of the Lord all the days of my life to gaze at His sweetness and worship in His house. (Tehilim 27)

How do we get there?

We follow Hashem with faith and confidence, putting our best foot forward.  We take an honest accounting of our behaviour and actions, surrounding ourselves with and connecting to experienced guides, teachers and mentors who role model the behaviours we seek.  Ultimately, arriving at God’s home, the place of our most authentic self, a place of honesty and of integrity.  In Torah language – ישר.

Our parasha stresses a new reality in the service of Hashem upon entrance into the Land of Israel and the building of the Holy Temple, the physical location of authenticity in this world –

(לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנַחְנוּ עֹשִׂים פֹּה הַיּוֹם אִישׁ כָּל הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו (דברים יב:ח

When it comes to honesty and integrity in the Beit Hamikdash we are not to do as we please, as we see fit in OUR eyes.  Authenticity is not about the subjective self, rather it’s about striving for our objective self, as the Torah says:

– ‘כִּי תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי ה

That which is right in the eyes of HASHEM (Devarim 12:25)

There is a true self and there is a phony self and what we see with our own eyes may be false.  We must be cognizant that our eyes are susceptible to blinding in the search of truth.  We can be distracted by many magnetic things and by many compelling people.

So we must mute the false prophet within, and set a standards of – ישר.  We are charged to yearn for, inquire, strive, and seek out honesty and integrity.

And this is what the month of Elul is all about, this is what teshuva is all about, namely, the diligent search for honesty and truth in ourselves as we prepare to stand before HaMelech – the King of Kings on Rosh HaShana.

“To dare and to choose”, as Brene Brown – renowned American scholar and bestselling author says, “to show up and to be real, to dare and to choose to be honest and to let our true selves be seen.”

The tragedy of the teshuva process is that while introspection and taking that necessary personal accounting, we often blind ourselves by our faults and delude ourselves into thinking that our faults and missteps are who we really are.  Ultimately, we are filled with so much guilt that we give up on the teshuva process, thereby giving up on our true selves.

As Brown says: “Authenticity is a choice and a practice — having the courage to be vulnerable, and engaging with the world from a place of worthiness rather than a place of shame or ‘never enough’.”

HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, zt”l, whose 80th yahrzeit is commemorated this week, devoted himself to revealing the true light hidden in the Torah and Torah life.  HaRav Kook, zt”l, writes:

“When we forget the character of our core soul, when we are distracted from looking at the content of the inner life within ourselves, everything becomes confused and doubtful.  But teshuva, which is primary, which illumines darkness immediately, will cause a person to return to himself, to the root of his soul.   Immediately, he will return to God, to the Soul of all souls.” (Orot HaTeshuva 15:10)

Teshuva, is the process towards honesty and integrity with ourselves, our families, our community, our nation and our world from a place of worthiness, a return to who we truly are, and ultimately to God.

Yes, we are tired of phonies, so let’s be real.

Chodesh Tov and Shana Tova.