It’s doubtful that any of us have ever attended a wedding procession without the accompanying music. As much as we might wish otherwise, it’s hard to imagine a ballgame without the standard cacophony of sounds in the background. In truth, virtually all of life’s significant (and many of the less significant) events have their own theme song or soundtrack. And certainly our emotional and meaningful journey through the month of Elul and the process of teshuva (repentance) is no exception. Whether it is our efforts in prayer, good deeds, or any of the more general manifestations of repentance, it is the shofar blast that provides the backdrop.
While the sound itself is strikingly simple and pure, the thoughts and motivations behind it are famously complex. Beyond the many suggestions as to how we are to properly focus on the mitzvah of shofar, the very purpose of these sounds is subject to debate. On the one hand, the shofar is designed to serve as the original and ultimate alarm clock. Its jarring sound exhorts us to awaken from our spiritual slumber and hearken to the call of the Almighty. But far removed from any connection to religious self-improvement, the shofar also serves to remind us of the awesome event of the Akeidah (binding of Isaac). Each blow of the shofar serves as a commemoration of the ultimate example of sacrifice in the service of God.
What are we to make of these two disparate motivations? Is it just a convenient coincidence that the shofar evokes a response on two entirely distinct levels? Is it a testimony to rabbinic ingenuity and creativity that the simple sound can be used in completely dissimilar contexts?
Rav Shlomo Kluger zt”l suggests not. In his view, these two motifs are very much connected and, in fact, intertwined. Together, they compose a complete approach to repentance and reconciliation with God.
The reference to the Akeidah is the supreme example of zechus avos (merits of our ancestors). In making such a reference, we acknowledge our own shortcomings and the very real possibility that if we are judged purely on the basis of own actions and inactions, we may be found wanting. It is for that reason that we submit ourselves for judgment as part of a broader context. We are not merely individual entities, but members of an illustrious nation, worthy of all kinds of special consideration. In a similar sense, we submit ourselves for judgment not only as singular personalities, but as fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, members of a community as bearers of a unique tradition. This is no slick trick to avoid justice. Rather, the more we associate with these contexts and the more we connect to this history, the more worthy of favorable judgment we become.
But the shofar stridently insists that our responsibilities do not end there. As the shofar “awakens us,” it reminds us that our spiritual genes and our heritage alone are not sufficient. We must awaken in ourselves the energy to achieve our own personal potential. We must make every effort, despite previous failures, to earn our positive verdict on our own. We must use every moment of the month of Elul and the days of Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur to live up to the highest standards we can imagine for ourselves.
The relationship between these two ideas is perhaps best understood in the example of family. The fully developed child will reach a point where he or she takes pride in his/her ancestry. The child will recognize the sacrifices and accomplishments of the earlier generation, and will delight in the opportunity to share such a lineage. Without this, the child will lack for role models, and very likely will lack in self-esteem as well. Unquestionably, however, this is not the final step in the child’s development. It is at this point that the child must commit not only to having pride in his family, but to becoming a source of pride to his parents and grandparents as well. This recognition and commitment are not separate steps, but rather parts of an integrated process of growth and development.
A well-known religious personality was once invited to speak at a public event. He happened to also be the son of one of the great Torah leaders of the generation, and his appearance was advertised with that aspect of his family tree prominently displayed. When the speaker saw the advertisement, he firmly told his hosts that unless these advertisements were immediately removed, and all references to his father deleted, he would have no choice but to cancel the speaking engagement. Was the speaker embarrassed by his famous father? Nothing could be further from the truth. He simply explained that, in his house, his parents had taught him that it was the job of the children to bring honor to their parents, and not the other way around. Undoubtedly, it was the great pride he felt in being a member of such a special family that motivated him to try to fulfill his parents’ directive so fully.
Throughout this month of preparation, the shofar signals to us the need to stand tall and view our associations to family, community, and God with enormous pride. And it is with that realization that the shofar heralds a recommitment to a path that will bring honor to those associations, and to all who will follow in the future.