The Emotional Pull of the Shofar
Rabbi Nir and Andy Koren are shlichim of the Straus-Amiel Emissary Training Institute serving as Rabbi and Rebbetzin of the Jewish community in Quito, Ecuador
At the climax of Yom Kippur, right after the solemn Tekia Gedola (the long shofar blast), a woman from our community who defines herself as someone who doesn`t connect very well with the rituals and whose life is not very much influenced by religion, came to me, to my surprise, with tears in her eyes. “Rabbi, how can it be that every time you blow the shofar I break down in tears”? I answered, “The truth is that until 10 days ago (Rosh Hashana), I didn’t have a good answer to that question, but today, I can tell you why you cried as you listened to the sound of the shofar.”
I would like to go back to a few days before Rosh Hashana. I got a short telephone call to let me know that there was an Israeli woman in her fifties in jail in Cancun and that it would be nice if I would I visit her to see how she was doing. I went to see her that same day. For a long hour, I listened with great pain as she shared her story and her difficulties. I assured her that no Jew is alone, that she has a whole community in Cancun praying for her wellbeing and for her freedom.
However, the river of tears didn’t stop, “Rabbi, how can you tell me that there’s no Jew alone when Rosh Hashana is approaching and I’m going to spend it alone in jail? Without a shofar or apples and honey”? I answered that I would visit her on Rosh Hashana to blow the shofar for her and that with God’s help, she would also have apples and honey for Rosh Hashana. And again, with tears in her eyes she told me, “I don`t want you to come here. The jail is too far from the city and it’s forbidden to bring fruit into the jail (the prison staff later explained to me that they forbid bringing in fruit in order to prevent the inmates from making alcohol with it). “Actually I haven’t eaten fruit for a month,” she said. As we said goodbye, I promised her that we would see each other in a few days, on Rosh Hashana.
The jail is located about 10 Kilometers from our synagogue. In order to get there and return in time for mincha I had to hurry to finish my morning prayers. There wasn’t even enough time to eat lunch. I thanked my wife for the backpack she filled with a complete Rosh Hashana meal and all of the symbols of the holiday. I quickly placed the shofar in the backpack and began running under the hot midday sun with the bag on my shoulders, aware that the way was long and the time was short.
About fifty minutes later I arrived, sweating, at the jail’s door and tried to explain to the guards about Rosh Hashanah and the meaning of this strange ram’s horn called a shofar. When they started checking the content of the backpack, which contained pomegranate, apple, beetroot and other fruits and vegetables that symbolize the start of a New Year, they informed me that I wasn’t allowed to bring in the food. At that same moment as I tried to explain the importance of these items for the Jewish people, a manager arrived and something wonderful happened. The manager told them with a gesture, “It’s ok, he can go inside with everything he has.”
It’s hard to describe the woman’s happiness at my arrival. Her surprise was even greater when she saw the fruit and the food. “Before anything else,” I told her, “this day’s mitzvah is to listen to the shofar.” We recited the two blessings together and then, the sound of the shofar cut into the air. The ponderous silence was only interrupted by the bitter crying and the prayer coming from the woman’s lips. “God help me, get me out of here,” she cried.
For the first time I really understood what “Judgment Day” means. For the first time I understood the verse “From my cell I called you, God” (Psalms 118:5). And for the first time I understood how a person who has submitted herself to judgment acts, knowing that her life depends on the trial and the verdict that will be handed down. A person who has submitted to a trial is like a thin leaf, shaky and scared, and cries from the bottom of her soul, “Please God, save me.” And for the first time I understood that if in front of a flesh and bone judge we cry from our hearts, will the shofar be played in the city and the people won’t tremble? (Amós 3:6).
And so, when my congregant asked me why she cries when she hears the shofar, I responded, “You asked me why you cry when you hear the shofar? The answer is that it’s not your mind that cries, but your heart, your Jewish heart, your Jewish soul that knows it will be judged today. It is your Jewish soul that moves you to tears on Judgment Day.”
Wishing you a happy and sweet New Year.
This article was written as part of the “Journeys” series for Tishrei 5782