Let the Shofar’s Sound Call Us to Return to a Productive, Purposeful Life

"It is hard to know what tomorrow may demand of us; still, opportunities for mitzvot abound each and every day."

By Rabbi David Weiner / Knesset Israel

There’s an old joke about a rabbi who was riding in a taxicab that drove off a bridge. No one survived. Moments later, the rabbi and the cab driver found themselves in line at the gates of heaven. They approached the podium together. “You,” the angel said, pointing at the cab driver, “You come right in. But you,” and here he frowned at the rabbi, “You, not so much.”

“What do you mean? How come he gets in, and I don’t?” asked the rabbi.

“Well,” said the angel, “When you spoke to your congregation week after week, many of them just dozed off, but when people got in his cab and he started driving, every one of them prayed.”

The sound of the shofar is a response to the phenomenon that makes us smile at this well-worn joke. Its cry is an alarm meant to startle us out of our habits in a way that no verbal message ever could. The 12th-century sage Maimonides writes about the message he perceives through the blast of the shofar:  “Wake up, sleepers, from your slumber! Drowsy ones, shake off your torpor! Check your deeds, turn in repentance and remember your Creator! You who lose track of the truth in favor of fleeting fads, who stray all year long towards insignificant trivialities, take a good look at your souls. Choose better paths and behaviors. Leave your selfish choices and wrong thoughts behind.” (Laws of Repentance 3:4)

So much has changed for so many of us in the last 18 months. A pandemic, illnesses, deaths, face masks, social distancing, travel restrictions, vaccination and re-emergence. Guidelines that keep us safe continue to evolve, based on scientific research as well as local circumstances. Last year at this time, we were so scared of contagion that we could barely sound the shofar at all. My congregation blew the ram’s horn outside, near the sanctuary, rather than inside the room, and most attendees were sitting at home and watching the service by camera. This year many of us, now inoculated against infection, are still figuring out how to draw close to other people again and return to vibrant lives. While many have developed beneficial new routines because of the pandemic, like more frequent handwashing, some of us have grown used to new habits that were necessary but are not serving us well right now. This year the shofar, sounded indoors to resonate once again in each of our souls, might inspire us to reconsider our choices and habits, to return to a mindful, productive, focused, purposeful life. It is hard to know what tomorrow may demand of us; still, opportunities for mitzvot abound each and every day.

Maimonides continues his thoughts on shofar with a pep talk about the significance of our choices: “All year long, every person should consider themselves as if they were half deserving and half culpable and similarly think of the entire world as half deserving and half culpable. One who misses the mark even once has tipped self and world towards destruction. Yet one who does even one mitzvah has tipped self and world towards merit, bringing rescue and hope... For this reason, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, people customarily redouble their efforts to give tzedaka, do good deeds and engage in mitzvot.”

There is so much work to do to heal, to rebuild our lives, to reconnect with our community, to continue to heal our society through good deeds. Every mitzvah we choose to do makes a difference, carrying each of us and all of us towards the next best possible outcome. Let’s make sure we wake up this Rosh Hashana and stay awake throughout the year.

Rabbi David Weiner is the spiritual leader of Knesset Israel in Pittsfield.