The Shofar’s Power to Awaken Teshuva
A Rosh HaShana Teaching, 5768 (2007)
from A Still Small Voice
Based on R. Tsadok HaKohen, Rosh Hashana 9
When Elul (the month before Rosh HaShana) arrives we begin to exchange well-wishes for a good, sweet, healthy, joyful and bountiful year. One of the recommended practices to prepare for Rosh HaShana, is to create a prayer-vision of the best that could possibly unfold for this new year: What will it look like for ourselves and loved ones to live our lives in the most God-serving way possible, with a bounty of resources (both inner and outer), a commitment to good, and a generosity of spirit, making full use of the gifts that HaShem endowed each one of our souls? This vision expresses our deepest hopes and prayers for a year of revealed good, and inner satisfaction, where growth occurs through joy instead suffering. Of course this is what we want…or is it?
It sounds like we are hoping to press the reset button, and restart our lives with a clean slate. We are asking HaShem to cancel our karmic debts. We want to be free of the consequences produced by the chain of cause and effect that was set in motion by our wrong actions. Let bygones by bygones and let’s start anew. That sounds great, but is it really what will serve us best? From a spiritual perspective it seems a little short-sighted.
One major purpose of life’s discomforts is to provide feedback from the universe about what works and what doesn’t and how to adjust our course. Crashing into a (metaphoric) stone wall hurts for sure, but it also conveys an effective lesson about the decisions that got us there. A retrospective musing reveals clues throughout the way that could have been warning signs had we paid them sufficient heed.
In this sense our sufferings are precious, for they convey critical information. They are the symptoms of our wrong actions, the wakeup calls that prompt us to choose a different route. Without them we skip merrily along until we find ourselves at a dead end and realize that we have painted ourselves into a corner and there is not way out.
There are certain cancers that are especially lethal because they produce no symptoms until they are already so advanced it is nearly impossible to treat them. Symptoms are precious and essential. This is true for our bodies and true for our lives. The small mind opts for instant relief despite its hidden costs which are the loss of critical information required to correct our course which will prevent an even bigger disaster around the next corner.
So how is it that we are seeking to press the reset button, wishing and praying for a sweet year, free of the karmic consequences of our wrong actions, cleared of the distasteful symptoms of our errant paths. Isn’t this just a glorified version of immediate gratification.
The answer is the secret (and the power) of the shofar. In truth, these symptoms and sufferings do not serve an end unto themselves. They are messengers designed to awaken the heartfelt (bone-felt) awareness that there is nothing to be gained by acting against spiritual law (i.e., God’s will). They force us to face the lie: These wayward options promised gain and pleasure, but look! Open your eyes and admit that they have only produced loss and pain. They were a hype. Look where they’ve left you now.”
This shakeup produces a deeply internalized visceral recognition that sin doesn’t pay, which instigates a fierce resolve to travel the high road. Every cell of our being cries: “HaShem I only want You. I only want to do what is right. I only want to do what I was designed to do. I see now that every attempt to do otherwise, always backfires, and only produces pain.”
But if we could get to this visceral awareness without suffering, then the pain becomes superfluous. It serves no purpose. It adds nothing. Be done with it. And this is the power of the shofar, whose cry awakens the deepest point of our soul and expresses its woeful yearning for closeness to God, and its willingness to pay any price for that most precious of gifts.
The shofar preempts the need for symptoms for it brings us to that same visceral awareness that “I only want God, I only want truth,” without the messengers (i.e. afflictions) that are agents of natural law.
I want to bless us, as individuals and as a community, that we open our hearts, minds, souls, and spaces to the shofar’s cry. That we let its message reverberate through our being, and awaken our own pure and genuine cry for good and God and truth and integrity, in a way that is potent to sustain its resolve. The world, and every individual in it, should be blessed with a good, sweet, healthy, joyful, peaceful, love-filled, light-filled, truth-filled, life-celebrating, Torah-sanctifying new year.
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