Rav Yaakov Yosef of Pollonye relates a story he heard from his teacher, the Baal Shem Tov, one year before blowing the shofar. The Besht, as he is known, recounted that there once was a great and wise king who was also a skilled magician. One year, the king created, with magical illusions, a series of walls, gates, and towers. The king instructed his servants to place portions of gold and jewels from the royal treasury in each gate and tower. People sought out the treasure. Some made the journey to the first gate, filled their pockets, and returned home. Others went further. They came to the second or third gate or tower and stuffed their pockets, but eventually, they, too, returned home. Only the king’s son, who possessed a strong desire to be with his father, traversed all the gates and towers. Ultimately, the son arrived at the inner sanctum of the king. Upon entering the chamber, the son realized that the entire edifice was simply an illusion. There were no walls and gates and towers standing between the son and his loving father, the king. (Ben Porat Yosef, Derash Le’Shabbat HaGadol, 1764)
The news hasn’t been good. Entering our second year fighting the COVID pandemic, watching events across the world like the recent hurricane in Louisiana and the earthquake in Haiti, and witnessing the crimes in places like Afghanistan and China, it seems like God is far away. How can we remove or at least pierce the walls and reach the Divine? I think the timing of the story might be the key.
The Besht told the parable before the blowing of the shofar on Rosh HaShana. According to some Hassidic traditions, God gave us three souls. He imbued each soul with a specific purpose. One soul relates primarily to the physical realm, and another soul connects us to God; however, the last is the holiest one – a part of God’s essence. God created the first two by saying, “let Us make man,” using Divine speech. The last, God implanted within us as the Torah relates, “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” (Genisis 2:7) This last clause, “He blew into his nostrils,” does not describe a physical act but a spiritual process. God gave us part of the Divine’s deepest Self.
In a way, these souls parallel human powers or activities: action, speech, and thought. The more physical the act is, the further it is from the Divine essence. Speech differs from pure breath in that speech uses controlled air shaped in one’s mouth with limited strength. The breath of life described in Genesis originates from God’s innermost core.
When we perform mitzvoth, we are manipulating the physical world towards the worship of God. We stand in the physical space, or the first gate described by the Besht. When we pray, our mouths lift our souls in words to God. Both performances are holy acts that take place in the physical world. Our innermost breath that flows out as a wordless cry from our soul stems from within us and represents a manifestation of our deepest Godliness. With the shofar, we call out from our undifferentiated emotional self. Like the son who arrived at the inner sanctuary, the shofar allows our Godly soul to fly up to heaven connecting with our Creator. We just need to recognize that He waits for us to return our souls to Him.