“Small Change” Parashat Nitzavim — Rosh HaShanah 5775

When you listen to the shofar, what do you hear? On a scientific plane, you hear sound waves resonating in a ram’s horn. But on a spiritual plane, what do you hear? What do you feel? What thoughts are going through your mind when you hear the blast of the shofar?

The first time a ram’s horn is mentioned in the Torah is in the story of the Akeida, in which Avraham Avinu takes his son, Yitzchak, to offer him as a sacrifice. When Avraham is told that Hashem never meant for him to actually kill Yitzchak, he looks for a substitute [Bereishit 22:13]: “Avraham raised his eyes and, behold, there was a ram caught in the brush by its horns. Avraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son”. Rav Chaim Sabato, writing in “Ani LeDodi”, suggests that the ram’s horns “caught in the brush” are a metaphor for man being caught in the web of sin. A person wakes up one day and he does not recognize the face in the mirror. He is stuck, and he cannot extricate himself. He looks to his right and to his left but he still can’t move. What kind of person has he become? How on earth did he get into this situation? How will he ever find his way out? This is a shofar that many of us hear.

But there is another kind of shofar. While the Torah explicitly commands that we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, it doesn’t give a reason as to why we must do this. The Rambam, writing in Hilchot Teshuva [3:4], offers an explanation: “Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a decree, it contains an allusion. It is as if [the shofar’s call] is saying: ‘Wake up, you sleepy ones, from your sleep and you who slumber, arise! Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth in the vanities of time and throughout the entire year, who devote their energies to vanity and emptiness which will not benefit or save: Look to your souls! Improve your ways and your deeds and let every one of you abandon his evil path and thoughts!’” The shofar is a call to arms. It is an alarm, shaking us from our reverie and forcing us to make hard decisions. A person cannot be indifferent to his plight when he hears a siren going off. This is another shofar that many of us hear.

These two shofars pull in two different directions. The shofar that is “caught in the brush” pulls us into despair, while the shofar of the “wakeup call” pulls us into action. What determines the direction in which we are ultimately pulled? The answer, I believe, lies in what scientists call “initial conditions”. I remember the summer of 2006 during the Second Lebanon War. Over the course of six weeks the Hezbollah fired more than four thousand rockets at northern Israel. We were in and out of bomb shelters on an average of nine to ten times a day. Residents of cities above the line connecting Nahariya to Maalot were not even allowed out of their houses except for a few hours each day to replenish supplies.

After a week of this, my wife, Tova, and I decided that she should take the children and go to her sister, who lives near Jerusalem[1]. The reason they went there was because the Second Lebanon War was the first Israeli war that was localized. From pretty much everywhere south of Haifa there was no visible evidence that the country was at war. At my sister-in-law’s house my family could live a life that was as close to normal as possible given the situation.

I drove down to visit them over the weekend and Tova and I went out to a café in Jerusalem for dinner. While we were drinking our coffee an ambulance drove by with its siren wailing. Instinctively, Tova and I stood up to look for a bomb shelter. Imagine our surprise when we realized that we were the only ones in the restaurant who were standing. Nobody else moved, not because they were being reckless but because they simply did not associate sirens with rockets and bomb shelters. Different people react in different ways to the same stimulus. It all depends on their initial conditions — their frame of mind. Tova and I had been primed to react with fear to the sound of an alarm while the other people in the café had not. Had these people spent some time up north with us they would have been running with us to the bomb shelter.

The two reactions of the customers in the café were admittedly predictable. Life is usually much more nuanced and much more difficult to predict. My kids used to play a game called “Bumparena”, in which players take turns placing pegs and bumpers in holes on an inclined board, and then players take turns releasing a rubber ball from the top of the board. After bumping its way down the board from peg to bumper to peg to bumper, the ball finally comes to rest in one of two pockets at the bottom of the board. The object is to get the ball to end up in “your” pocket. The slightest change in the location in which the ball is released can have a large effect on where the ball finally comes to rest[2].

Think of a hypothetical line that represents the top of the board where the ball is released — the “initial conditions”. For each point where the ball is released and it ends up in Player #1’s pocket, we place a red dot on the line and for point where the ball is released and it ends up in Player #2’s pocket, we place a blue dot. One far side of the line will be pretty much red and the other far side will be pretty much blue, because if I release the ball near one of the sides it’s probably not going to end up in the pocket all the way on the other side of the board. But the middle of the board will be a sea of red and blue dots intermingled. If the initial conditions change — a slight move to the right or to the left — the ball will end up in the other pocket.

Life is brimming with stimuli. Economists call them “market forces”. Human beings do not live in a vacuum. When we interact with other people, when we read the news, when we go for a walk in a mountain gorge, we are influenced in some way or another by what we encounter. Some of these forces make us angry while some make us glad, some make us want to respond while others have little effect. The way we respond to these stimuli is a function of our initial conditions, of our frame of mind. The same news article on Ynet that drove you crazy yesterday might elicit an entirely different reaction today, maybe because you had time to think it over or maybe just because you slept well last night. The force didn’t change, your reaction to the force changed.

And this should be a great source of hope. When people think about repentance, they too often believe that they must reset themselves by pressing some cosmic CTL-ALT-DEL buttons. Just as often this is just too difficult. I might not be authentic and I might truly yearn to rediscover who I really am but I just don’t have the strength to begin again. But here’s the thing: you don’t have to move all the way back to Square One. The market forces out there are always churning and they will always push you. All you have to do is to make some small modifications in your life and the same forces that once pushed you away from who you wanted to be will now push you towards who you want to be. I know someone who one Rosh HaShanah made it his goal to try not to get angry. Today he is a different person. He is happier with life, closer to his friends and family, and for the first time in many years he feels good about himself. One change — and a lot of determination — is all it took.

May it be Hashem’s will that He bless us with the wisdom to identify needs to be changed and the strength to make the necessary course corrections, so that we can turn our despair into passion, so that we can become the people that we were destined to become.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Shaul Chaim ben Tzivya

[1] We were not the only ones to come to this conclusion. About one million Israelis came to a similar conclusion and left their homes in the north for temporary lodging in the centre of the country. The cost of this mass exodus to the Israeli economy has been estimated at about 9 billion Shekels. We refer to this as “indirect damage”, as opposed to the “direct” damage caused by rockets slamming into buildings, which cost the Israeli economy about 12 billion Shekels.

[2] This concept can be described via nonlinear dynamics and Basins of Attraction. In one version of this shiur I actually fleshed-out this topic, but after a change of heart I removed it.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
Related Topics
Related Posts