My grandfather was an atheist, but he always came to High Holidays. To be clear, he was not your run-of-the-mill atheist who goes through life not believing in God and leaving it at that. He was active. When he was in public school in New York, school days would start with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. He refused to recite the prayer and was subsequently expelled. He teamed up with the ACLU who took his case to the State Supreme Court. While his case ended up being dismissed, it was a test case for what would become the Supreme Court case Lemon v. Kurtzman, which prohibited prayer in public schools.
But he still came to the High Holidays.
Why? Because he understood that the High Holidays are about more than the prayers we say, or the melodies we use, or even who is leading them. The High Holidays are about being together as a community to hear the call of the shofar, awakening in each of us the need to make things right and learn from our mistakes – no theological test required.
Hearing the shofar is the real mitzvah. The person who sounds the shofar is surely doing a service for the community, but the mitzvah is not about sounding the shofar – it’s about hearing the shofar. The blessing ends, “v’tzivanu lishmoa kol shofar – and has commanded us to hear the voice of the shofar.” We need you to be present to fulfill this mitzvah.
The rabbis of the Mishnah, a 2nd century commentary and guide for Jewish life, wrote about this mitzvah. “Someone sounded the shofar inside a room: if you can hear the sound of the shofar, you have fulfilled the obligation.” In other words, if you’re in the sanctuary (or in the social hall as an expanded part of our sanctuary) and you hear the shofar, you have completed the mitzvah. Well done.
They continue, “However, if you hear the sound of an echo, you have not fulfilled the duty.” Put another way, you have to be present to get “credit” – this is one of the many reasons why we bring our youngest learners into the sanctuary for the sounding of the Shofar. Hearing the echos of the shofar in the courtyard may not fulfill the mitzvah.
I can already hear your thinking: “Okay, Rabbi, you said ‘may not’. What’s up with that?” The Mishnah says that if you are passing by a synagogue or in a building near the synagogue and you just hear the shofar, you have not fulfilled the mitzvah. However, if you concentrate your mind on hearing the shofar, then you have fulfilled the mitzvah. Think of it this way: if you’re watching the live stream this year, and you set your intentions on hearing the shofar, you have fulfilled the mitzvah.
We want you to be present this High Holiday season. I recognize the holidays fall on school and work days and that can be a challenge. Try to set your intentions on hearing the shofar live and in person. Let’s fulfill the mitzvah together. The shofar calls for your presence, even if you think like my grandfather.