Waking Up the Right Way

The danger in well-known sources is that we stop listening. Confident that we’ve heard it before, we nod along as we read or hear them and therefore fail to catch what we’ve missed on other occasions.  That seems to me true of a famous comment of Rambam’s, that we blow the shofar to wake us up.

In a rough translation of his words, “…[we’ll come back to what came before these words] Awake sleepers from your sleep, slumberers from your hibernation, and search through your actions and repent…”

An enticingly simple and helpful message: the shofar on Rosh Hashanah intends to rouse us from our ordinary spiritual slumber, to remind us of the need for repentance. True as that is, it is not nearly the whole story this Rambam tells. The parts that get lost have much to tell us about how to approach Rosh Hashanah.

Context Shapes Content

The first aspect of this Rambam that bears comment is that it does not appear in the Laws of Shofar, despite being an explanation of that obligation. This is a quote, instead, from Laws of Repentance 3; 4. Furthermore, Rambam tells us he is not engaging in legal discourse. He introduces this comment by saying “even though the blowing of shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Scriptural decree, there is a hint in it, namely…”

As a legal matter, Rambam is saying, we are not told why the Torah obligated us to blow shofar (I have argued on other occasions, and I think others do as well, that the verses of מלכויות, שופרות, and זכרונות give us a sense of how Chazal understood the meaning behind the shofar); it is a mitzvah, and mitzvot do not depend on their reasons.

What is its role in the discussion of repentance? The full answer lies in looking at the whole paragraph in which Rambam included this comment.  From the part about awakening, he continues, identifying whom it is that needs this wake-up call [as always for me, rough translation]: “those who forget the truth by virtue of the trivialities of the times, fritter their years on that of little value, utility, or saving power—look to your souls and improve your ways…”

Rambam isn’t focused on repenting of specific sins. The sound of the shofar is to snap us out of our over involvement in trivialities, our getting too engrossed in the day to day. Why would that be the focus of the shofar? To understand that, we have to notice something else about this Rambam—the paragraph does not end here, nor is this the first paragraph in the chapter. That context seems to me central to Rambam’s point.

An Odd “Therefore”

The continuation of the paragraph says, roughly, “therefore, every person must see him/herself, all the days of his/her life, as half meritorious and half guilty, and so the whole world, so that one sin can tip the scales to cause him and them destruction, and one mitzvah can decide the verdict for good for him and the whole world, bringing salvation to all of them.  Because of this, all Jews increase their charity and good deeds from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, even more than the rest of the year.”

That first word, therefore, doesn’t make sense in this paragraph, not as we’ve seen it so far. In what way is the idea of being perched between being judged as good or evil a consequence of the shofar seeking to rouse us from our spiritual slumbers?

The answer is that it doesn’t, that the “therefore” looks back to paragraphs 1-3, which we did not yet see.  This comment of Rambam’s, famous as it is, is actually a sort of aside within a different conversation. To see that conversation, and what Rambam was really trying to tell us, we have to go back to the beginning of the chapter.

More Than One Judgment

Rambam starts the third chapter with a reminder that everyone has merits and sins, and that what matters is the majority. A majority meritorious person, country, or world is considered tsaddik, righteous, and majority sinful is considered evil. Paragraph two tells us why that matters, Rambam postulating that a person, country, or world whose sins become the majority immediately dies in his or her evil.

That calculus, Rambam hastens to add, is not purely numerical, it depends on the weight of the merits and sins involved—some meritorious actions outweigh many sins, and only Hashem knows the true calculus.

This seems far from the question of shofar and what it is rousing us to, but we need to understand Rambam’s flow to get to a full understanding of that comment. Here, his claim seems odd, since we see people (and even more so, countries) that appear largely evil, let alone majority evil, and do not immediately perish or fall of the world stage (Rambam almost doubles down on the theodicy question—not only will evildoers be punished, they’ll be immediately punished).

It’s All in the Timing

In paragraph three, Rambam clarifies that. He starts with another interesting digression we cannot discuss here, that how we look at our past affects how it counts in our judgments. If we regret our sins, they go away (to some extent), and if we regret good deeds that we did, they too go away.

That might be relevant because it shapes how Hashem judges people and nations; we might see a person or nation we think of as majority evil, but in fact they’ve wiped some of their slate by regretting some of those deeds. And vice verse for good countries.

But the second half of the paragraph tells us we’ve been misreading the first paragraphs. Rambam writes that just as a person’s merits and sins are judged at the time of his or her death, so too are they weighed every year on Rosh Hashanah, meritorious written for life, evildoers for death, and the middle group, whose actions do not weigh out on either side, left for Yom Kippur.

His opening paragraphs, then, were not about moment to moment determinations of our status. When he said that any person found to be wanting was immediately written for death, he apparently meant during his end of life judgment (because otherwise, his writing “just like we’re judged at death” wouldn’t make sense—that was the judgment he’s been discussing until now, not judgment in general).

That leaves unexplained when nations and/or the whole world are judged.  Rambam does not explain, and it’s not crucial for our concern, the meaning of shofar. I think he might have meant that there are many different cycles of judgment. For people, there is certainly a yearly judgment and one at death.  For nations and/or the world, judgment might come at frequencies we don’t know. So when Hashem categorizes Sodom (as Rambam mentions), it might be that there came a judgment point for Sodom, at which time their evil incurred immediate response (in the case of nations, there might also be a severity issue—while even majority evil qualifies as evil, if they go even further to the evil side, they will force Hashem’s hand to judge them, as it were).

Rosh Hashanah: An Annual Judgment and Its Backdrop

In that rubric, the righteous who are written immediately for the good on Rosh Hashanah might not have to be as fully righteous as we imagine.  As long as our actions of the past year were majority good (or perhaps as long as the Divine evaluation indicates that we can be expected to be majority righteous in the year to come), we would be written for the good. In reverse, to be immediately written as evil might mean that the person is so bad that even judged only about the year to come, the expectation is that s/he will be majority evil.

In one sense, Rambam relieves us by lowering the stakes. We’re not being judged on Rosh Hashanah, we’re being judged, for the past year and upcoming year alone Then he takes away what he’s given us by telling us about shofar and its implications.

We who can become caught up in the ephemeralities of life, need to wake up and remember our Creator. That’s odd—he just told us that Rosh Hashanah is a timely judgment, an annual review as it were, and then he says shofar is taking us out of that, closing with a reminder that we might be half and half, with all the serious consequences of going the wrong way.

Keeping Track of Pictures, Big and Small

My understanding is that Rambam is suggesting that we have to realize that we live our lives in concentric circles of time-focus, all with a similar mechanism. Our day to day life often focuses on day to day tasks, putting food on the table, getting the laundry done, cleaning out our closets.  Within that, there is a judgment of how we’re doing, and we might be meritorious or we might be in the middle (or the other option).

We need to take care of our lives in that time scale, too.  If we only focus on the long term or the big picture or the final judgment, there won’t be food on the table, the laundry won’t get done, our closets will overflow.

What I understand Rambam to be telling us about the shofar is that it is there to remind us that even as we embrace day to day life, living in the present, focusing on its opportunities, pleasures and rewards, we should not get completely caught up. The long term is out there as well, and we are not always sure when that will come into play.

For countries, final judgment can come at unexpected times, as it can for individuals (especially since some of us die suddenly). Realizing that Rosh Hashanah is a smaller scale judgment might lull us into a sense of comfort, a sense that we can worry about bigger issues at another time (similar to how a comfortable life can lull us into focusing only on the day to day, forgetting that there’s an end to life).

The shofar tells us to wake up to the judgment of Rosh Hashanah, and from there to judgment in general, to remember that we are evaluated on our merits and sins on several different scales, short-term, long-term, and others we might not know about. Even if we for some reason have confidence about how we’re being judged on one scale, we need to awaken and check that we are meritorious across the board.

The Paradox of Life

I think this reading fits the flow of Rambam’s words, but I like it because it reminds us of a central life tension, balancing the short and long term. Some short term actions have little inherent meaning, but are necessary for life. Even if we limit ourselves to good deeds, only focusing on short-term ones would mean we never undertake big projects. On the other hand, always living for the future doesn’t work, either.

We need to do both. We need to live in the short term, taking care of both that which is obviously immediately important (feeding the poor) and that which is necessary to keep us going (doing the laundry, buying groceries). But we can’t let that become the whole story. Rambam, I am suggesting, heard the shofar as a reminder that the long term, that of lasting value, has to be part of how we construct our lives, how we live our days, how we build who we are.

We can stumble from day to day, doing that which comes to hand and seems worthy of doing. Or we can keep our eyes fixed on both the short and long term, making sure that we are building lives that will be found worthy on all the time scales at which we are judged. That is what the shofar is calling for us to do—to not get caught up in the time scale most easily found central, and to incorporate them all in our teshuvah, our reassessment of ourselves. Ketivah ve-Hatimah Tovah.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.