When the Shofar is Silenced During a Pandemic

There are many reasons (many!) why this year’s Rosh Hashanah will be different from last year’s Rosh Hashanah.

One reason was predictable.

Last year we blew the shofar twice; once on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and once on the second day. This year, since the first day of Rosh Hashanah coincides with Shabbat, we will only blow the shofar on the second day of the holiday. Our sages were concerned that blowing the shofar on Shabbat may lead to a violation of Shabbat and, therefore, we skip this mitzvah in years such as this one.

Skip the shofar this year? Of all years, how can the rabbis rob us of this powerful tool for prayer! Of all years, we need to storm the heavens as never before!

And yet, perhaps this is the perfect year to skip the shofar. Let me explain!

Rav Yehuda Amital, the founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, notes that the last mishnah in the third chapter of Rosh Hashanah is misplaced. The third chapter focuses on the intricate laws of the shofar. The very last mishnah in this chapter references Moses and the war with Amalek, a war in which the Jewish People were victorious when Moses’ hands were raised high.

The Mishnah teaches: “And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand Israel prevailed” etc. (Exodus 17:1.) Did the hands of Moses wage war or break [Israel’s ability] to wage war? Rather, this episode teaches us that as long as Israel looked upwards and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven they prevailed and, if not, they fell. (Sefaria Rosh Hashanah Chapter 3 Mishnah 8)”

What is the connection between this story and the laws of shofar?

Rav Amital explains that blowing the shofar can lead to a great theological risk. People may be led to believe that the shofar is inherently meaningful; a mystical tool that somehow leads to G-d’s mercy.

The editor of the mishnah deliberately placed this teaching about Moses’s hands within the laws of the shofar in order to remind the Jewish People that just as Moshe’s hands were not inherently powerful, neither is the shofar. The shofar is rather a tool that facilitates a closer connection between man and G-d.

G-d does not desire the sound emanating from the hollowed ram’s horn.

G-d desires the sounds of our hearts and minds.

In fact, when Rosh Hashanah coincides with Shabbat, the rabbis instructed us not to blow the shofar. Beyond the concern for violating Shabbat, our sages wanted us to strip away the external tool and focus on the internal. The sound of silence that we hear when Rosh Hashanah coincides with Shabbat should ring in our ears as a call to reevaluate where we focus our attention.

The challenges of the past seven months have forced us to do the same. We have been forced to do away with much of the external trappings and focus on that which is most important.

Two areas in particular come to mind.

Prayer:

Before the virus hit, we attended synagogue. We prayed. We moved our lips and recited the words, but did we speak to G-d? We attended shul, but to meet whom?

When the virus hit, we were forced to stay home. For weeks we prayed on our own. We were forced to reconnect with ourselves, we could pray at a slower pace, focus on the words and remember that prayer is about Man speaking with G-d.

Those weeks praying at home were just like Rosh Hashanah coinciding with Shabbat. We stripped away the externals and reminded ourselves of the basics – prayer is a rendezvous with G-d. Everything else an external trapping.

Celebrations:

The arrival of the coronavirus brought an abrupt end to our traditional types of celebrations. Bar and Bat Mitzvahs were cancelled. Weddings were postponed. Only parents and the mohel attended a Brit.

Then, slowly, the Jewish world settled into a new routine. Celebrations were scheduled. Outside. Limited guest list.

As a community we learned that bigger isn’t always better. We learned that celebrating a life cycle event is most meaningful when shared by a small circle of family of friends.

This past Friday I a called a congregant to wish her Mazal Tov on her grandson’s Bar Mitzvah, which had taken place the night before in a tent in the family’s backyard. Only family and a small group of friends were invited.

My congregants told me that when her grandson spoke he shared with the audience that he was initially disappointed that he could not celebrate his Bar Mitzvah as his older brothers and sisters has celebrated this occasion in their lives. And then he looked at their photo albums of their celebrations and he realized that everyone in the pictures was in the tent that night at his Bar Mitzvah.

As a community we learned that bigger isn’t always better.

It seems fitting to me that of all years, this year Rosh Hashanah coincides with Shabbat. The year in which we will not blow the shofar, a powerful yet external tool, is the same year when a global pandemic has forced us to rethink the external components of our lives.

Our lives have changed forever over the past seven months. There are many struggles ahead and only G-d knows what this year will bring.

What I do know is that we will stand in the synagogue on Shabbat and, instead of focusing on the sounds coming out of the Shofar, we will focus on the sounds of our souls.

We will focus on our relationship with G-d, and the gifts we have recently received, a renewed focused what is profoundly important in life.

About the Author
Rabbi Zev Goldberg is the rabbi at Young Israel of Fort Lee in Fort Lee, NJ.
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