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Understanding the Shofar’s Call

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba) teaches that on Rosh Hashanah, G-d sits on the "throne of judgment," ready to carefully judge and scrutinize every individual. But when we sound the shofar, G-d rises from the "throne of judgment" and sits on the "throne of compassion." It is thus through the sounding of the shofar that we avoid strict judgment and earn G-d’s mercy for a favorable sentence.

How does this work? How does the sounding of the shofar have such an effect?

The Ran (Rabbenu Nissom of Gerona, Spain, 1320-1380), in his commentary to the Rif (Masechet Rosh Hashanah), cites a different passage in the Midrash explaining the origins of Rosh Hashanah. The Midrash tells that Adam and Hava were created on the first of Tishreh, and already on that day, they committed the sin of partaking of the forbidden fruit. G-d judged them on that day, forgiving them and allowing them to live. And so every year henceforth, this day – the first of Tishreh – is the day of judgment, when all people on earth are judged for the coming year.

But if this is the case, then we should expect to find the shofar mentioned somewhere in the story of Adam and Hava’s sin and their judgment. After all, if our observance of Rosh Hashanah – in which the sounding of the shofar plays such a prominent role – is rooted in the judgment of Adam and Hava after they ate from the forbidden tree, we would naturally assume that their judgment also involved a shofar.

Sure enough, although neither the text of the Torah nor the Midrashim makes an explicit reference to the shofar in the context of Adam and Hava’s sin, we indeed find a subtle reference. The Torah tells that after Adam and Hava’s sin, they heard Hashem’s voice. Rav Shlomo Kluger (Ukraine, 1785-1869) explains that as this day was Rosh Hashanah, Hashem sounded the shofar for Adam and Havah. The sound they heard was the sound of the shofar.

Indeed, the Torah says that Adam and Hava were frightened by the sound – "Va’yira’u" – and Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) writes that one of the purposes of the shofar sound is to instill within us fear, to make us frightened of the judgment we are now facing.

If so, then we can gain new insight into the significance of the shofar sound – and, specifically, what the shofar is saying to us.

The Torah tells that G-d then called out to Adam and Hava and asked, "Ayeka" – "Where are you?"

Of course, G-d knew where Adam and Hava were. The question of "Ayeka" is – "Where have you brought yourselves!" "Look how far you have fallen!" "What happened to you?" "How could you have done this?"

This is what the sound of the shofar is calling out to us: "Ayeka!" It is asking: "Another year has gone by. Where are you? How much have you accomplished and achieved over the past year? Look how far you are from where you could be! How could you have failed to use all the opportunities presented to you!!"

This is how the sounding of the shofar has the effect of "moving" Hashem from the "throne of judgment" to the "throne of mercy." This is not just a "magical" effect. When we understand what the shofar is saying to us, and we internalize its message, then we earn Hashem’s compassion. When Hashem sees that we are looking into ourselves, recognizing where we have gone wrong and trying to improve, He compassionately pardons our sins and judges us favorably, giving us another chance for the coming year.

Just before beginning the shofar blowing, the Toke’a (one blowing the shofar) recites the Beracha over the Misva: "Baruch…Li’shmo’a Kol Shofar" – "to hear the sound of the shofar." But the word "Li’shmo’a" actually means more than "hear." It means to understand, to perceive, just as "Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Ehad" does not mean that we should just "hear" that Hashem is one – but that we need to fully comprehend and internalize this belief. Likewise, the Misva of the shofar is not simply to hear the sound, but to understand what it’s saying to us, to hear the call of "Ayeka," and to think seriously about where we are, what we should be doing better, and how we are going to change in the new year.

If we understand this sound properly, and respond accordingly, then we will be worthy of Hashem’s unlimited compassion, and a year of good health, happiness, peace and prosperity for ourselves, our families, and all Am Yisrael, Amen.

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