Erev Yom Kippur 5774 – Can a Shofar Change the World?

Can a shofar change the world?  Maybe…

When I visited the Jewish residents in the Veterans Home in Boulder City last week, I brought with me a shofar and played it for them.  Hearts were touched. Memories were evoked.  Tears were shed.

The shofar is, literally, a blast from the past.

There’s something about a shofar blast that makes its sounds uniquely meaningful for a Jew.  There’s something about learning the skill to play the shofar that makes one feel a special accomplishment; and there’s something about being honored to be asked to blow the shofar for the congregation that brings one a sense of responsibility.   But it is also, in fact, a mitzvah for every Jew to stop and listen to the sounds of the shofar.

Our services this evening began with Baalei T’kiyah, shofar blowers, encircling us with the trumpet wake-up of the T’kiyah.  And when we heard the shofar last week on Rosh HaShanah, we also heard the wailing sounds of the Sh’varim and the staccato bleets of the T’ruah….as if we were crying and couldn’t catch our breath; and, of course, the elongated siren call of the T’kiyah G’dolaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.   Each series of blasts began and ended with the T’kiah —-a whole note.  In between the whole notes were the Sh’varim and T’ruah, broken notes.  And we all felt it…while some of us simply heard it and smiled; some of us were touched in our bones; and some felt the shofar even deeper, in the very depths of our hearts.

Psalm 89, says:  “Ashrei ha-am yodei-a t’ruah.  Adonai b’ohr panecha y’haleichun.”[1]  Happy is the People who know the t’ruah; they walk in the light of your divine presence.”  I understand that to mean that if you feel touched by the sound of the Shofar, an opening has been made; and the Chassidic master, known as the Degel Machaneh Ephraim, the banner of the Camp of Ephraim, teaches that “knowing” the truah means allowing our hearts, not simply to be opened, but to be shattered, opening our full selves to the light of the Divine presence.

How often do we feel G-d by our sides?  How often do we (consciously or unconsciously) edge G-d out.  (And many of you know that that’s how I define the word “ego”…as an acronym for edging G-d out.  When we’re so full of ourselves, there’s simply no room for G-d.)

The blast of the shofar unsettles us.  Makes us examine ourselves.  Makes us look inside.

Are there times when we feel empty inside?  Fraudulent?  Phony?  When others feel we’re doing fine, doing well, perhaps even successful, but we feel like we have failed, have disappointed the people we love, have avoided the mitzvot with which we’ve been charged?

This awe-filled evening of Kol Nidrei, we’ve faced that challenging prayer and we take it into our hearts and wonder, “what hope can I have for the new year?”[2]  Does it pay to even make new promises to myself?  I look at the past and see where I’ve failed, how last year’s resolutions dissolved so soon, how my bad habits continue to repeat themselves, how my good intentions stay inert, yet to be realized.  Should I simply make no new vows?  Should I just give up?

And I think of the shofar sound and how it touched me, and I translate that shofar sound into a call made directly to me, saying “Get up!”  And I realize that G-d has only commanded this one day of Yom HaKippurim for us to afflict our souls.  We were given all of Elul to warm up for this marathon.  We’ve been given ten days to repent, to turn over a new leaf in the Book of Life.  And now we have fifty weeks to renew ourselves.  Oh, G-d, even when I have no faith in myself, I know that you have faith in me.  Every morning, when I say “Modah ani l’faneicha, Melech Chai v’Kayam, she-hechezarta bi nishmati, b’chemlah, rabbah emunateichah.”  I give thanks to you, living and existing sovereign, that you have returned to me my soul, with mercy, how great is your faith in me!

How easy it is for us to be complacent, or, worse yet, set in our judgments—-self-righteously assured that we know how the world is supposed to work, who is worth our concerns, where our efforts need to be placed.  But the sound of the shofar disrupts these assumptions.  Our tradition says that even G-d is affected by the cry of the Shofar, moving from din to rachamim,[3] from judgment to compassion.  As the shofar reaches deep within us, surely we can be open to the possibility of connecting to the divine Source of Compassion, so that we, too, can be moved from judgment to compassion.  What does it take?  Perhaps a little heartbreak…

Perhaps it’s realizing the heartbreak of others.  Doing t’shuvah, we literally are asking ourselves to turn around.  If we do so with our eyes and hearts open, we see there are others who need us…in our families, in our community, in our city, country, world.  Each of us is important and needed and worthwhile and able to contribute l’takein et ha-olam, to repair and complete the world.   Feel helpless as to where to even begin?  Consider becoming part of our “Tikkun Olam” task force, working with others to make the world better.

It’s also about choosing to do better….choosing life.  Tomorrow morning we will read the Torah portion that commands:  “U-vacharta va-chayim[4]…and you shall choose life.

To paraphrase William James, we humans, of all the creatures of the earth, we can change our own patterns.  We alone are the architects of our destiny.  One of the greatest discoveries of the modern world is that we are human beings, and by changing the inner attitudes of our minds, we can change the outer aspects of our lives.  We can choose life!

In fact, we always have choices; so let me tell you a story, as told to me by Rabbi Michael Simon:

John is the kind of guy you love to hate.  He is always in a good mood and always has something positive to say.  When someone would ask him how he was doing, he would reply, ‘If I were any better, I would be twins!’


He was a natural motivator.  If an employee was having a bad day, John was there telling the employee how to look on the positive side of the situation.  Seeing this style really made me curious, so one day I went up and asked him, ‘I don’t get it!


You can’t be a positive person all of the time.  How do you do it?’


He replied, ‘Each morning I wake up and say to myself, you have two choices today.  You can choose to be in a good mood or … you can choose to be in a bad mood.  I choose to be in a good mood.’


Each time something bad happens, I can choose to be a victim or…I can choose to learn from it.  I choose to learn from it.


Every time someone comes to me complaining, I can choose to accept their complaining or… I can point out the positive side of life.  I choose the positive side of life.


Yeah, right, it’s not that easy,’ I protested.


Yes, it is,’ he said.  ‘Life is all about choices.  When you cut away all the junk, every situation is a choice.  You choose how you react to situations.  You choose how people affect your mood.  You choose to be in a good mood or bad mood.


The bottom line is, it’s your choice how you live your life.’


I reflected on what he said.  Soon thereafter, I left the Tower Industry to start my own business.  We lost touch, but I often thought about him when I made a choice about life instead of reacting to it.


Several years later, I heard that he was involved in a serious accident, falling some 60 feet from a communications tower.  After 18 hours of surgery and weeks of intensive care, he was released from the hospital with rods placed in his back.


I saw him about six months after the accident.  When I asked him how he was, he replied, ‘If I were any better, I’d be twins.  Wanna see my scars?’


I declined to see his wounds, but I did ask him what had gone through his mind as the accident took place.


‘The first thing that went through my mind was the well-being of my soon-to-be born daughter,’ he replied.


“Then, as I lay on the ground, I remembered that I had two choices.  I could choose to live or…I could choose to die.


I chose to live.’


‘Weren’t you scared?  Did you lose consciousness?’ I asked


He continued, ‘…the paramedics were great.  They kept telling me I was going to be fine.


But when they wheeled me into the ER and I saw the expressions on the faces of the doctors and nurses, I got really scared.  In their eyes, I read ‘he’s a dead man’.


I knew I needed to take action.


‘What did you do?’ I asked.


‘Well, there was a big burly nurse shouting questions at me,’ said John.


She asked if I was allergic to anything.


‘Yes, I replied.’


The doctors and nurses stopped working as they waited for my reply.


I took a deep breath and yelled, ‘Gravity”

Over their laughter, I told them, ‘I am choosing to live.  Operate on me as if I am alive, not dead.’


He lived, thanks to the skill of his doctors, but also because of his amazing attitude.


Every day WE have the choice to live fully, which is exactly what it means when G-d told us to “Choose Life.”   This is not a bumper sticker or a political slogan; it is a Biblical commandment.  And it’s another message that the shofar blares at us, loudly and clearly.


That is because if, in fact, we pay heed to the Shofar, wake up, choose to live our lives with appreciation and gratitude, with optimism and a resolve to pitch in and be a part of the family, community, world around us…..if we look forward to living, despite the challenges, physical, emotional, economic…and the sorrow that inevitably are part of this journey, then, we will truly be alive and our lives will, without question, be lives worth living.


Is the shofar only a blast from the past?  No, it is also back to the future!  On Rosh HaShanah, in traditional shuls, there are 100 blasts of the shofar.  But, even though we do fewer, remember, each series of blasts began and ended with the T’kiah —-a whole note.  In between the whole notes were the Sh’varim and T’ruah, broken notes.  The shofar’s calls remind us that we all began whole.  Along the journey of life, we experience pain, mistakes, loss, failure, weakness, illness, and all of life’s challenges; yet, the shofar shows that the end is whole. Whole, holy, wholeness.  We will be whole again.  There is hope.[5]

The shofar is loud, disturbing, insistent.  Yom Kippur feels like the deadline we have been fearing, the test for which we feel we haven’t prepared sufficiently, the ultimate Tax Day, on which cheshbon ha-nefesh, our soul-accounting must be postmarked.  The shofar fills the air around us, calling us to shut out all other sounds and hear its plea.


It is a baby’s wail of helplessness; it is a warning; it is a cry for help.  It is the plea of the elderly, the abused, the forgotten.  It is the imperative of the youth needing guidance, mentoring, love and understanding.  It is the rush of the super-heated winds, the roar of the hurricanes and tsunamis, the crack of the ozone layer in a world we need to repair.  It is the babble of self-serving politicians and the rhetoric of well-meaning public servants.  It is a reminder to heed the past, stand still, and resolve to make the future better.


Blessed are those who hear the sound of the shofar, who take it to heart, that they may respond accordingly.


Can a shofar change the world?  No, not by itself; but if we listen to it, and really heed its call, we can.


Shabbat Shalom,

G’mar chatimah tovah….may you be sealed in the Book of Life.


Rabbi Yocheved Mintz

Congregation P’nai Tikvah


[1] Psalm 89:19

[2] Elkins, Rabbi Dov Peretz, editor:  Moments of Transcendence:  Inspirational Readings for Yom Kippur.  Aaronson Press, 1992.  Northvale, NJ.   From “Get Up,” a poem by Rabbi Allen S. Maller, p. 18

[3] VaYikra Rabba, 29:4

[4] Deuteronomy, 30:19

[5] From thoughts by Rabbi Isaac Horowitz, Shelah