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Jewish World Review
Sept. 15, 2004
/29 Elul, 5764
Rosh Hashanah: A defense of the defenseless
By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
What is the shofar, and why does its blast confound the Satan?
You were caught by police radar doing 85 MPH in a 45 zone, your lawyer can't fix the ticket, you've had three violations already this year, and the toughest judge in the county is about to throw the book at you. What do you do now?
How about this: As the arresting officer steps forward to present the facts against you, you reach into your briefcase, pull out a trumpet, and blast away at full volume. The officer becomes confused and bungles his accusation, leaving the judge no choice but to dismiss your case.
This may sound farfetched, but it is exactly what we do each year on Rosh Hashanah.
The Talmud explains the reason why we trumpet the shofar: to confuse the Satan, the prosecuting angel, who stands before the heavenly court on Judgment Day to indict the Jewish people for their shortcomings and misdeeds throughout the previous year.
It would seem, therefore, that the Satan is exceptionally thick. For even if the sound of the shofar might flummox the Satan once, twice, or even a dozen times, the Jewish people have been observing Rosh Hashanah and trumpeting the shofar for the last 3,316 years. Even the most inept prosecutor ought to have caught on by now.
So what is the shofar, and why does its blast confound the Satan?
The shofar is the horn of a ram, which recalls the Akeida the binding of Isaac, the pivotal event in the inception of the Jewish people, when our patriarch Abraham offered to sacrifice his only son out of unswerving loyalty to the Almighty and unqualified trust in His Word. But the Almighty stayed his hand and allowed Abraham to offer a ram in place of his son, a ram that would symbolize forever the unprecedented selflessness and faith and commitment that earned Abraham his place as progenitor of the Jewish people.
Have we lived up to the ideals of our father Abraham? Have we served our Creator, or have we served ourselves? Have we been prepared to sacrifice, or have we expected others to sacrifice for us? Have we shown trust and loyalty, and have we abused the trust and loyalty of others? Have we been willing to submit our will to a higher authority and for a greater good, or have we recognized no authority other than our own egos, no good other than our own comfort? Have we shown the courage to choose what is right over what is easy, or have we lacked the courage even to ask ourselves that very question?
As we stand before the One Judge on Rosh Hashanah, we should each imagine ourselves as if we stand before the court with no case, no defense, and no defender. True, we may not be assassins or arsonists or embezzlers. But the argument that others have done worse should sound hollow when we consider how far we have strayed from the ways of our ancestors, how readily we have traded spiritual aspiration for material indulgence, how poorly we have honored the sacrifices made by our forefathers through holocausts, pogroms, crusades, and every manner of trial all the way back to Abraham and Isaac.
What can we say for ourselves before the Judge on this most awesome of days? How will our arguments sound? What words can justify a whole year of forgetfulness of who we are and why we are here? What can we do but throw ourselves upon the mercy of the court?
Indeed, begging the court's mercy is precisely all we can do. All the poor excuses, all the inadequate words, all the futile arguments that we can't bring ourselves to utter, we roll up into one long anguished cry: the sound of the shofar. With no words to serve us, we cry out before our Judge and Creator, as if to say, We remember the sacrifices of Abraham and Isaac and all who came after them; we remember that we are their children, we know that we have strayed, and we want nothing so desperately as to find our way home.
And so, just as the Satan begins to accuse us, we take the very words out of his mouth, admitting our shortcomings, repenting our misdeeds, and seeking undeserved mercy so that we might try to better ourselves in the coming year. What can the Satan say? He can no longer indict us, for we have already confessed.
Rosh Hashanah serves as both the culmination of one year and the beginning of the next. Our judgment is on the year past, while our sentence will shape the year ahead. Like the Akeida, it is a pivotal moment. What we make of it will determine whether the course we chart into the coming the year will lead us down into the mire of materialism or up toward the heights of spiritual fulfillment.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School and Aish HaTorah in St. Louis.
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© 2004, Rabbi Yonason Goldson