The Secret of the Shofar

September 21, 2012 - 5:00 am

Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you,
who walk in the light of your presence, LORD.” — Psalm 89:15

My friend Jonathan had been pulled over by the police for talking on the phone and driving at the same time. The officer immediately started his diatribe, scolding Jonathan and explaining to him that he had earned himself a sizeable fine and points on his license. Jonathan’s wife tried making excuses. The officer seemed to anticipate an argument and only got louder and stronger.

Finally, Jonathan said something that stopped the officer mid-sentence. He said, “You are right. Hand me the ticket.” The officer’s mouth hung open as if he had suddenly forgotten how to talk. He obviously didn’t hear that too often!

Jonathan continued saying how wrong and dangerous it was to talk and drive at the same time and even thanked the officer for calling him on it. It was a lesson that he needed to learn. The officer walked away for a moment and when he came back, his demeanor had totally changed. He handed back Jonathan’s license and registration with a smile and a kind warning – but no ticket.

Tradition teaches that when we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, God our King, who is sitting on His throne of judgment, gets up and takes the seat of compassion. With just one piercing sound, the day is transformed from a day of stern judgment into a day of merciful compassion. Why?

These days, at the start of a trial, the judge bangs his gavel in order to bring the court to order. But in the olden days, a Jewish trial began with the sounding of the shofar. So when we blow the shofar, it is as though we are willingly starting our trial. We initiate the judgment. It is as if we are saying to God, “Hand me the ticket – give me my penalty! I know that I am guilty.”

We recognize that we have done things wrong and we accept our verdict, acknowledging that it is for our own good. In response, God switches His mode from judgment to compassion.

The psalmist writes: “Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you . . .” The Hebrew for “to acclaim you” in this verse is “teruah.” And as you may recall, teruah is also the name of the nine-note shofar blast. So our sages interpret this verse to mean: “Blessed are those who know the secret of the shofar blast.” The secret of the shofar blast is that it unleashes God’s mercy.

Tradition teaches, “When there is judgment below, there is no need for judgment above.” In other words, when we are able to take responsibility for our shortcomings on our own, God doesn’t have to correct our behavior for us. Instead, He helps us out with love and mercy.


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