By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
There are various reactions to the sound of the shofar’s cry. The sensitive soul hears several messages as the plaintive sound forms a song like no other. It is a tune of triumph mixed with recollection and tones of introspection.
The Rambam, who compiled and clarified so many of the halachos that govern our lives, heard a unique message.
In Hilchos Teshuvah (3:4), he writes, “Even though tekias shofar is a gezeiras hakosuv, there is a hint to the reason, for it is as if the shofar is saying, ‘Uru yesheinim misheinaschem. Wake up you who are asleep and in slumber. Search through your actions and do teshuvah. Chizru beseshuvah vezichru Borachem.'”
The Rambam then quotes from the Pesikta: “These are the people who get caught up in the havlei hazeman and forget the truth, spending their years with useless silliness and emptiness. The shofar calls out to them and says, ‘Look inside your souls and improve your ways, and let each one of you leave behind his bad way and improper thoughts.'”
Then the Rambam writes, “Lefichoch, therefore, every person should see themselves during the entire year as if they are evenly divided between being zakai, innocent, and chayov, guilty. Every person should view the world the same way.”
Meaning, if he commits one sin, he will have caused for himself and for the entire world to be guilty. If he does one mitzvah, he will have ensured that he and the entire world are found innocent and he will bring about salvation for everyone.
“This is what it means when it says, ‘Tzaddik yesod olam.’ The tzaddik himself is the foundation of the world because he has caused the entire world to be judged positively and to be saved.”
The Rambam’s words are often repeated and analyzed, especially at this time of year, by people seeking to do teshuvah. His teachings are so direct and touching, deeply affecting every person who studies them. But more than that, he codifies and organizes for us the teshuvah process so that we are able to progress along the path to achieve absolution of our sins, refinement of our neshamos, improvement of our character, and, most all, perfection of our shemiras hamitzvos.
While studying this halacha of the Rambam, a few questions developed that prevented me from going further.
Why does the Rambam use the metaphor of sleep for people whose time is consumed with trivialities? They are not asleep. In fact, they appear to be very much awake. Perhaps he should have referred to them as wayward, lost, or confused people who are wasting their lives away. Why is their condition referred to as slumber?
Furthermore, how does the second part of the halacha follow the first? Why does he say that lefichoch, because people while away their time, man should therefore view himself and the world as having an equal number of merits and sins – chatzi chayov and chatzi zakai – and thus seek to perform a mitzvah in whose merit he will tip the scale towards zakai and bring salvation to himself and to the entire world? How does the way we view the world follow the admonition regarding those who are asleep behavlei hazeman?
The transitional word, lefichoch, indicates that there is a connection between the call to arise from our slumber and the mandate to see oneself as chatzi chayov and chatzi zakai, perched on the dividing line between the abyss of evil and the path leading to eternal life. What is the connection?
The words of the Rambam, whose every nuance and hint reflect truth, require explanation. Are we in fact asleep? What is the meaning of the repeated references to slumber?
The story of Yonah Hanovi, which we read on Yom Kippur, provides us with a strong allusion of what the Rambam means when he uses the word slumber, nirdom. Yonah sought to escape from following Hashem’s directive. He fled to a ship that was to take him to a far-off land. But Hashem caused a stormy tempest at sea, and the ship was rocked about and threatened to break apart. Everyone aboard began to panic, throwing all non-essential items overboard as they fought for survival.
With the ship rocking to and fro and commotion all around him, Yonah went to his room to take a nap, as if nothing was happening.
The captain finds him and is incensed. He calls out to Yonah, “Mah lecha nirdom? What are you doing, sleeper?”
How can a person be comfortable and lie down at a time when the entire boat he is on, with all of its passengers, is at risk of sinking? The waves are lapping at the ship, threatening to rip apart the vessel. It should have been almost physically impossible to lie on a bed comfortably in the midst of a storm as described in the posuk.
The captain was thus infuriated at Yonah. “Mah lecha nirdom?” he said. “What is with you, apathetic person? How can you be so indifferent to reality? How can you ignore what is transpiring around you? Kum kera el Elokecha. Quickly, pray to Hashem that He save us all from certain death.”
The posuk in Shir Hashirim (5:2) states, “Ani yesheinah velibi eir…” Rashi explains that the verse is referring to the era of the first Bais Hamikdosh, when Knesses Yisroel, sedate and serene, slackened off in their avodas Hashem. They no longer felt that they were under pressure. Everything was going well for them and they became like a sleeping person who slowly relaxes his limbs.
We see from these pesukim, and others, that when the metaphor of sleep is used, it is indicative of a person who is apathetic and has ceased to feel the pressure to do and to be, to produce and to accomplish.
To be asleep means to be oblivious to what is going on around you. It means to be blind and deaf to the realities and opportunities inherent in every moment and, most of all, to the potential that lies dormant within.
There are certain societies that seek to force everyone into conformity, suppressing human growth and ambition. When segregation ended in this country, a civil rights leader said that he could forgive white people for oppressing the blacks, but he couldn’t forgive them for making the black people believe that they deserved to be oppressed. Much worse than the actual discrimination was the altered self-perception it generated.
Human potential is infinite. Man has the ability to reach great heights and accomplish greatness.
The greatest tragedy is when a person becomes unaware of, or indifferent to, his own abilities and value.
The rebbe of Lechovitch would remind his followers of their potential by quoting the familiar posuk, “Lehodia livnei odom gevurosav,” simply translated to mean that Hashem makes His own strength known to man. He would offer an allegorical explanation and say that the posuk is stating that we praise Hashem Who, in His kindness, He informs man of his own strengths and abilities.
Once on Erev Yom Kippur, Rav Shlomo Freifeld lifted the phone and called a wealthy man. “I want to ask you mechilah,” the rosh yeshiva said. “You are capable of giving more tzedakah, supporting more Torah, and helping more people. It is my obligation to remind you of that responsibility, but because it is an unpleasant task, I was remiss. I’m sorry for not telling you who you really are and what you are capable of doing. Please forgive me.”
The shofar tells us that we need to extricate ourselves from floundering in apathy and cold indifference. The Rambam says that this is accomplished by each person realizing how much latent strength he possesses and the difference he can make.
If you see yourself as perched on the red line, suspended between zakai and chayov, you recognize that the decision you make will define you.
The course of action you choose every time you do something is crucial. It is important. You are important. You can literally alter the course of history if you wake up and realize your own potential.
This is the force of that one word in the Rambam: lefichoch. Therefore. Once you wake up, you will perceive and appreciate just how much influence and power you have. You can literally tilt the balance of the world and bring it to its tikkun. But you have to wake up.
Lefichoch is a call to man to climb out of his little cave. It tells him to exit his self-imposed bubble and small shelter of selfishness and indifference. Lefichoch is a call to achieve.
The beginning of teshuvah is for a person to accept that he is important. One must realize that Hashem created him with a purpose and a plan. Until man accepts that he has a calling, he cannot truly serve Hashem. This is the depth of the fact that the two days of Rosh Hashanah take their place among the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. They are two of ten days of repentance. Although we don’t say viduy on Rosh Hashanah, we reassert the fact that there is a King, and if He wants us here, there must be a plan for us. That is the start of teshuvah.
The posuk in Tehillim (89:15) that we recite during tekias shofar on Rosh Hashanah states, “Ashrei ha’am yode’ei seruah, Hashem be’Ohr Ponecha yehaleichun.” Dovid Hamelech praises the nation that knows the teruah of the shofar. The Medrash (Vayikra Rabbah 29:4) asks why Am Yisroel is deserving of that praise. After all, the nations of the world also know how to blow a shofar.
Perhaps we can explain that while the nations of the world are capable of emitting sounds from the shofar, the second part of the posuk, “Hashem be’Ohr Ponecha yehaleichun,” does not apply to them. They are able to produce a teruah, but because they don’t follow in the light of Hashem, they are unable to shake off their sheinah and tardeimah and thus remain mired in the havlei hazeman.
We, who follow the “Ohr Ponecha,” the light of Hashem, are referred to as yode’ei seruah, because we know that the sound of the shofar is to alert us to follow that light. One who follows the light of Hashem cannot sleep. When the havlei hazeman draw the shades that block the light from reaching us, we become yesheinim. The shofar causes us to pull up those shades and then awaken and fulfill our purpose in life.
We become energized and engaged as we follow the lights of Torah and mitzvos. “Ki ner mitzvah veTorah ohr. We delve into Torah study day and night, as the posuk commands, “Vehogisa bo yomam volayloh.”
The Zohar (3:18b) speaks of the merit of the yode’ei seruah, those who know the secret of tekias shofar. “Zaka’ah chulkhon detzadikiya deyadin lekavnah reusah lekamei mareihon veyadin lesaknah alma behai yoma bekol shufrah. Praised are the pious ones who know how to channel the awesome power of the shofar and to rectify the universe on the day of Rosh Hashanah through the sound of the shofar.”
Tzaddikim, the righteous ones among us, hear and understand the message of the shofar and utilize that knowledge to bring merit to the entire world, because that is the purpose of blowing the shofar.
The shofar reminds us of who we are and what we can accomplish. Each one of us has the ability to tip the balance of the cosmos and change the course of the world. The shofar tells a person that he is also a tzaddik, and the world is looking to him to utilize his potential to attain greatness and bring salvation to the world. A person who hears this message is a tzaddik in din. The Heavenly tribunal will pronounce him as zakai, and in his merit, those around him and the world will be saved.
After Yonah was brought out of his tardeimah, the winds continued blowing and the deadly waves crashed against the ship. The other passengers huddled together to figure out why they were being punished so. They asked, “Shel mi hara’ah hazos lonu? Who is the cause of these conditions that are affecting us so terribly?”
Yonah immediately responded, “Ki yodeia ani ki besheli hasa’ar hagadol hazeh aleichem. I know that I am to blame for what is happening to you.”
Yonah was a novi, surrounded by ovdei avodah zarah. Why did he so quickly conclude that he was the cause of the raging storm? There were no doubt other sinners on board, so what prompted his reaction?
It was because Yonah understood the lefichoch of the Rambam. He was a recovering nirdom. After accepting the mussar of the captain, he went further, as the Rambam prescribes, and looked at what was transpiring, as if he himself could bring about the necessary change and the yeshuah to the people on the boat, to Am Yisroel as a whole, and to the entire world.
I listened in on a shailah that was presented this week. A boy from out-of-town desperately wants to go to yeshiva. He is a special-ed student and the tuition is $30,000 a year. He wanted to go last year, but no place could be found for him, so he returned to his native city and attended public school. The only yeshivos that can accommodate him are in New York.
Finally, a yeshiva that would accept him was found, but he didn’t have a place to eat and sleep. He was planning on obtaining a small mattress and sleeping in a local shul – you read correctly -but he couldn’t find a shul to sleep in.
Beyond his learning difficulties, this is a normal boy. He desperately wants to be frum and attend yeshiva.
A question was posed by kiruv volunteers from Lakewood: What should they do for this boy? How much mesirus nefesh is demanded of them to see to it that this boy can stay in New York and attend yeshiva? They do all they can in their free time for kiruv, bringing people, young and old, closer to Torah and Yiddishkeit. They feel that if they can’t find this boy a proper place to stay within the next week, he will return home and be lost.
What would you answer them?
These are people who recognize that the future of the world is in their hands. As long as that boy doesn’t have a place to sleep, they can’t sleep. They are doing whatever they can to help turn the tide and weigh down the scales, so that the good outweighs the bad, and so that they and that boy and all of us will merit a kesivah vachasimah tovah.
Last week, a relatively small gathering of a few hundred people took place. From a Torah perspective, it was huge, because the gathering featured a guest list of individuals who embody the mandate we’re discussing. They live with the Rambam’s lefichoch. They are the roshei kollel of hundreds of kollelim across Eretz Yisroel.
The people who head the kollelim have risen to the moment, leading groups small and large, guiding yungeleit on the paths of Torah and avodah. The roshei kollel assumed the burden of continuing to pay the yungeleit the meager monthly stipend that enables them to continue to devote time, energy and heart to Torah. The people who gathered last week must travel, make phone calls, and write letters to keep their enterprises going, month after month. Anyone who has ever raised money, even for the most worthy cause, knows how disheartening it can be. All the more so when it involves leaving family and friends and traveling to an unfamiliar country, at the mercy of drivers, hosts and donors.
The roshei kollel often lack the connections and infrastructure they need, yet they forge on, determined to keep the song of Torah alive. These precious Jews are awake, and they live, day in and day out, with the truth of this lefichoch. The light of Torah motivates them and the Ohr Ponecha serves as their guide.
They face a difficult challenge. Thanks to Yair Lapid and his willing cohorts, the scanty government stipend yungeleit were receiving has been slashed. The food stipend for their children has been cut as well. Believe me, it isn’t melodramatic to say that there are many people who have stopped drinking coffee with milk, who are feeding their children dry cereal, and who are searching for any and all ways to get through the day without starving.
The aforementioned gathering, held simply to say thank you to the roshei kollel, and to empower and encourage them to continue on, featured words of chizuk from gedolei Yisroel, individuals who are themselves examples of man’s ability to transcend self-regard to accomplish great things.
This Rosh Hashanah, as we hear the sweet, moving song of the shofar, we can think of many role models, human beings who are attempting to realize their potential, rising up to confront the new challenges that keep coming our way.
We should all take a moment to look deep within our own hearts and determine if perhaps we are asleep, oblivious to the great things we could be doing, thereby, leaving our talents untapped.
May this year be the one in which we hear the lefichoch; shedding the cloak of apathy and indifference; rising above all that confronts us and the world; and bringing yeshuos to ourselves, our loved ones, and all of Am Yisroel.
May this be the year when the world is firmly pushed into the realm of zechus and we rejoice together on the greatest day, listening as one to the glorious sound of that shofar gadol that will usher us all home.
Kesivah vachasimah tovah.