A Jewish New Year wake up call
Rosh Hashanah is a time to scrutinize ourselves and our lives in the full context of reality, to discover where we have been blind, where we have fallen asleep.
My alarm clock and I have a good relationship, and for most of the year it has a relatively easy job. On the other hand, when the month of Elul comes around, the forgotten snooze button gets quite the workout as pre sunrise Selichot services begin. Perhaps it is no coincidence that it is in sleep deprivation that our tradition prepares us to meet our Maker on the high holidays. After all, it is Maimonides who explains that the sounding of the Shofar is an alarm clock of sorts: "...Arise from your slumber, you who are asleep; wake up from your deep sleep, you who are fast asleep; search your deeds, remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth in the empty mists of time, and wander all year in futility and vacuum, look into your souls, improve your path and behavior…“ (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva, Chapter 3:4).
Reading the Hebrew source of the above text from Rambam one cannot help but notice the similarity between the Hebrew word “sheina” (sleep) and “shana” (year). The cycle of the year goes around and comes around embodying the human susceptibility to the force of habit. The “empty mists of time” I believe describes most of our moments as we move through life without consciousness. Maimonides sees the shofar as a wakeup call to a life of vitality, choice, and awareness.
So there I am, it is five o’clock in the morning and my hand is hitting the snooze button. This is not a conscious act; indeed it is likely I will not remember it when my alarm sounds fifteen minutes later. Let me be clear, I am a morning person and wake up early year round, so I observe myself with humor as I fumble to simply wake up earlier than I am used to. It is an opportunity to get some perspective on myself and flex my muscles regarding will, growth, and change. And yes, in the end I do get up and make it to services on time. I feel good about my success, and easily ignore the fact that I have completely missed the point in what Rambam has been telling me.
And here is why. The shofar is a call to the sleepwalker, who lives in a dream and does not even know he is asleep. This metaphor is speaking not only to a need for awareness but even more to the painful truth that people tend to be blind to the areas that they most need to fix. It is one thing for me to face the places I need to tweak, bringing more awareness into my life; it is another to face the dark side of my being, the places I am truly off. These are the parts of our personal makeup we cannot afford to even see, and unseen they are doomed to forever persist.
In order to understand what I refer to it is infinitely easier to see blindness of this sort in others. Depending on your political orientation perhaps you can identify places we are blind as a society, unable to face the hard cold fact of our corrupted vision and society. I realize that many of us will come up with opposing attitudes on the national level – imagine if you had a way to wake everyone up to see things as they truly are? Is there any logical reason for us not to assume that we too are blind in some way? Certainly the fact that we don’t see it as so is irrelevant to the question.
This is the real challenge we are called to at this time of year, we who “forget the truth in the mists of time.” It is to scrutinize ourselves and our lives in the full context of reality, to discover where we have been blind, where we have fallen asleep. The optimistic message of our tradition is that we can wake up, people can change and so can a society. In our tradition the utopian climax of the process we refer to as Mashiach will also be heralded by the sound of the shofar. Whatever that concept means for each of us, whatever truth we may yet hope to discover, I bless us all to hear the sound of truth, the sound of the shofar, the ultimate wake up call. And don’t hit snooze.
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of Sulam Yaakov, a Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.