The shofar’s call: Are you focused or busy?
TorahParshat Rosh Hashanah

The shofar’s call: Are you focused or busy?

Genesis 21: 1-34; Numbers 29: 1-6; Samuel I 1:1-2:10

(File photo)
(File photo)

This Rosh Hashanah we will swarm to synagogues to hear the shofar. Some may need to lean over the railing to see the ram’s horn or cup their ears to hear it clearly, but we will make sure to be there.

The shofar is often likened to an alarm clock because, like an alarm clock that wakes the person from his sleep, the shofar of Rosh Hashanah wakes us from our spiritual slumber. This comparison is based on a passage by Maimonides where he writes that the message of the shofar’s call is: “Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep, and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. You, who … devote your energies to vanity and emptiness which will not benefit or save, look to your souls.” Maimonides powerfully presents the image of the shofar waking the sleeper and calling him to repent.

Yet, Maimonides’ choice to call the penitent’s state “slumber” is ironic. The term “slumber” conveys a picture of the person listening to Maimonides’ shofar as passive — one who is not engaged in activity and productive work, and so he needs the shofar to call him to action. Yet Maimonides’ language belies a different image. This person is “devoting his energies.” He is busy and productive. From dawn till dusk he works, and yet he is still “sleeping.” This sleep is not the lack of productivity; on the contrary, the abundance of work itself is what Maimonides categorizes as sleep, because a person overly engaged in the world around him is busy but not focused on his personal spiritual mission, and so requires repentance. His work is his sleep, and he needs to be awakened. In this way, the shofar is less an alarm clock and more a whistle blown to end the workday. The shofar beseeches that we not constantly busy ourselves with the outside but instead focus inward on who we are.

Likewise, R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato (1707-1746) in his “Path of the Just” writes that Pharaoh’s original intention in Jewish servitude was to make the Jews so busy that they would not realize their own strength and take advantage of Egyptian society. Pharaoh feared the Jews and sought to remove their self-awareness and determination. The same thing happens in each of our lives; we trade true self-awareness by overly engaging in everything we pursue outside ourselves. We are too busy to know who we are and our priorities. This busyness is the slumber of Maimonides, and the shofar is meant to jolt us, to focus us on our mission.

As we listen this year to the shofar’s call, let’s tease out its question. How can we be more focused, less busy? What are the goals and mandates to which God is directing our attention and how can we move toward them with engagement? PJC

Rabbi Yitzi Genack is the rabbi of Shaare Torah Congregation. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.

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