A few summers ago, after complaints from local residents, a priest in Tilberg, the Netherlands, was fined several thousand dollars for ringing his church bells just after 7:00 in the morning.
That mid-August, like this one, synagogues around the world – many of them at just about that same time of morning – were sounding an alarm of their own. No complaints were reported about the shofar, or ram’s horn, blasts sounded at the end of morning services. The shofar-soundings began on the first day of the Jewish month of Elul and continue every morning until the day before Rosh Hashana.
The Rambam, Maimonides, famously described the blowing of the shofar on that holiday as a wake-up call – bearing the unspoken but urgent message “Awaken, sleepers, from your slumber.” The slumber, he went on to explain, is our floundering in the “meaningless distractions of the temporal world” we occupy. The shofar throughout Elul calls on us to refocus on what alone is real in life: serving our Creator. And should we choose to hit the spiritual snooze-button, the alarm is sounded the next day, and the one after that.
It is so much easier to sleep, of course, through the alarm clock, both the literal one in the morning and the figurative one that rudely echoes in our hearts as we busy ourselves with the “important” diversions that so often fill our days.
What is more, just as, lost in our morning muddle, we may wish ill on our alarm clocks, we tend at times to resent our life-responsibilities.
How differently we would feel if only we realized the import of obligation – how accountability actually holds the seeds of joy.
The weekly Torah portion usually read near the start of Elul has G-d describing idolatry, the most severe of sins, as bowing down before “the sun, moon or other heavenly bodies that I have not commanded” [Deuteronomy 17:3].
That last phrase was clarified by the Jewish translators of the Torah into Greek, as “that I have not commanded you to serve” – removing any ambiguity from the text; the standard Torah commentary Rashi follows suit.
The Hassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, however, revealed another layer of the phrase’s meaning.
He noted that there is an exception to the prohibition of genuflecting before something physical: bowing down to a human being. We find, for instance, that the prophet Obadiah bowed before his master Elijah, who, while human, nevertheless embodied a degree of G-dliness. Explained Rabbi Levi Yitzchak: A human being, by virtue of his having chosen and forged a path of holiness in life, is worthy of veneration of a sort that is forbidden to show to any other creation.
What allows human beings to attain so lofty a status, “The Berditchiver” continues, is that we are commanded – creatures intended not just to exist, but to shoulder responsibility. That allows us to become partners in a way with the Divine. And so it is precisely our obligations that exalt us, that place us on a plane above everything else in the universe.
That thought, explained the Hassidic master, lies beneath the surface of the verse cited above. We are forbidden to bow to the sun and moon because “I have not commanded” them – because they are not themselves commanded. They are not charged to choose, instructed in any way to act against their natures.
We humans, however, with our many duties that may cause us to chafe or grumble, are elevated beings, infused with holiness. And our responsibilities are what make our lives potential wells of holiness, what make our existences deeply meaningful.
That idea might grant us some understanding of an oddity: Rosh Hashana is described both as a Day of Judgment and as a joyous holiday. Even as we tremble as we stand “like sheep” before the Judge of all, we are enjoined to partake in festive holiday meals and, as on other festivals, to derive happiness from them.
Perhaps the seeming paradox is solved by the recognition that the reason we can, indeed must, be judged derives directly from our accountability. Even – perhaps especially – when the alarm clock interrupts our reveries, our responsibilities should fill us with the deepest gratitude and joy.
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran