I’d like to present three puzzling teachings of our Sages concerning the shofar we blow on Rosh Hashanah, and explain how they can all be understood through one fundamental concept. First of all, why do we use a ram’s horn and not the horn of some other animal? The Sages tells us that this “brings up before G-d the memory of Yitzchak bound on the altar prepared to be offered up as a sacrifice.” G-d then promises to view us as if we prepared ourselves as a sacrifice before Him (Rosh Hashanah 16b). Now, we might wonder, does G-d really need symbolic reminders of Yitzchak’s self-sacrifice? The moments of history lay before Him like the words on a paper before the eyes of the reader. G-d does not need a symbolic horn to recall Yitzchak bound on the altar and the ram which ultimately substituted for him.
Another puzzle: Our Sages explain that we sound the shofar twice on Rosh Hashanah – once while congregants are seated and then again while they are standing in prayer – in order to “confuse the Satan.” It will cause him to fear that the Final Redemption has arrived and that his career is over. We want to confuse the Satan so that he does not testify against us during these crucial moments of judgment. Now, again, we might wonder about this: How can a ram’s horn confuse an angel – especially the angel who specialized in confusing us all year round! Hasn’t he already learned from thousands of previous Rosh Hashanahs that this is not the shofar of the Final Redemption, but rather just the shofar of the Jews in the synagogue on the Day of Judgment?
One more question. In the Mussaf prayers on Rosh Hashanah, we speak of G-d this way: כי שומע קול שופר אתה ומאזין תרועה ואין דומה לך (because You are One who listens to the sounds of the shofar and You hear the Teruah sound, and there is none like You). This seems to imply that G-d has a special ability to hear something in the sounding of the shofar that no one else can hear. What can this possibly be?
The key to all three of these puzzles is the unique capacity of the shofar to wake us up spiritually and put us in touch with our core desire to act in accordance with the will of the King of Kings and to serve Him with our entire being like our patriarch Yitzchak. This desire is deeper than any personal desire, will, or want. Although we may not have been fully cognizant of it (in ourselves or others) during the year, it is still deep within us. It is an unspoken emotion, one that can only be awakened and expressed through the sound of the shofar – a sound that emanates from the soul itself. Not everyone can hear this, and no-one can hear it like G-d. At the crucial moments when G-d judges us in accordance with who we are then and there, we want more than anything to reconnect to this core emotion and will.
We may have been oblivious to the secret of the shofar during the entire year. We may have acted in a manner that was not in accord with this core will. But it is there. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov would say that a Jew is like an onion. The more you peel, the more tears come out. We Jews may have many levels that cover our true identity. But the shofar peels them away. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we wish we would have been able to be better, more real, more spiritual – and we feel a tear roll down onto the Machzor – that is an expression of our true self. And that is exactly how we want G-d to see us when He comes to judge us.
The Satan works overtime all year long to ensure that this does not happen. His mission is to confuse us so that we get out of touch with our true self. When he sees that the core of the Jew is pure and impenetrable to him – an inner will that bursts forth on Rosh Hashanah – he becomes frightened, thinking that he is finished. He knows that if we uncover this level of our true identity, then we will ultimately see the Final Redemption accompanied by the powerful blasts of the great ram’s horn.
In the large coatroom of the well-attended synagogue where I occasionally daven, I recently noticed the following sign: “Beware of pickpockets!” A few days later, another sign went up: “Dear thief! The bag you took contains knives and stones that have great value to me, but absolutely no value to you. Please return the bag to its place!” I figured that the owner must be a shochet. For some reason, I could not get this sign out of my head.
I finally realized that this is the kind of message we should all be conveying to our Evil Inclination during these days leading up to Rosh Hashanah. He stole from us our precious inner identity – what we really are deep inside. Indeed, the Evil Inclination’s worst crime is to make each one of us feel like “just another person.” Lowering our sense of self-worth and, consequently, our expectations of ourselves, causing us to feel that we are just fine the way we are. These days especially, we should force the Evil Inclination to give us back our true identity – which is more valuable than anything else in the world!