Few sounds elicit the powerful emotions that greet the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Throughout the generations, the call of the shofar has been associated with stern judgment; this piercing sound fills the Jewish heart with enormous fear and trepidation.
Yet the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 29:5) tells us that with the sounding of the shofar, Hakadosh Baruch Hu, kavayachol, rises from the throne of judgment and sits on the throne of mercy.
So, which attribute does the shofar represent? Judgment or mercy?
The Rebbe, Harav Yonason Eibeshutz, zy”a, explains that the answer to this question is already alluded to in the poignant and powerful words of the piyut Unesana Tokef. “Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening…The great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin sound will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them and they will say — it is the Day of Judgment!”
The sound of the shofar does indeed symbolize strict judgment, but the judgment On High doesn’t commence until the shofar is sounded in this temporal world.
As the prosecuting angels gather in Shamayim seeking to condemn Am Yisrael, it seems as if our case is lost, with no one to come to our aid.
But then the shofar is blown below and in response, the sound of a shofar is also heard Above. The prosecuting angels are filled with trembling and terror as they declare, “It is the Day of Judgment!” In their haste and grave worries over their own fate, they desist from speaking ill against Klal Yisrael, allowing us to emerge victorious in judgment. The same sound of the shofar that bodes judgment to the angels represents the attribute of Heavenly mercy to Klal Yisrael.
* * *
In his sefer Kedushas Levi, the Berditchever Rav, zy”a, told a parable about a king who went hunting alone in a large forest. As he went further and further into the woods, he lost his way, and began to ask directions of the local inhabitants. They didn’t recognize the king, and having no knowledge of the main highways leading to the royal palace, they were unable to be of assistance.
Fortunately, the king encountered a wise and knowledgeable man who grasped the real identity of the lost monarch, promptly showed him the shortest and easiest way out of the forest, and accompanied him as far as the palace. The king, very impressed with the man, appointed him in charge over all his ministers, and dressed him in valuable clothing. The man’s old clothing was placed in the royal treasure house.
After a long period of time had passed, the guide-turned-minister sinned against the king, who instructed that he be placed on trial. Knowing full well that the verdict would be “guilty” and his punishment severe, the wise man was very fearful.
In an act of desperation, he threw himself at the king’s feet and begged for mercy, requesting that before his fate be pronounced, he should be allowed to don the clothing he was wearing when he first met the king in the forest.
The king acquiesced. When the man appeared before the king in those clothes, the king recalled the great kindness that had been shown to him when he was lost, and how the man had led him all the way back to the palace.
The king’s heart filled with mercy, he forgave him for his sin, and returned him to his prestigious position.
At the time of Mattan Torah, Hashem offered the Torah to the other nations and each one refused. Only Am Yisrael agreed to accept the Torah, and did so with great joy, declaring Na’aseh before Nishma and accepting upon themselves the Kingdom of Hashem.
Now, as we enter Rosh Hashanah, we are cognizant of the sins we have committed against Hashem and are filled with fear over our fate.
We therefore blow the shofar, for the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai was accompanied by the call of the shofar. Thus we seek to evoke the memory of the time that we alone chose to accept the Torah, and in this merit Hashem should forgive our sins.
* * *
One year, speaking before the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the Berditchever Rav declared, “Ribbono shel Olam, You instructed us that it is a day of Teruah, and because of this one command we blow one hundred sounds. For thousands of years, tens of thousands of Yidden blow these hundred sounds.
“We, tens of thousands of Yidden,” the Rebbe continued, “cry out and plead with You for hundreds of years, ‘Sound only one tekiah — from the great shofar for our freedom,’ and yet You have not blown!”
May each member of Klal Yisrael merit a kesivah vachasimah tovah, and may we speedily hear the Kol Shofar of Moshiach tzidkeinu.