Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Relief of the Shofar

This was a first for me: When the shofar blew after davening on Wednesday morning, I felt a real wave of relief.

Yes, relief.

I normally put my tallis over my head before the shofar is blown, and wait to feel two changes: A humbling as I face judgment, and an increase in stress about that coming judgment. Today, the start of Elul, had the first of those two changes, but instead of stress, I felt relief.

Part of that relief was because I am no longer a shul rabbi. Elul's Shofar does not mean, "You are facing a gauntlet of three-day Yamim Tovim, you need to write 15 derashos, boy are you in trouble!" So a world of stress is gone from my shoulders.

And, Wednesday's shofar brought me relief because it is the starter's gun for real reform. I have spent weeks and months thinking about things I should be doing differently – but now the season has begun for implementing those changes. Think of it as "nesting" for the soul.

And a big part of it is that I welcome the arrival of these High Holy Days because they bring with them the world of honest emotion.

The intellectual pursuits of Torah study, teaching and debating, can be beautiful and inspiring, but they can also be depressingly empty. It is easy to be tempted into the superficial. It is easy to learn without the intensity required for long-term memory. It is easy to get caught up in making arguments to prove a pilpulish point, to explain an idea that is known to be incorrect, to determine that an author was consistent in his incorrect conception. It is easy to invest hours are in pursuing a reading that is not followed in practice, because it was the reading used by a particular scholar. It is easy to become involved in the pursuit of knowledge for all the wrong reasons - to demonstrate personal greatness, to defeat others.

In discussions of philosophy, unfounded doubts may be raised about fundamental elements of faith and unfounded assertions may be made in defense of those fundamental elements of faith. Theories are sometimes proposed even though their proponents themselves don't trust them, and archaic constructions explored even though the ideas involved have long since been discredited. I find that wearying.

Emotion, on the other hand, is honest and substantive and large to me, and real regardless of its stimuli and motivations. The crying of grief; the joy of a birth; the laughter and smiles of people enjoying each other's company; the love of a couple or of parents and children – to mangle a line attributed to Rav Chaim Brisker, "You can shlug up [refute] a dvar torah, but you can't shlug up the human heart." You can't shlug up humility, or tears, or commitment to improvement.

So Elul's shofar siren that summons us to self-analysis, to humility, to honesty, to regret, is welcome. Even though I know I will find myself short in many areas, I prefer that.


  1. dynamic balance kemosabe- too much intellect or emotion can be misleading (for $1 I will tell you the magic secret answer to the balance equation)

    actually i'll tell you for free- there is no magic secret answer, it's always a work in progress.
    Joel Rich

  2. What about high level learning with an eye toward practical application? This seems to get lost in intellect vs. emotion discussions.

  3. Your post has echoes of Kohelet . . .

  4. Joel-
    As always.

    Why isn't that on the intellect side?

    What do you have in mind?

  5. With re echoes of Kohelet, I was thinking of Kohelet talking about acquiring wisdom, and its futility. But then, you have various times he emphasizes emotional attachment. One pasuk (I can't recall which) talks about rejoicing with one's wife; another, (11:9), "שְׂמַ֧ח בָּח֣וּר בְּיַלְדוּתֶ֗יךָ וִֽיטִֽיבְךָ֤ לִבְּךָ֙ בִּימֵ֣י בְחֽוּרוֹתֶ֔יךָ וְהַלֵּךְ֙ בְּדַרְכֵ֣י לִבְּךָ֔ וּבְמַרְאֵ֖י עֵינֶ֑יךָ וְדָ֕ע כִּ֧י עַל־כָּל־אֵ֛לֶּה יְבִֽיאֲךָ֥ הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים בַּמִּשְׁפָּֽט
    , emphasizing (as I see it) both the importance of emotional life, as well as yirat shamayim.
    Then in the end of the twelth perek, you have "asot sfarim harbei ein keitz", followed by the emphasis on yirat Haelokim.

    I thought that was the direction you took in your post-- I tried the intellectual, but haveil havalim, it's all re'ut ruach. The only thing true that you can't shlug up is emotion-- towards people and towards God.

  6. R' Michael-
    I see; I hadn't thought about Koheles that way, but it's certainly a possible read. Thanks!

  7. For full explanation of Shofar, its influence on prayer and its historical antecedents going back to the Temple sacrifices,
    go to:

    Hearing Shofar

    Shofar Blog

  8. "Bob-
    Why isn't that on the intellect side?"

    It certainly could be, but "intellectual" and "lishmah" are both often taken to signify theoretical rather than practical.

    Also, is it fair to say that there is an emotional component to psak?

  9. That is why the Rambam states in
    Hilchos Teshuvah 3:4 that even though Tekias shofar is a gezeiras hakasuv, the Rambam adds there is a hint of "wake up from your sleep
    and arouse yourself from your somnolence."
    The importance of effecting the emotions,where real change can occur.

  10. The Gemara in Eruvin tells us why Beis Hillel was chosen over Beis Shamai because of their emotional,anivus, character attributes.
    Differentiate between Rav Shlomo Zalman Aeurbach ZT"L from Rav Shalom Elyashiv.,Shlit"a.
    Who has the smile on their face?

  11. Bob-
    There is, but my experience of it is different from the sort of emotion I describe in the post.

    daat y-
    Why is a smile a determining factor?

  12. It appears simplified.
    However ,on one foot,it tells us so much about the personality of the posek.How he relates to others.How much the individual receives a personal teshuvah to his question.The value of the question to the posek,etc.

  13. Really? But might a grimace not convey intense focus?

  14. Intense focus during evaluating a question is entirely different.
    I am discussing, as I stated, the personality of the posek or person,how they relate to the questioner and how they individualize their teshuvot ,all within the framework of Halacha.