The sound of the shofar is the sound of this season. Beginning with the first day of Elul, the month concluded 10 days ago, and continuing through Sukkot, according to tradition, we have the privilege of hearing the sound of the shofar. On Rosh Hashanah, when it is a mitzvah, an obligation to hear the shofar, we heard one hundred blasts, all meant to wake us up, call us back, to the opportunity of a new year, to the truth of ourselves. The sound is meant to shake us into action, to begin in earnest the work of teshuvah, of return, to our truth and God’s truth. Tomorrow afternoon, we will conclude our Yom Kippur worship with a tekiah gedolah, a great tekiah, a long blast that serves as acclamation, exclamation, and supplication all in one. How can a mere sound accomplish all this? Well may we ask.
Most of us fulfill our obligation to hear the shofar by listening while our ba’al tekiah, our shofar-sounder, does all the hard work. Still, hearing the sound—truly hearing—is no easy task. In order for us to truly hear the sound, we must experience it not only as an alarm, a cry rousing us from the outside; we must also experience it as a cry torn from within each one of us, the voice of our own deepest longings to return, to do teshuvah, to become one again with ourselves and with God.
The story I share with you tonight, “The Sound of the Shofar,” is a retelling of a tale by the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Master of the Good Name, the father of modern Hasidism, who led and taught his followers through the middle years of the eighteenth century from the town of Medzhybizh, now Ukraine.
[The following has been adapted from a retelling by Eitan Press.]
There once was a King whose vast realm spanned many lands. The King was good, wise and kind. He knew that the throne was given to him in order to serve his people and he dedicated his life to stewarding and building a kingdom of justice, compassion, and peace. The King had a son, a prince whom he loved very much. The Prince lived in the royal castle with his family and his days were spent studying, practicing arts that would prepare him to govern and learning about people so he could serve them. The Prince was taught that, although he was a prince, he was not here to live just for himself. Rather, he was
here to help others, but one part of a great tapestry of life. The King taught him that invisible threads bound him to all the other people and beings that made up this tapestry, and his task was to tend to this great whole. He learned that human beings should be treated with the utmost respect, that life was sacred and that each of his actions was important. How easy it was to destroy and how hard it was to build. He was trained that the motivations for his actions should come from within himself; he learned not to react but to choose and most importantly, to love his fellow as himself. He learned these and many other lessons and they filled his life with blessing.
Then one day his father, the King, told him he must go to a small town very far from the castle, to a place so far away that most people did not even know that there was a King. He was told to live there, to become acquainted with the people, and to share with them the lessons he had learned in the castle. It pained the heart of the Prince to leave his father, family and everything he loved, but he trusted his father and so he departed on his mission. He journeyed for weeks across the land to the edge of his father’s realm, until he arrived at his destination. Although he wore the royal garb of the castle, none of the people in the town recognized him or his special status. The Prince made his way to the market and his eyes beheld new sights that worried him. The people of this town did not conduct themselves like those who inhabited the castle and its surrounding lands.
The people of this place pushed and shoved one another. They yelled and addressed each other in harsh tones, rather than speaking kindly to one another. The Prince saw people lying in the street and others walking around or over them as if they weren’t there. He saw people walking with eyes downcast, ignoring each other. Without saying a word these people seemed to say that life, their own and others’, was a burden, only so many mouths to feed. As the Prince walked through the market, scanning the faces in the crowd, he saw that people here had forgotten that they were good, that life was a gift, and that their actions mattered.
The Prince yearned to return to the castle, but he felt keenly the responsibility his father had entrusted to him, and so he found work and lodgings and set out to live among the people, to try spread among them the teachings of the King. At first life in this town was painful for the Prince; the smells of poorly tended bodies, the sounds of suffering and the scenes of cruelty or indifference offended his tender sensibilities. It was difficult to bear how rudely the townspeople spoke to each other, and to him. Although the Prince tried to reply courteously, eventually he felt sparks of anger at such treatment. It
seemed as if people found something to argue about even when nothing was wrong, and it grew harder for the Prince to abide the daily teasing, taunting and curses that many accepted as a part of life. Still he tried to set an example by being kind to those around him and by speaking of the importance of loving one’s neighbor. He knew that there was a higher way of living, but most people neither heard, nor cared. Only the nightly games and circuses that served to distract them from their desperate existence held their attention for any length of time.
The Prince’s anger and frustration grew until the desire to run away or lash out stayed with him every waking moment. The Prince began to doubt himself, to believe he was too small to withstand the darkness of the ignorance and suffering he saw all around him. He tried to hold on to the lessons he learned in the castle, but he felt he received only insults for any good deed, and that his kindness was for naught. The Prince’s open heart began to close, and eventually he despaired. He became cynical. It grew harder for him to care about anything, and he began to dislike people for no reason. The quotidian cruelties that surrounded him, the daily acts of self- destruction that once saddened and repulsed him, he now took for granted and even laughed at.
Over time the Prince grew so used to his surroundings, so used to being treated as if he were some sort of object rather than a person, that eventually he forgot all about the King’s mission, forgot his former thoughts and dreams. He grew coarse—numb. It had been so long since he left the castle, so long since he had been in the presence of the King, that all his father’s wisdom, the image of the great tapestry of life, and finally even the knowledge that he was a child of the King, all left him. His robes grew dark with stains, threadbare and torn, and now resembled the mud-colored rags everyone else around him wore. His face changed, for the expressions of love and joy that had formerly always graced his countenance were replaced with a habitual scowl of weariness and ennui. He sought each day only what he required to survive, or, if anything more, a few minutes’ distraction in the form of some spectacle or another from the meaninglessness of his existence.
Things stayed this way for many years until one morning the Prince saw a crowd gathering along the sides of the town’s main highway. He asked a passerby what was happening he was told that the “King” was passing through the town and it was a special day. At first, the Prince, thought perhaps the “King” was another type of circus performer, and so he pushed close to the front of the crowd to get a better view. He saw something in the street he did not expect: uniformed soldiers with
the royal crest emblazoned on their coats. Then the Prince’s eyes went wide, and it was as if a horn blasted inside him, and his heart began to beat in his chest. The Prince, along with the rest of the crowd, stared at the proud soldiers marching in orderly lines and then following behind them came row upon row of royal Knights seated on great horses. Their silver armor gleamed in the sunlight and their bearing was regal and beautiful. Then into view came a golden carriage and in it sat a man whose being emanated love, kindness, justice and mercy — in it sat the King. It seemed as if an invisible light was radiating from the carriage, strengthening and healing all whom it touched. All who saw him now recognized the King. He greeted his subjects with love. He asked if any had seen his son.
In the mind of the Prince a glimmer of remembrance awoke within him. For the first time in a very long time he recalled that he was the son of the King and that something terrible had happened to him. That the King was real. Love was real. Goodness was real. Truth was real. That he was so much more than he appeared to be, more than what he had become. That he was the Prince! He began to weep for how much he had lost, how much he had forgotten. Just then the carriage of the King passed before him. The Prince knew that at any moment he could lose this spark of self-knowledge, this insight of truth. He knew he must do something. But he could not speak for he did not have the words, the gentle language of the castle long forgotten. He could not call out, “Father, it is me!” Nor could he come after the carriage now moving away from him, for he knew that guards would not recognize him, his face now hard, lined with pain, his clothing the coarse, torn garments of the street folk.
All the Prince wanted was to sit once again beside his father the King. The carriage continued on, farther and farther away. He felt as if his heart were going to burst in his chest when suddenly out of his mouth, from the depths of his soul, came a cry, an involuntary piercing wail that passed like a shock-wave through the crowd. Every inch of his being was screaming, screaming, wailing, aching so badly to return to presence of his father the King, to return to his true self, his original being. The crowd, recovering from its initial surprise, ignored the screaming man. The guards around the carriage tightened their grips on their spears, an eye cast backwards, alert for any danger.
But the carriage of the King began to slow and came to a halt. At some unseen signal one of the guards approached the King. He bent in toward the King, listening, then looked at the man weeping in the crowd. The Prince, still looking toward the King, bright eyes on fire, with yearning in his heart and tears streaming down his face, saw the guard. Their eyes met, and the guard’s face lit up with a sudden knowing. To the surprise of all gathered there, the guard walked quickly from the King’s carriage and stood before the ragged, weeping man. Slowly, the guard saluted the Prince, gently took his arm, and led him to the carriage, where the King, his father, awaited him.
It was the Prince’s piercing cry, the same cry he heard when his son was a baby, that the King recognized. The King opened his arms, embraced his son. The Prince had returned.
The story is an allegory. The King is God, whatever you believe to be the source of wisdom, compassion, justice, and truth. The castle represents our origins, that mixture of heaven and earth, the mystery and purity of a newborn child. The distant town represents our broken world, with its many obstacles and distractions vying to separate us from our truth and our dreams. The prince is each of us. His cry is the voice inside each one of us, the voice that still remembers who we truly are behind these masks we wear, beneath these stained and tattered robes. The voice that tells us who we are meant to be. Most of the time this voice is scarcely audible beneath the noise of daily life. Most of the time, it is muffled, either by our pride and our fear, or by forgetfulness.
It is the cry of the shofar, which represents the desperate cry of our souls, if only we find the courage and the humility to let our soul speak its truth, speak its desire to return to ourselves, to become on this Day of Atonement at-one with our truth, inside and out.
So, with the blast of the shofar tomorrow night, that last wild cry, that tekiah gedolah, so may each one of us return.
Gemar hatimah tovah. May you be sealed for truth, for blessing, for wholeness—at-one-ment—in this new year.