In my last column I wrote of that which we must do in response to the wake-up calls that have been knocking incessantly at our doors these past few months.
We all know that nothing in Jewish life happens by itself – our Torah teaches us that a man does not even stub his toe without it being declared in the Heavens above, so everything has its own message and its own significance.
In Jewish life, there are no random happenings. Every day has its own energy, so it is not by accident that the “messages” that have more recently called out to us have come specifically during this Rosh Hashanah season.
While I wrote in my article that, b’ezrat Hashem, I would try to spell out what these wake-up calls demand of us, I must also be totally realistic and concede that while many will agree that, yes, changes must be made, they are convinced, even as they say so, that it is too late for them. They are what they are and can no longer alter that.
But it is precisely because of this that the wake-up calls were sent to us specifically at this season. We are in the month of Elul, when the sound of the shofar summons us.
The shofar – a primitive instrument that to a stranger sounds like a lot of noise – has a magical power. It is capable of penetrating even the most dormant hearts and souls. Over the centuries we may have assimilated, we may have been lost in the melting pots of foreign cultures, but the magic call of the shofar has never lost its power to resuscitate us.
Therefore, before I write about what the wake-up calls demand of us, I would like us to focus on the shofar – which during this month of Elul is sounded every day in the synagogue, reminding us of the sanctity of our calling and our ability to change. Allow me to take you back to my earliest childhood, a time when the call of the shofar spoke to me for the very first time.
I recall standing next to my mother in synagogue as the shofar was sounded. A feeling of awe and trepidation descended on the congregation as the call of the shofar reverberated. Time stood still. No one moved, and though I was young, I was struck b the sanctity of it all.
Overnight, everything changed. Our synagogue became a wistful memory as the suffocating darkness of the Nazi concentration camp Bergen Belsen enveloped us. But even in that hell on earth, as Rosh Hashanah 1944 neared, we yearned to hear the ancient sound of the shofar and were prepared to make every sacrifice to see our dream fulfilled.
Through heroic efforts and at great risk and sacrifice, we managed to collect 200 cigarettes that we bartered for a shofar. Adjacent to our Hungarian compound was a Polish camp, and they somehow got wind of our treasure. When Rosh Hashanah came and we sounded the shofar, our brethren in the Polish camp crept close to the barbed wire fence separating us so that they too might hear its piercing cry.
Nazi guards came running and beat all of us mercilessly, but even as the truncheons fell on our heads, we cried out, “Baruch atah Hashem, Elokienu Melech Ha’olam, asher kiddishanu b’mitzvosav v’tzivanu l’shmoa kol shofar – Blessed art Thou L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to listen to the sound of the shofar.”
Many years later I was speaking in Israel in Neve Aliza, a village in Samaria. It was late summer, just before the Yomim Noraim, and I related the story of the shofar of Bergen Belsen. When I finished, a woman in the audience stood up. She had a handsome face and appeared to be a little older than I was.
“That shofar you spoke of,” she said. “I know exactly what you are talking about because, you see, my father was the rabbi in the Polish camp. You may not know this, but the shofar was smuggled into our camp and my father blew it there.”
I looked at her, dumbfounded. My eyes filled with tears. There were no words to express the awe that filled my heart.
“I have the shofar in my home,” she went on to say, and with that, she ran to her house and returned with it a few minutes later. We wept, we embraced, we reminisced, all the while clutching the shofar in our hands.
The miracle of that shofar left us breathless. The entire world had declared us dead. Hitler’s “final solution” had taken its toll. Millions of our people were gassed and burned in the crematoria, but the shofar triumphed over the flames. And G-d granted me the privilege of rediscovering it in Eretz Yisrael, in the ancient hills of Samaria. Who would have believed it – the shofar from Bergen Belsen in our Holy Land held by two women who were young children in the camps and who by every law of logic should have perished in the gas chambers.
After almost 2,000 years of wandering, oppression, torture and Holocaust, we returned to our land and the shofar accompanied us. Indeed, who would have believed it?
Now, if the shofar – an inanimate, primitive instrument – can survive the centuries without losing any of its powers, if it can continued to awaken dormant Jewish hearts and charge them with their mission, then surely, every Yiddishe neshamah is a powerhouse into which the shofar can be plugged to create a light that will illuminate the entire world with the Divine light of Torah.
So yes, we can change, because in each and every Yiddish neshamah exists a Divine light – a light that emanates from Sinai and can never be extinguished.
(To Be Continued)