As I get ready for Rosh Hashanah, so many memories rush into my mind. I remember my early childhood in Hungary. When the shofar was blown on Rosh Hashanah we stood at attention. None of the children – or, for that matter, even the toddlers – dared move. We were raised to know that one mustn’t make a sound at that sacred moment. As for the elderly, they wept, their tears silently streaming from their eyes. They wept not only during the call of the shofar but throughout the davening.
These days, that sense of awe has disappeared. When someone cries in shul we assume something must be terribly wrong. We ask ourselves: Who is ill? Who needs a shidduch for a daughter or a son? Who needs parnassah? After all, why would anyone cry unless he or she was in desperate need?
In Europe we wept just because we were in shul, just because we were standing before our Creator.
You can imagine, therefore, how we suffered in Bergen-Belsen as Rosh Hashanah drew near and we had no shofar, no machzor. The rabbis held secret meetings. They tried to ascertain how they could possibly obtain a shofar and a machzor. There was a black market in the camp and things could be acquired for the right price, especially if those “things” were Jewish ritual items. They were all in the junk pile waiting to be destroyed.
So it was through the heroic efforts of our people that 300 cigarettes were collected to buy a shofar and a machzor. But there was another problem. One shofar could be heard by multitudes but surely one machzor would not suffice. So once again our rabbis designed a plan. Everyone would learn at least one prayer to be recited from memory. But which prayer, which Psalm, which berachah? Surely all the supplications, all the Psalms, all the blessings in the machzor are holy. So which one should it be?
The decision was made: “Bochen levavos – let us pray to Him who searches and tests our hearts on that day of judgment.” Yes, we invited G-d to come to Bergen-Belsen and examine our hearts in order to see for Himself that despite our pain and suffering we had not faltered one bit in our faith and love for Him.
Adjacent to our compound was a Polish camp (the Nazis often kept nationalities separate). Somehow our Polish brethren got wind of our treasure. So when Rosh Hashanah came and the piercing cry of the shofar was sounded, our Polish brethren crept close to the barbed wire fence separating us to hear the ancient call. The Nazis came running and beat them mercilessly. But even as the truncheons were falling on their heads they cried out, “Blessed is the Lord our G-d who has commanded us to listen to the sound of the shofar.”
Many years later I was lecturing in Israel in a village in Samaria called Neve Aliza. It was late summer, just before Rosh Hashanah, and I felt a need to tell the story of the shofar of Bergen-Belsen. When I finished, a woman in the audience got up. “I know exactly what you are talking about,” she said, “because my father was the rabbi in the Polish compound. You may not realize this, but your shofar was smuggled into our camp in the bottom of a large garbage can filled with soup and my father blew the shofar for us.”
I looked at her, momentarily speechless.
“And that’s not all,” she went on to say. “I have the shofar in my house, here in Neve Aliza. When we were liberated, we blew the shofar again and my father took it with him. Today I have it here in Eretz Yisrael.”
With that, she ran home and returned a few minutes later with the shofar in her hands. We wept and embraced. Here we were, two little girls from Belgen-Belsen holding that shofar in the hills of Israel. I invite you to think about that and then to think about it again – and again.
The entire world had declared us dead. Millions of our people had been slaughtered but the shofar, the symbol of Jewish piety, triumphed over the flames. And G-d granted me the awesome privilege of rediscovering that shofar in the ancient hills of Samaria to which our people had returned after more than two thousand years of wandering, darkness, oppression and Holocaust – the miracle of our time.
The call of the shofar is eternal. Its magnetic allurement cannot be explained. It is not musical. Those who lack understanding might describe its sound as primitive. But when the Jewish people hear the cry, it’s familiar. It awakens us. We heard that cry before and we remember it. We heard it at Sinai when it entered our souls and it is forever embedded in our collective memory, in our inner hearts, in our very neshamahs.
Consider what we have been destined to hear with our own ears and see with our own eyes. We Jews have traversed the world, surviving long, tortuous centuries. Many of us have forgotten our past but even the most assimilated among us have never forgotten that shofar, that call that pierced the heavens and the earth.
Our generation has been blessed to behold that which our zaidies and bubbies could only dream of. We heard and saw the chief rabbi of the Israeli army, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, of blessed memory, blow the shofar at the Kotel and in Hebron and Kever Rochel after long centuries of exile. Its sound remains as fresh and inspiring as it was at Sinai. From Belgen-Belsen to Eretz Yisrael and back to Sinai; that would seem to be sufficient reason for every Jew to stand in awe and say, “Hineni, here I am, ready to serve my G-d.”
May the sound of the shofar that will summon us to welcome Mashiach be heard speedily in our own days.
With a heart full of prayers, blessings and love I wish my readers and all of Klal Yisrael a kesivah v’chasimah tovah.