Autumn approaches. Before we even realize it, the weather begins to turn, the colors start to deepen. We prepare for a new season. Our activities include adding layers of covering to provide protection against the cold weather soon to follow.
But for every Jew in the world, autumn’s announcement to “Take Cover!” Is preceded and overshadowed by a piercing call that brings a different, contradictory message: “Shed Your ‘Cover.’ ”
That vibrant call, made every year at Rosh Hashanah, is issued from the shofar. When blown on Rosh Hashanah, it reminds us that prior to the conquest of Jericho, Joshua blasted the shofar and “the walls came tumbling down.” On Rosh Hashanah we are taught that true self-analysis involves the breaking down of walls. We all wear all kinds of disguises; penetrate those walls, the shofar says, remove the masks and allow the true persona to emerge.
A tale is told of a desperately sad man who sought counseling. After speaking with him, the doctor suggested he begin intensive therapy the following week. To carry him over, the counselor offered the man a free ticket to see the famous comedian Cornelius, who was in town that night. “He’s hilarious,” the doctor said. “He’ll make you laugh…you’ll feel better.”
With that, the man’s face contorted in pain and he burst into tears. While his patient continued his bitter weeping, the doctor probed. “Why are you crying so? I’ve mapped out a plan to give you relief. Go see Cornelius, he’ll help you.” To this, the desperate man replied amid sobs, “But you don’t understand. I am Cornelius.”
Truthfulness can sometimes be bitter. Looking into yourself can be painful, especially if you think you have little to offer. Here again, the shofar teaches a lesson: Words do not emanate from the ram’s horn but rather a cry – a call whose sounds emerge from the breath of the inner soul, of the person blowing the shofar.
Mystics maintain that some human beings may be evil externally but if you look deeply into the inner being of any person, you will find goodness. The shofar pleads: Return to that inner core, retrieve the power of goodness we so often overlook but which is inherent in every person.
Yet another legend: A short apple tree grew beside a tall cedar. Every night the apple tree would look up and sigh, believing the stars in the sky were hanging from the branches of its tall friend. The little apple tree would lift its branches heavenward and plead “But where are my stars?”
As time passed, the apple tree grew. Its branches produced leaves, passersby enjoyed its shade, and its apples were delectable. But at night, when it looked to the skies, it still felt discontented, inadequate: Other trees had stars, but it did not. It happened once that a strong wind blew, hurling apples to the ground. They fell in such a way that they split horizontally instead of vertically. In the very center of each apple was the outline of a star. The apple tree had possessed stars all along. The inner core was always good, and so it remains.
As with apples, all the more with human beings who must be good. After all, “God does not make junk.” The stars we possess are the seeds of potential goodness; we have the power to rise, but also to fall. What we do with the inner goodness depends on the individual, on each one of us. We can fly higher than the clouds or we can sink deeper than the fish. Such is the challenge of being human; majesty and failure are but a hair’s breadth apart.
A final tale, about an artist who made a sculpture of the most beautiful person anyone had ever seen. Years later, the artist decided it would be interesting to sculpt the ugliest human being as a counterpart to his earlier work.
Rabbi Avi Weiss