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Awaken Sleepers

By: Rav David Milston

“Happy are the people that know Teruah,

they shall walk, Oh Lord, in the light of your countenance.”

 - Tehillim 89:16

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein of blessed memory beautifully explained the above verse by referring to a famous comment made by Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva (3:4):

Even though the instruction to blow Shofar on Rosh HaShana is a Divine commandment with no obvious rationale offered by Scripture, there is nonetheless a clear underlying message inherent within the sounds of the Shofar – awaken sleepers from your deep sleep, and those who slumber from your dozing.

What is the difference between sleep and slumber?

The sleeper wishes to sleep peacefully, undisturbed, until he wakes naturally from his resting. He will be frustrated and perhaps even annoyed if anyone wakens him from his sleep before he is ready to rise and shine. The one who slumbers on the other hand has no time to sleep peacefully, but every so often unintentionally and unavoidably briefly dozes because of his accumulating fatigue. He certainly doesn’t have time for a long rest and is only too happy for others to wake him prematurely from his slumber.

The objective of blowing the Shofar is to awaken all sleepers, light and deep respectively. There are those who are fast asleep in the world of material aspirations and animal pleasures, immersed in , with no wish to associate themselves with their religion or their God; they do not wish to be woken up, they do not want to be reminded of how they may have regressed over the past years. They are frustrated and even annoyed by the arrival of the Yamim Noraim; the sound of the Shofar irritates them because they know, deep down, that they really have to wake up, but they would prefer to roll over and simply turn a cold shoulder. Maybe if they ignore the truth it will go away?

But there are also those who had no intention to slumber. They have inadvertently regressed, perhaps lost their focus, because of the hustle and bustle of every day life. They overtly proclaim their religious objectives and they have never lost sight of their goals, but they have slightly slipped, perhaps through cumulative spiritual fatigue, religious "wear and tear". These people are delighted to hear the sound of the Shofar. They wanted to be woken up if they slumbered and are only too happy to hear the alarm clock ring! Now that they are awake, they are raring to go, energetically anticipating a new day.

This is how we should understand the verse initially quoted. Happy are those who know what the Teruah represents, who understand the urgent need to wake up, who yearn for these days of introspection and self-analysis - if only every month was Ellul! These people are infinitely grateful at having been stirred from their slumber before missing that train called life!

As we approach another year end, we primarily thank God for the year that has passed, we thank Him for being here – - and then we suddenly stop and remember that yet another year has passed. As John Lennon wrote – "Life is something that happens when you're busy making other plans." It is hard to recollect where exactly the days, weeks, and months went. What did we achieve in essence? Did we set ourselves objectives last Rosh HaShana? Did we get anywhere near realizing the goals that we set, or did we simply "go back to bed" immediately after dismantling the Sukkah?

As we hear the Shofar throughout the month of Ellul, we begin to stir, and then just a few days prior to Rosh HaShana, the Ashkenazim amongst us, begin to wake up early in the morning to join our Sefardi brothers in selichot. If the shofar is the initial alarm clock, then reciting selichot is perhaps the refreshing splashes of cold water on our faces, as we begin to remove the sleep from our eyes.

But it is not enough to be awake; we must be resolute in our determination to remain awake, to concentrate on our goals, to return to the objectives set, to push forward in our march towards the truth.

And in truth we should not distinguish between those who sleep and those who slumber as if they are two distinct groups of people. Each and every one of us chooses to sleep regarding some issues and only slumber regarding others. There are issues that we simply do not wish to confront. To confront would inevitably demand change, and change scares us, so we overlook, perhaps even rationalize our attitudes towards them, not only ignoring the alarm clock – either we press the "snooze" button or worse still we take a sleeping pill – anything to avoid the truth.

It would be self-serving and pointless to suggest that we too are not sleepers, because we are, each one of us. Each in their own field chooses to avoid the issues that they feel threatened by, be it regarding halachot that require of us to refrain from doing things that we enjoy doing, be it from hashkafot that demand of us to make life changing decisions we do not feel we are up to making. Yet in the meantime, when all is said and nothing done - life marches on; the years go by and we remain asleep; potential is wasted, dreams are shattered and we passively accept a life of mediocrity.

If only we were able to look ahead during our brief moments of spiritual consciousness when we are inspired by these so very holy days; if only we were able to envisage the nightmare scenario of reaching a ripe old age only to be frustrated by the blatantly obvious truth - that we might have wasted the greatest gift that we ever received – life itself!

My Teacher and mentor, Rabbi Isaac Bernstein of blessed memory, once commented when speaking of Pesach Sheni that there are few things in life that you cannot do twice; any examination failed can be retaken; if you miss one bus there will always be another one. But the one thing we cannot do twice in life is life itself. We are only eighteen once, we are only twenty-five once, and so on and so forth – we have no time to sleep. When we avoid issues, when we pretend that they do not exist, we are simply taking a pain reliever with an aim at shunning the truth, but we really need antibiotics! The truth never goes away, and a fault will not be fixed if we don’t consciously set out to repair it.   

So let us start anew this year. We must listen carefully to the sounds of the Shofar, and instead of pressing the metaphorical snooze button and going back to sleep, let us jump out of bed, wash our faces and stride forwards - only forwards and upwards. Let us aspire to excellence in our lives, strive to refine who we are and our relationship with the Almighty. Let us be sure to truly evaluate who we are and what the Almighty expects of us, so that this time next year we can be happy in the knowledge that we have used our time well, and then we can aim even higher!

Perhaps take some time out on Erev Rosh HaShana - write a letter to yourself. List your objectives for the next six months, and open it up on Erev Pesach to see how you have fared. If we keep doing this every half year, it will assist us in defining our objectives and analyzing our performance. If a car needs to be checked every year before it can continue to be used on the road, then the least we can do is check ourselves before we once again turn on the engine for the coming year.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy new year:

Let our happiness be one of inner fulfillment and real achievement.

Let our health be not only of the body but of the soul too - I see so many people taking their physical health seriously, baruch Hashem, exercising, eating healthily, imagine if we made the same efforts with our spiritual wellbeing!

Let this be a year of peace for Am Yisrael, a year of continued redemption in Eretz Yisrael                                                                                                                   



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