Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger
The Elul Shofar
Is there a more sobering and even disquieting sound in our tradition than the Elul shofar, announcing that Rosh Hashana is upon us once again and then marking the march of time as we get closer and closer? It is in this two step fashion that the Rosh (at the end of Maseches Rosh Hashana) presents the history and observance of the Elul shofar. The earliest source of this practice presents it as a rabbinic legislation but sees it limited to blowing the shofar on rosh chodesh Elul alone. A medrash (Pirkei Derabi Eliezer, chapter 46) records that on our very first Rosh Chodesh Elul, a few months after matan Torah and the calamitous chet haeigel, we were, understandably, a shaken and spiritually diminished people. As Moshe was invited to ascend Har Sinai to accept the luchos one more time, we grew concerned that we would err once again in calculating Moshe’s return, and despair over his absence. Therefore we decided to sound the shofar as Moshe left us. The medrash concludes that as the Rabbis realized that Hashem was greatly honored by this shofar sound, they legislated its reenactment every rosh chodesh Elul. The Rosh further comments that we then continue to sound the shofar every morning of the month to remind us to do teshuva.
What impressed our sages so, that they decided to memorialize that one sounding of the shofar of rosh chodesh? Moreover, did the Rosh record a second and independent practice which happens to dovetail with the rabbinic enactment of rosh chodesh? Are we to continue memorializing that event throughout Elul, and if so, why?
I would suggest that the shofar of Elul reminds us of the avoda of Elul, the spiritual responsibilities and challenge that we face throughout our preparation for the yomim tovim. I believe that the decision to sound the shofar as Moshe ascended added a voluntary but often time indispensable dimension to the teshuva process. Perhaps that is why Hashem himself was honored in an unparalleled fashion at that moment. Let me explain.
It is well known that the mitzvah of teshuva prescribes that we must respond to our flaws and errors through admission of our lapses, expression of regret and shame at our lack of compliance to Hashem, and articulate our further commitment to do better going forward. Rambam teaches that our thought process must be earnest enough to win the nod of Hashem himself, and further teaches that the process is completed once it is tested and we err not again (Hilchos Teshuva chapter 2).
However Moshe's generation adopted a new behavior to bolster their pledge for the future and thus introduced a new concept to the teshuva process. The halachos of teshuva are fully satisfied by a genuine and deep cheshbon hanefesh - soul searching introspection and commitment. Yet we know that we often have trouble following through, especially if we are repeat offenders and have unsuccessfully tried with all the seriousness we can muster, to improve. Many of us find ourselves honestly mentioning the same misstep in the al cheits year after year.
The shofar reminds us of a technique that we established long ago when we experienced deep remorse of the past and profound fear of our frailty in the future. Sometimes even deep seated regret may simply not be enough. Action may be required. In halacha and in the mussar seforim it is called making a “geder - fence”, a protective measure.
In practice the person who has trouble arousing himself for minyan makes a geder to learn with someone else before davening adding extra pressure on himself when he is sill half asleep. The person who finds the days roll by without learning will establish the geder of setting his time to learn immediately after dinner or maariv. Similar gedorim may aid the individual who never finds the time to exercise or to make the all important phone calls. Self awareness and creativity will help one find a protective move or act that will forestall compromising another’s privacy or dignity, and maintaining the standards of interpersonal conduct for which we strive.
The decision to sound the shofar that rosh chodesh Elul signaled the deepest remorse, the insightful realization of human weakness, and launched a form of tikun that deserved eternal observance. Later generations understood this and established the daily shofar so that we would consider this tikun over and over again as part of our avodah throughout the month of Elul.