Guest Posting By Rabbi Y.Y. Bar-Chaiim - Beyond Satan
“We blow the Shofar for an entire month before Rosh Hashana– right?” I asked the kids, with a suspicious twinkle, during one pre-Rosh HaShana Shabbos meal.
"Na-uh!" a few quickly corrected me, glad to catch my all too typical mistake from the outset.
“Alright, alright" I groan, pretending to mope for losing that round. "So we blow it every weekday morning throughout the month of Elul and then, on the last day, suddenly stop. WHY is that?”
“Oh, that’s eeeasy,” squeal all five in unified, contagious enthusiasm as they vie for getting first shot at the answer.
“Okay sweetheart,” I say to my seven-year-old girl, getting her all excited to become the leader of the pack.
“Because we want to m'arbev es HaSatan,” she bellows triumphantly, quoting a famous statement from the Sages. It means to mix-up the force of evil.
“Very nice. Now, how does that actually work?" I surprise them with my determination to get to the bottom of this fairytale-ish tradition.
“OH, OH... I KNOW!”
I nod to my pensive looking ten-year-old son.
“Well, when we blow the Shofar we’re trying to arouse ourselves do t’shuva (spiritual return; repentance), and so the Satan becomes worried that we just might succeed!"
"Yes, yes, go on…"
"Well, eh, I mean, when he sees us get all this help then he works exxxxtra hard at distracting us. But when we stop with that help, then he loses interest.”
“Aha. I see. Pretty good," I respond, pedantically. Then, after noting that they're thoroughly off their intellectual guards, I zoom in for the jugular. "So tell me, kids: We do this every year. Doesn’t he ever catch on?!”
Giggle, giggle, giggle.
“Nu, Dovidy. What do you think?”
My youngest, our sweet little five-year-old, scrunches up his face and ponders. “Mmm, ummm. Well... eh… that’s just how Hashem MAKES him!”
The giggles now become loud chuckles. They apparently like the idea of the big bad guy a buffoon.
“What do you mean, Dovidl? Hashem makes His k'neged (adversary) stupid?!”
“No, NO!” he fervently protests.
The entire family now bursts out in laughter. Not at but with him. He's so right. How dare we flaunt our faith when there are real forces out there bent on puncturing it. At the same time I've got a very real and holy agenda brewing here. My kids must understand that Torah life is not some sort of mythical mumbo jumbo about one-upping a nefarious other.
"Okay, okay. So let’s try again. What I'm asking is that if there's really a big bad guy out to get us, why doesn't he catch on that every year we trick him the same way?
Our little yiddle now straightens up, determined to meet the challenge:
“Isn't it, like, well, with all malachim (heavenly messengers), that he can only do one thing at a time?"
"Yes, I guess so …"
"So maybe Hashem made him so that he can only hurt us when we blow the Shofar but he has nothing to do when we're not blowing it. It's not that he's stupid but bored! That's why we have to be extra careful when we sneak it in on the chag (holy day) to do it just at the right time, fast and good, because if he gets re-interested before we're finished he's gonna really hurt us!”
Whew. The laughter has subsided. The kid is talking straight.
“Alright, Dovidy," I finally respond. "That makes a lot of sense. But now I’ve got a really BIG kasha (query)............ ready?”
All eyes are riveted. The motors of curiosity are revved up as I'm finding myself feeling nice and proud about having successfully prepared my kids to learn the unvarnished, anticlimactic halachic (legal) truth that the "real" reason not to blow on Erev Rosh Hashana is in order to distinguish between tekios d'reshus u'd'chova, blasts that are optional and those that are obligatory (Shulchan Aruch 581:3).
“If the main thing the evil one’s looking for," I now sing out with a rabbinic lilt and upturned thumb," is to keep us from doing tshuva upon hearing the loud cry of the shofar, and the whole point about diverting his attention before Judgment Day is to hush up our tshuva… well then, what on earth are we doing crying out, with all our might, the longest Slichos (supplication prayers) of the year on that day?!"
Ha. Got 'em!
My ten-year-old girl, the twin of the pensive son, suddenly rockets up her hand. She seems oddly calm. There's an eerie energy emanating from within her, as if I can't NOT call on her. In all honesty, though, I'd rather not. I'm afraid she's going to spoil my fun…
“Well, it's really quite simple," she begins, on her own initiative. "It’s like having two kids. They each want to give a present to their Abba. The first saves all her pennies and buys him a nice pen. The second takes a pencil and paper and draws him a picture. Nothing particularly outstanding. But it’s from her heart. Which do you think he’ll like best?”
“Hmm. Okay, let me guess," I offer indulgently. "The Abba would like both, equally. Because everyone gave what he could."
“NO!” she bellows emphatically, barely concealing her holy glee. “The Abba will appreciate the second one most. Know why?"
Well, quite frankly – no.
"I'll tell you. Because the first, as nice as it is, can never be something he couldn’t get himself. But the second comes purely from the heart. Nothing on the outside to speak of; just a desire to say ‘I love you’. That’s a gift he could NEVER get on his own! So, too, the shofar and Slichos. The shofar is the pen and Slichos is the drawing…"
I'm blown away. Literally speechless. All the kids notice and smile from ear to ear. They beat Abba at his game! In the meantime I keep staring at this little chachama (sage) to see if she’s serious.
I jump up and give her the biggest hug. She has done exactly what she was speaking about: given her Abba a tremendous gift!
Ever since then, for about ten years now (the picture above is of "little" Dovidy this year), this truth has perennially impressed me; haunting in its beauty, shaming in its simplicity. This year, however, in light of my delving into a couple of related halachos, the message has sunk in especially deep.
For one, the Rema brings down that those whose custom is to fast a combination of ten days in preparation for Yom Kippur (starting on the first day of Slichos and skipping over the two days of Rosh Hashana and Shabbos) should begin it from the time they sleep until the end of the day except on Erev Rosh Hashana – which should begin only from alos ha'shachar, dawn. That is, they should get up before dawn and drink something. The reason, says the Rema, is in order to not imitate chukkas ha'amim, the superstitious ways of the nations who make a point of doing major fasts before their holy days. Furthermore, such pietists shouldn't worry about making up the lost fast-hours; this one duly qualifies as a whole fast (Haga on Shulchan Aruch 581:2, and commentaries).
The second halachic issue is with the Mishna Berura which informs us that the prohibition against shofar blowing on Erev Rosh Hashana does not apply to individuals who need to practice for tekios d'chova. Nevertheless, in deference to the tradition about the Satan, we should refrain from practicing in the synagogue, and some say it should only be within a closed room (Mishna Berura 582: 3, s.k. 24).
Now I ask – could it be that the all-threatening Accuser doesn't see behind closed doors?? And if we're serious about preventing him from making a case against our superficial tshuva, what in the world are we doing legislating a partial fast as a substitute for a full one??
Indeed. The point is that genuine tshuva is not dependent on external actions, whatsoever. Neither the tekios nor the fasts nor any other behavioral mitzvahs are going to do it – no matter how long and loud. Their job is merely to prepare us; indispensably so, but still mere preparation for something that must occur deep inside.
It's called tshuva pnimi, inner repentance; the kind that produces a unique divine gift – a "drawing" straight from the heart.
Slichos, especially on Erev Rosh Hashana, is one of the segulos, blessed means we have for entering that straight-hearted, divine gift world. When we do so, our Father above undoubtedly responds with the greatest of Hugs. And when we respond to that Hug – UNbelievable! – in there lies our salvation. As the Psamist says and we repeat twice daily throughout the holyday season (Psalm 27): "Hashem is my light and my salvation, from whom shall I fear?"
My light = that Hug.
My salvation = the hug we give back.
The "whom" we shall no longer fear = the big bad guy.