A few summers ago, Yocheved and I were in a remarkable supermarket. The supermarket was larger than our local Publix. It had all the same sections as any other supermarket - meat, poultry, fish, fresh produce, prepared foods, groceries, frozen items and much more. What made this supermarket incredible is that it is entirely under kosher supervision. There was a complete aisle of kosher vitamins. There was even a keilim mikvah in the supermarket so that if you buy any vessels that need immersion you could do it on the spot. As I stood in the enormous store with an endless variety of kosher food, Jewish newspapers, kosher vitamins and even a board game called “Monseyopoly,” I thought to myself we are living in a time in which it is more comfortable than ever to be an observant Jew.
Every aspect of Jewish living has been rendered easier, more comfortable and requiring less sacrifice. We have pop-up Sukkahs and pre-packaged hadassim and aravos. We purchase complete Chanukah sets already pre-assembled and ready to use. Endless potato recipes for Pesach have been replaced by kosher l’pesach bagels, cereal and pancakes. We buy ten pieces of bread labeled for bedikas chametz.
Artscroll has revolutionized learning, making what were once closed texts accessible to the masses for study. We have diverse kosher restaurants, an app to help us find minyanim within proximity to our exact location. We have Shabbos clocks and Shabbos lamps and Shabbos alarm clocks. In some ways, fidelity to Halacha requires less sacrifice, less compromise and less effort than ever.
And it is not just halachic conveniences, it is simply easier to function in the world today than it ever was. Remember Disney’s “Carousel of Progress”? It had a display showing inconceivable technology like programmable refrigerators and ovens, voice command, video conferencing, and inconceivable video games. I remember seeing it as a child and thinking how creative this showcase was and how unlikely it would or could ever come true. Well, somewhat sadly Disney has not updated that carousel, and when I saw it with my family a couple of years ago, my children wanted to know why things that exist in their past are being described and celebrated as the future.
We now FaceTime with people around the world, program our smart houses, and some are already relying on our self-driving cars. The increasingly comfortable world, Jewishly and technologically, is making us progressively uncomfortable with discomfort. Even now, when a global pandemic forced us to adapt, we got used to everything being conducted over Zoom, from shiurim to board meetings to parent-teacher conferences, in a way that makes us consider whether we want to return to those things in person. We expect everything to be easy, compatible, pleasant, and convenient.
To be honest, I am worried about our generation, a truly privileged generation’s capacity for mesirus nefesh. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with all of the wonderful progress. We should enjoy and celebrate the abundance of options and the ease of being an observant Jew and a blessed member of the 21st century.
But, what happens when we encounter that which is inconvenient, uncomfortable or incompatible? Do we have the interest let alone the strength to persevere, to overcome, to endure?
On Rosh Hashanah we use a horn of the ayil, a ram, for a shofar. The Shulchan Aruch writes (586:1), “It is best when the shofar of Rosh Hashanah is from an ayil…although all shofros are kosher.” The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 16) wonders, “Why do we blow shofar specifically with a ram’s horn?” It answers, “Hakadosh Baruch Hu says, ‘Blow for Me with a ram’s shofar so I will remember akeidas Yitzchak and I will consider it as though you were bound on the akeida before Me.’”
When we want to persevere and triumph in judgment, when we want to be worthy of being written and ultimately sealed for a year of prosperity and blessing, we think about and invoke the story of the akeidah. It is what we literally read for Kerias HaTorah on one of the days, and it is the reason we use the shofar of a ram on both days: “Vayehi achar ha’devarim ha’eileh v’ha’Elokim nisa es Avraham, va’yomer elav Avraham, va’yomer hineini. And it happened that God tested Avraham and said to him, ‘Avraham,’ and he replied, ‘Here I am.’”
I would like to suggest to you that the akeida and Rosh Hashanah go together because it is the power of “hineini,” of being tested and answering the call, that should be on our minds as we prepare for judgement. As we think about coronating God as our King, we are to consider - Have we answered the call like Avraham? Have we been prepared to make sacrifices in our lives and lifestyles? Have we passed the tests that we have confronted and persevered in the face of the adversity, temptation, and seduction that has come our way?
Some are tested with maintaining faith during a health crisis or a financial collapse or infertility or a failing marriage. Some are tested with being loyal to the Torah’s view of the world when it conflicts with Western culture and values and others are tested observing Jewish laws that are inconvenient or even incomprehensible to them. Some are tested with coming to shul while others are tested with paying attention while there. Some are tested when submitting their income taxes and others are tested when surfing the web. And of course, while we all face a variety of tests every year, there is surely not a single person in the world who has not been tested in some way this past year by the coronavirus and all that has come with it.
When it is our turn and our time, when v’ha’Elokim nisa es…, when God tests us, do we care enough and are we strong enough to say “hineini,” I am here, I am prepared to sacrifice, to struggle, to compromise, to forfeit and to submit? Or do we believe that life should be comfortable, easy and convenient, so when we encounter conflict we disappear, we check out, we drop whatever necessary to get our comfort level back up?
Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l famously said that we must not tell our children “t’iz shver tsu zeyn a yid,” it is difficult to be a Jew, but instead, we must tell them “it’s geshmak to be a yid,” it is amazing to be a Jew. He was right and remains right. We need to show our children the beauty of our tradition, how it enriches and enhances our lives and brings deep meaning and great joy.
But with that said, let’s admit for a moment that it isn’t always geshmak to be a yid. It is sometimes shver. When you have to wake up early for selichos and you are exhausted, when you lose a business opportunity because of Shabbos, when you are stuck somewhere with nothing kosher to eat, when the Torah law doesn’t fit neatly with the mores of the time, it is shver, it is difficult. And yet, at those times, in those moments, are our “hineini” opportunities. That is our chance like Avraham to say, I don’t only show up for a Judaism which I perceive as pleasant and pleasurable, but even when it is hard and challenging and makes me work – “hineini!” – I am here, I am in, I am ready.
Willingness to compromise, sacrifice and submit is a critical part of religious experience. We like to show how compatible Judaism and Torah are with science, with our liberal values, with the world we live in. But religion is not about compatibility with what is convenient for us to believe and with how we prefer to behave. At its core it is about a willingness for submission. Rosh Hashanah is about being mamlich Hashem, coronating God as our King and with it, kabalas ol malchus shamayim, accepting and surrendering to the will and dominion of our King, even when it takes sacrifice and submission. On the Day of Judgment we coronate God with our words but we truly coronate God not in shul but in our homes, our work places, our gyms, and our recreational activities, by standing the tests we face.
In a famous footnote in Halakhic Man, Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote:
This popular ideology contends that the religious experience is tranquil and neatly ordered, tender and delicate; it is an enchanted stream for embittered souls and still waters for troubled spirits…This ideology is intrinsically false and deceptive. That religious consciousness in man’s experience which is most profound and most elevated, which penetrates to the very depths and ascends to the very heights, is not that simple and comfortable. On the contrary, it is exceptionally complex, rigorous and torturous.
If we use the ram to invoke Akeidas Yitzchak why do we specifically use the horn? If our goal is to remind Hashem of Akeidas Yitzchak, couldn’t we have used any part of the ram that was ultimately brought instead of Yitzchak? Why specifically the horn?
Perhaps we can answer with an insight from R’ Meir Shapiro in his Imrei Da’as. The passuk says he set out on the first day and arrived on the third. What happened in between? The Midrash (Tanchuma, Vayeira #22) says that when Avraham set out to bring his son as a sacrifice, along the way the Satan, the dissuading voice tried numerous times to discourage Avraham from going through with his mission. Avraham persevered each time and ignored the voice seeking to dissuade him.
When he finally raised his hand to strike his son Yitzchak, an angel instructed him to stop. Wonders Rav Meir Shapiro, how did Avraham know that the voice of the angel was authentic and legitimate? How did he know it wasn’t the Satan one last time? He answers that the text tells us that Avraham notices the ram ne’echaz basvach, struggling in the thicket. Only upon noticing the ram struggling was Avraham convinced to in fact put down the knife. Explains Rav Shapiro, falsehood and temptation come easy. Truth and meaning are connected to struggle and effort. Avraham noticed the struggle of the ram after hearing the angel’s voice. When he saw struggle, he knew he was in the presence of truth.
Perhaps we specifically use the horn of the ram because it was the horn that was entangled and caught. The ram struggled to escape but its horns were caught in the bush and it couldn’t get out. The shofar represents challenges and struggles. It was chosen because Hashem cherishes our struggles. He values our efforts and cares deeply about each and every moment of perseverance.
A few years ago I got to know a family living on an island in the Caribbean that wanted to convert to Judaism. They were mentored by their local rabbi and studied diligently with a rabbi in Israel. I ultimately met them in person and visited their small local Jewish community. A few weeks later I got an email from him:
We have made a lot of changes in our lives just to be a part of HaShem's people. These changes have not been easy but have been worthy, and even more when we complete the process. You saw our commitment, as you expressed that you were impressed.
Our desire to finish the process is not just for the sake of getting to be called Jews. Being a Jew is very hard, takes courage and dedication. We are willing to continue to make sacrifices and take this path all the way. For this we need your help.
When we welcome someone to the Jewish people they stand in the mikvah about to undergo an enormous transformation and we ask them a series of questions. One of them, the Gemara tells us, is do you know that it is really difficult to be a Jew? Are you aware that keeping Jewish law is complicated, keeping kosher and Jewish schools are expensive, anti-Semites want to kill us? Are you prepared to make the necessary sacrifices to be a Jew? Only when a candidate says yes do we welcome them to our people.
The ram’s Shofar asks us those same questions. Do we answer the call of the akeida like Avraham Avinu? In the coming year, are we willing to remember that avodas Hashem is called “avodah” for a reason, because it takes work and effort.
Robert Browning, the 19th century English poet, put it well when he said, “When the fight begins within himself, a man’s worth something.” Let’s make our lives worth something. When inevitably called upon to struggle spiritually or theologically or in our lifestyle, let’s determine, as we approach this great day of judgment and awe that we will answer hineini, here we are.