Stonewalling of the Heart: The Shofar’s Cry for Hashem
BY RABBI JOSH LEHMAN
What object plays the most important role in Judaism? The shofar announces its presence at every major juncture in Jewish history. From the giving of the Torah to its eagerly awaited blast that will symbolize the arrival of mashiach, and its pivotal role on Rosh Hashanah, the shofar is more than just an object; it is quite literally our past, present, and future.
Surprisingly, the source of the shofar in the Torah is nothing more than an afterthought, an epilogue in the story of Akeidat Yitzchak. After the test of Akeidat Yitzchak, we learn “And Avraham lifted up his eyes, and looked and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns: and Avraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in place of his son” (Bereishit 21:13). This ram, offered by Avraham, is the origin of the shofar. But why did this ram, a sacrifice that was not even part of the test of Akeidat Yitzchak and was not commanded by Hashem, become the source of the shofar blast that resonates throughout our history?
Parashat Nitzavim, which always precedes Rosh Hashanah, offers insight into the significance of the shofar. Chapter 30 describes the blessings and curses that are set before the Jewish people. While they are similar to those presented in Parashat Re’eh, a glaring difference emerges. In Re’eh we are told that our blessings and curses hinge on our ability to properly fulfill the commandments. Conversely, in Parashat Nitzavim, the blessings extend beyond mere reward for performing mitzvot; we are told that we must also love Hashem. “See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil; in that I command you this day to love Hashem your G-d, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments: then you shall live and multiply: and then Hashem your G-d shall bless you in the land into which you go to possess it” (Devarim 30:15–16). The parasha then proceeds to illustrate the curses that result from the opposing behavior, which one might presume to be hatred towards Hashem – the natural opposite of love. However, intriguingly, the parasha depicts the opposite of love quite differently: “But if you turn your heart away, so that you will not hear, but shall be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; I announce to you this day, that you shall surely perish, and that you shall not prolong your days upon the land, when you pass over the Jordan to go to possess it” (Devarim 30:17–18). The curses do not arise from hatred toward G-d, but from turning our hearts away from G-d. The opposite of love is not hate but rather indifference.
Dr. John Gottman, renowned for his groundbreaking research on relationships, discovered a similar phenomenon among married couples. He pinpointed four negative communication behaviors that prove detrimental to any marriage, allowing him to predict divorce with an astonishing 93.6% accuracy. Among these behaviors is “stonewalling,” when individuals withdraw from interaction and emotionally shut down. Surprisingly, Gottman found that stonewalling is far more harmful than fighting, which, despite being unpleasant, signifies active engagement in the relationship.
The same is true in our relationship with Hashem. Ideally we want to love G-d, but even if we struggle to do so, we can still lean into whatever emotion we are experiencing and remain engaged with Him. The one thing we must never do is turn our hearts away from Hashem. We must not stonewall Him and cut off our relationship.
This is the true significance of the shofar. The ram caught in the bush was not an afterthought of the story of Akeidat Yitzchak, but the bearer of a crucial lesson. The ram represents Avraham’s ability to “raise his eyes” and seek out Hashem, engaging Him even when not commanded to. The shofar represents our desire for closeness with G-d, even when we are struggling in our relationship with Him. This is why we cry out to Hashem with the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
Some years, on Rosh Hashanah, our relationship with Hashem is inspired and passionate, while other years it can be waning, confused, or even carry resentment. The shofar tells us that no matter where our relationship with Hashem currently stands, we must remain in the relationship. We must engage G-d where we are and refrain from turning away from Him. For ultimately, Hashem wants only one thing from each of us: rachmana liba ba’i – He only wants our heart.
Rabbi Josh Lehman is a graduate of Mizrachi’s Shalhevet and Musmachim programs. He and his wife Rikki are the OU-JLIC rabbinic couple at the University of Maryland.