There are many lovely explanations for why we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana, but one of the most powerful is given by Moses Maimonides. For Maimonides the shofar is God’s alarm clock, waking us up from the “slumber” in which we spend many of our days. What did he mean?
God’s greatest gift to us is time, and He gives it to us on equal terms. Whether we are rich or poor, there are still only 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week and a span of years that is all too short. Often we spend our time on things that in Maimonides’ words “neither help nor save.” How many people looking back on a lifetime, saying, “I wish I had spent more time at committee meetings”? By contrast, how many say, “I wish I had spent more time with my children, or helping others, or simply enjoying being alive”?
Sometimes we can be so busy making a living that we hardly have time to live. Experts on time management speak about two types of activity: the urgent and the important. Often our days are spent on the urgent, and we lose out on the important. I remember a conversation with someone who had been a workaholic, busy seven days a week. As a result of a personal crisis he decided to keep Shabbat. He later told me it was the best decision he ever made. “Now,” he said, “I have time for my wife and child and for my friends. Going to shul has made me part of a community. The strange thing is that the work still gets done, in six days, not seven.”
Shabbat teaches us to take time for what is important, even though it isn’t urgent. Thirty years ago, when technology was less advanced, most people who wrote about the future saw it as an age of leisure when we would have far more free time. It has not happened that way. We seem more pressurized than ever and less relaxed. Mobile phones, e-mails and pocket computers mean that we are constantly on call. As Wordsworth said, “The world is too much with us; late and soon / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” The Psalmist put it best: “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are when we number our days. Asking to be written in the book of life, we think about life and how we use it. In this context the three key words of the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer are fundamental: teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity). Teshuvah is about our relationship with ourself. Tefillah is about our relationship with God. Tzedakahis about our relationship with other people.
Teshuvah means not only “repentance” but also “returning” – to our roots, our faith, our people’s history and our vocation as heirs to those who stood at Sinai more than 3,000 years ago. Teshuvah asks us: did we grow in the past year or did we stand still? Did we study the texts of our heritage? Did we keep one more mitzvah? Did we live fully and confidently as Jews? Teshuvah is our satellite navigation system giving us a direction in life.
Tefillah means prayer. It is our conversation with God. We speak, but if we are wise we also listen, to the voice of God as refracted through the prayers of a hundred generations of our ancestors. Tefillah is less about asking God for what we want, more about asking God to teach us what to want. A new car? A better job? An exotic holiday? Our prayers do not speak about these things because life is about more than these things. It is less about what we own than about what we do and who we aspire to be. We speak about forgiveness and about God’s presence in our lives. We remind ourselves that, short though our time on earth is, by connecting with God we touch eternity. Tefillah is our ‘mobile phone to heaven.’
Tzedakah is about the good we do for others. Sir Moses Montefiore was one of the great figures of Victorian Jewry. He was a wealthy man and devoted much of his long life to serving the Jewish people in Britain and worldwide (he built the windmill in Jerusalem, and the area of which it is a part — Yemin Moshe — is named after him). Someone once asked him how much he was worth, and he gave him a figure. “But,” said the questioner, “I know you own more than that.” “You didn’t ask me what I own but what I am worth. The figure I gave you was how much money I have given this year to charity, because we are worth what we are willing to share with others.” That is tzedakah.
Certain mitzvot in Judaism are rehearsals for a time to come. Shabbat is a rehearsal for the messianic age when strife will end and peace reign. Yom Kippur – when we do not eat or drink or engage in physical pleasure, and when there is a custom to wear a kittel like a shroud – is a dress rehearsal for death. It forces us to ask the ultimate question: what did I do in my life that was worthwhile? Did I waste time or did I share it, with my faith, with God, and with those in need?
Knowing that none of us will live for ever, we ask God for another year: to grow, to pray and to give. That is what Maimonides meant when he called the shofar “God’s alarm call”, asking us not to slumber through life, but to use it to bring blessings.
May the Almighty bless us, our families and the Jewish people, and may He write us all in the Book of Life.