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The Rabbi Writes

The Rabbi Writes


September 14, 2018
By Rabbi Yossie Denburg

The Magen Avraham, literally the Shield of Abraham is how our Sages refer to G-d in our daily prayer. It is also the name of a major halachic work written by Rabbi Avraham Abele Gombiner, a leading religious authority during the 17th century. His innovative approach incorporated contemporary customs with the Kabballa of Zfat and the Shnei Luchos Habris. Rabbi Gombiner was so poor that paper was a luxury and sometimes he was compelled to write on the walls of his house. As such, his words were few, required explanation, had to be elaborated upon by succeeding scholars, and yet he had a lasting effect on future Halacha.

On the section dealing with the laws of Shofar he writes: One time the Shofar blower could not get a sound out, so he turned around the shofar and whispered into the wide end. “May the pleasantness of the L-rd… be upon us; our handiwork establish for us.(Psalms 90)  Suddenly, he was able to produce sound.”  [Orach Chaim 585]

Three questions come to mind: 1) The Magen Avraham was not in the business of telling us miraculous incidents or teaching us segulos/supernatural lucky charms. Certainly, he was not inclined to waste precious paper. So why share this story that seemingly has no relevance to our prosaic lives?

2) If the Shofar blower ‘required’ a verse, he should have recited, “G-d has ascended with the blast…with the sound of the shofar(Psalms 47) or “Blow the shofar…for our festive day?” (ibid 81) Why specifically Psalm 90 which has no relationship to shofar?

3) Into what side of the instrument should one whisper a magic ‘verse’? Obviously into the narrow side where we usually blow! This is based on Psalms (118), “From the narrow straits did I call upon G-d.” Why turn the shofar around?

Perhaps, this story is not about a miracle. Perhaps it is teaching us a very down-to-earth law; not just the law of Shofar or Rosh Hashanah, but the basis of all of Judaism.

Our ancestors freed from Egypt were primarily menial slaves who worked in the fields or were used as human donkeys hauling stone for building projects. They were not skilled goldsmiths, innovative artists, weavers of delicate fabrics or master designers.   Nonetheless, these were the very skills required to build the first House of G-d, the Desert Sanctuary.

This provides us a life-long lesson: give it your best, even if the task is seemingly impossible. And once we do our part, our prayer is that G-d will bless our efforts with success.  This is the essence of the verse: “May [His] pleasantness be upon…our handiwork.” In fact, though these words were recorded by King David, they were actually authored by Moses and recited by all the Jews when they finished building a Sanctuary they should not have been able to construct!

This is true for a Sanctuary, and for everything else.  The blower could not get the Shofar to work.  No big deal, a Jew of faith always has a Plan B. “Master of the Universe, You want us to blow shofar.  We tried, but it was a no go. ‘May [Your] pleasantness be upon us.’  Now it is up to You.”

This is why he whispered into the shofar’s wide hole.  Recalling the Psalm, “Out of the narrow straits I called to G-d,” the Shofar blower thought: I did mine, I blew into the narrow side.  It did not work.  Now we need the end of this verse, “With abounding relief G-d answered me.”  Now it is up to G-d to respond from the wide side of the shofar.

This explains the entire High Holiday season.  We sincerely want to improve.  But we need His help.  In fact, this explains every season.  Life can be overwhelming; raising moral children in an amoral world, remaining honest in a dog-eat-dog culture, and serving G-d in a society that demands to be served.  How are we supposed to do it all?  Simple! Just do the best you can and ask G-d to help us complete the job.

This idea is made clear in an ancient Midrash:  Poor Rabbi Chanina wanted to bring something of value to the Temple in Jerusalem. In the forest he found an imposing yet beautiful boulder. He polished it with love and hired five people (who were in reality, angels) to transport the rock. They agreed on condition: you lend a hand.  Working together they sweated and schlepped. When they reached the Temple the ‘people’ vanished.

What is the Midrash teaching us? You lend a hand and Heaven will send you helpers. So while we are waiting for His blessing, He too waits for our initiative.

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