"Listen to the sound of that cricket," said a man walking with a friend on a crowded business street. But his friend could not hear it and asked how his companion could detect the insect's clicking through all the tumult.
The first man, a zoologist trained to hear the sounds of nature, reached into his pocket, pulled out a coin and tossed it onto the sidewalk, whereupon a dozen people began to look all around.
"We hear what we listen for," he said.
The shofar, a ram's horn, empowers worshippers to hear what they listen for and sometimes even what they do not listen for. Behar, this week's Torah portion attests that traditionally the shofar was sounded when the jubilee year arrived. During that commemoration, slaves were set free and land was equitably redistributed.
This blast of the shofar was accompanied by the stirring words: "Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof" (Leviticus 25:9). The Bible mentions further use of the shofar to sound an alarm in time of war, trouble or simply to assemble the community.
A strange, almost forgotten incident from Jewish history suggests that Jews often were willing to go to any length to fulfill the mitzvah of listening to the sounds of the shofar.
During the Spanish Inquisition, many Jews longed to be in the synagogue to hear the shofar. This was impossible because they could no longer practice Judaism in the open. However, in Barcelona word spread among the Jewish community of a special concert to be given to Spanish aristocracy and church officials on Rosh Hashanah eve.
Spanish royalty believed the full house to be due to the prominence of the composer, Don Fernando Aguilar, a secret Jew who had announced that on that evening he would present a concert featuring unusual native musical instruments.
At the crescendo of one very moving piece, shofar sounds were heard, in full keeping with Jewish tradition. The dignitaries were never aware of its significance to their Jewish compatriots and could not sense their hidden emotion.
For the modern Jew, just as for our ancestors who lived under the specter of persecution, the mitzvah of listening to the shofar must involve more than just hearing an entertaining instrument. It must serve as a spiritual alarm clock.
That is more easily said than done because, as noted Jewish essayist Maurice Samuel once quipped, "No one loves an alarm clock." Thus, for the modern Jew, the shofar has real meaning only when it successfully calls the listener to immediate action, as this story teaches:
At the turn of the century, Rabbi Jacob Joseph came from the Eastern European city of Vilna to assume the pulpit of a prestigious New York congregation. A learned man with a phenomenal memory, he could speak extemporaneously, quoting at length from a variety of sources. When he spoke, Jews from all over came to hear him.
But sadly, the rabbi suffered a stroke, recovered slowly and was released from the hospital just before Rosh Hashanah. His family and friends tried to dissuade him from speaking at High Holy Day worship that year but he insisted. However, he initiated two changes: Instead of standing, he would sit and instead of quoting by heart, he would use texts.
He began: "The Talmud says…" There was silence. Again he tried: "The Talmud says…" He started once more: "The Talmud says…" No one uttered a sound. No one could understand why he kept repeating those three words.
The rabbi sobbed inconsolably as he was led off the pulpit. A few weeks later, he sent a letter to his congregants in which he explained that in spite of all his preparation, his mind went blank when he started his address. Only a few months before, he could have given a learned discourse without notes, and now he could not even remember what the subject was.
And then he added these words: "See what can happen to a human being in a split second. Today, anything is possible; tomorrow, who knows where we may find ourselves! Therefore, value each day as a precious gift."
The story of Joseph's nine-word sermon is a powerful reminder of how quickly time passes and how important it is to act on the message of the shofar's notes. To benefit from its mournful tone, a listener must hear the wake-up call that summons everyone to make good use of each moment.