I hate my morning alarm. It may not be a particularly unique dislike (I know many people who hate their alarms), or maybe it’s to do with the fact that I’m a Taurus (shout-out to my fellow zodiacs), but the sound of the telephonically-simulated chimes (so pleasant!) that awaken me every morning is definitely in my top-five least favorite noises of all time, if not at the top of the list. That being said, though, my alarm is certainly the most effective way to make sure I get up and take care of all the various tasks and responsibilities my days entail—so there’s some consolation in that, right? (Right?)
Enter Elul. During the Jewish month of Elul, which started this past Saturday night, the shofar is sounded every day of the month, except, of course, on Shabbat, since blowing the shofar counts as work, and, less obviously, on the day before Rosh Hashanah to make sure the shofar is afforded its full dramatic effect for the opening of the Book of Judgment. It came as a surprise to me, having grown up in a Reform Jewish context in which the observance of Elul was definitely not a thing, to learn that the first time we hear the shofar is not actually on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. No; in fact, we first hear the impressive, soul-piercing boom of this holy ram’s horn a whole month before the start of the new year—and not only that, but the shofar isn’t just sounded once during the month of Elul, it is blared nearly every single day of that month. Essentially, Elul exists in the Jewish calendar as the month of alarms.
As a self-proclaimed alarm-hater, naturally I was worried about this. My morning chimes are bad enough, but to hear the mighty blast of the shofar, which, according to the High Holiday prayer books, makes even angels tremble? That’s intense. But as with all the seemingly surprising rituals that exist in the Jewish tradition, there must be an explanation as to why Jews add this extra unsettling noise to this month. And, even more critically, if I so deeply dislike alarms, why should I be compelled to add another alarm into my life?
One very straightforward answer can be found from Maimonides, the medieval doctor and sage, who wrote in a commentary about repentance that “even though the blowing of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a Biblical decree, it hints at something, i.e. ‘wake up, sleepers, from your sleep! And slumberers, arise from your slumber!’” (Mishneh Torah, Repentance 3). Maimonides is saying that since we are commanded to blow the shofar in this month leading up to the new year, that should be enough of a reason to do it. Seems like a direct enough answer to why we blow the shofar during Elul. And yet Maimonides’ commentary points to something deeper—something that gets to the answer of why I should be listening to this alarm: it’s because we, myself included, are asleep. Not in the physical sense, as the case may be, but in the spiritual, metaphysical sense. Maimonides is explaining that we need to hear the shofar’s blast as the necessarily jarring wake-up call to our own life.
As I reflect on this nugget of wisdom from one of the Jewish tradition’s greatest philosophers, I can understand why Maimonides wanted to highlight the importance of waking up. How many places in our lives—in my life—are we—am I—not awake to and aware of everything around me? How frequently am I really, truly present to what’s going on both externally to me and, perhaps more important, within me? In so many ways, Maimonides’ interpretation of the sounding of the shofar as a type of divine alarm clock captures the essence of what the lead-up to the High Holidays and the Days of Awe themselves should be: a time to wake up to our internal and external worlds, to take an accounting of both of them before embarking into a new year. Really, we need this alarm to remind us that this is our time to take stock and reflect on the year we’ve just lived before beginning another one. Essentially, this is the entire point of the month of Elul: to thoroughly prepare ourselves for the spiritual marathon that is the High Holidays and the new year, filled as it is with unknowns.
And even as the alarm-hater I am, I can totally get behind the idea of this shofar-alarm-clock ritual. So much so that during this month of Elul, I’ll be practicing this cycle of waking up—albeit in a less sonically grating way—by taking a little time every day (with guidance from the brilliant prompts of Jordan Braunig, rabbi at Tufts Hillel, delivered daily to my email inbox) to journal until the beginning of Rosh Hashanah (which, for me, does include Shabbat and the day before the new year). While I don’t believe this month will change how I feel about my daily alarm, I am hopeful that this reflective month will be a very welcome call to presence that will last me my whole new year.
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