Rav Sam Thurgood
Former Rosh Kollel, Cape Town Kollel
The Shofar And The Force Of Habit
The Rambam famously said, regarding Shofar blowing, in Hilchot Teshuva 3:4

Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a decree, it contains an allusion. It is as if [the shofar’s call] is saying:

Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth in the vanities of time and throughout the entire year, devote their energies to vanity and emptiness which will not benefit or save: Look to your souls. Improve your ways and your deeds and let every one of you abandon his evil path and thoughts.

אע”פ שתקיעת שופר בראש השנה גזירת הכתוב רמז יש בו כלומר עורו ישינים משנתכם ונרדמים הקיצו מתרדמתכם וחפשו במעשיכם וחזרו בתשובה וזכרו בוראכם אלו השוכחים את האמת בהבלי הזמן ושוגים כל שנתם בהבל וריק אשר לא יועיל ולא יציל הביטו לנפשותיכם והטיבו דרכיכם ומעלליכם ויעזוב כל אחד מכם דרכו הרעה ומחשבתו אשר לא טובה

The Kiryat Sefer (a commentary on the Rambam written by the Mabit, Rabbi Moshe Mitrani of the 16th century) finds the source of the Rambam’s words in Vayikra Rabba 29:6

With the shofar: In this month, improve (shipru) maaseichem

בשופר בחדש הזה שפרו מעשיכם

The Midrash sees the word shofar as being related to the word for improvement, leshaper, and therefore the sound of the shofar can be seen, as the Rambam suggests, as coming for that purpose. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in his Drash Moshe observes, however, in the language of the Rambam that he is addressing himself only to those who are sleeping (sleep and slumber are similar; simply that it is easier to wake one who is only slumbering than one who is more deeply unconscious), those whose misdeeds are a result of habit and poorly thought-out decisions. However, those who are deliberately doing evil – we do not expect to be affected by the shofar. In other words, the shofar has the power to wake a sleeper, but some people are awake and alert – but unaffected by the call.

The Vilna Gaon, however, might disagree. In the letter that he wrote to his family, giving them guidance and advice, he notes that:

Habit rules over everything.

The wicked person knows that his way is evil and bitter, but it is hard for him to separate.

ההרגל על כל דבר שלטון

הרשע יודע בעצמו שרע ומר דרכו אך שקשה לו לפרוש

The Vilna Gaon here sees all evil as being tied in to habit, that with the ability to break a habit will come righteousness. This may seem somewhat naïve – surely Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s observation is accurate, that there are people who do the wrong thing because they are caught up in their own lives and interests, that they pursue “the vanities of time” to the cost of their investment in eternal life; but we also know that there are people who make considered decisions that are against the wishes of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, that they choose (spiritual) death. And many of them seem perfectly happy and content to do so! So it makes sense to say that such people will not be affected by the shofar – how can the Vilna Gaon put it down to habit?

I believe that an insight of the Rebbe of Kotzk can clarify this for us. He asked: Why in the Shma does Hashem command us to place the words of Torah על לבבך – on your heart; surely it would be more helpful to place them directly בלבבך – in your heart? He answers that your heart is not always open, there are many times that what we think, say and do does not deeply penetrate our heart, but remains on the surface, surrounding our hearts. However, in moments of inspiration, our hearts open and we are able to absorb deeply. If you surround your heart with holiness and Torah, then that is what will enter your heart during those precious moments.

The wicked person about whom the Vilna Gaon speaks also has such moments of openness, times when he sees the emptiness of the path that he has chosen, but his habits guide his actions to the extent that such moments are generally lost, and no real change results.

If this is the case, that even the most decisive evil-doer has moments of regret, and it is simply force of habit that maintains his momentum, then the shofar offers a genuine opportunity for him too. By shocking him out of his daze, the voice of the shofar is giving him a second chance. It is a reminder that it is not too late to change, that Hashem is still calling to us, that we can still live the life that we know we crave, a life of meaning, a life of searching, a life of holiness.

Both he who does evil from habit, and he who chose evil but maintains it out of habit can hear the message of the shofar and begin anew. And just in case you didn’t realise – whenever I said “him”, I meant you!

I wish you a Shana Tova, a new year of freshness and spiritual awakening.

Sam Thurgood