Many years ago, before there were any fire engines and most houses were built of wood, a whole town could go up in flames from a single fire. When a fire broke out, everyone rushed to help put out the fire. They would form a human chain between the fire and the nearest well, and pass pails of water to each other in order to put out the fire.
Once it happened that a lad from a small village came to town for the first time. Suddenly he heard the sound of a bugle. He asked someone what it meant. “Whenever we have a fire, we sound the bugle, and the fire is quickly put out,” the fellow replied.
Thereupon, the village lad went and bought himself a bugle. When he returned to his village, he was full of excitement. He called all the villagers together. “Listen, good people,” he exclaimed. “No need to be afraid of fire anymore. Just watch me, and see how quickly I will put out a fire!”
Saying this, he ran to the nearest hut and set fire to its straw roof. The fire began to spread very quickly.
“Don’t be alarmed!” cried the lad. “Now watch me.”
The lad began to blow the bugle with all his might, interrupting it only to catch his breath. But the fire did not seem to care much for the music. It merely hopped from one roof to another, until the entire village was in flames.
The villagers now began to scold and curse the lad. “You fool,” they cried. “Did you think that the mere blowing of the trumpet will put the fire out? It is only the call of an alarm, to wake up the people, if they are asleep, or to break them away from their work, and send them to the well to draw water to put out the fire!”
We are reminded of this story when we think of the shofar that is sounded on Rosh Hashanah. While sounding the shofar has intrinsic value as one of G‑d’s commandments, there is another element to the mitzvah.
Like the bugle in the story, the shofar is the sound of an “alarm.” It has a message: “Wake up, and invest in your Jewish future. Study Torah and find personal relevance in its teachings. Teach your children the value of doing a mitzvah. Make sure your family appreciates their roots and celebrates their Jewish legacy.”
However, unlike the incident with the poor lad where it was soon too late, for the call of the shofar it is never too late. As long as we hear the shofar, both literally and figuratively, we can always heed its cry.
Alas, a large percentage of our Jewish brethren, particularly the youth, are no longer hearing this call. They doubt their own Jewish identity. They question the wisdom and relevancy of Judaism which they hardly know. They challenge the right of their own people to live in a free independent Jewish country.
We need to make sure that for them as well, it does not become too late. At the UW Chabad House we try to do our best. Studying Torah with tens of students, taking hundreds to Israel with Birthright and providing Shabbat and holiday celebrations to thousands, these are just some of the ways in which our shofar is blown.
Let this be the resolution of the New Year 5778. To heed the shofar’s calling, and do our best to ensure that our fellow Jew hears its sound too.
May we all have a shana tovah u’metukah, a happy, sweet new year.
Rabbi Mendel Matusof directs the Chabad activities at the University of Wisconsin – Madison campus.