PrayerRebbes: Rabbi Menachem Mendel SchneersohnChabadmain postsHigh Holy DaysRosh HashanahTishrei

When the Rebbe couldn't get a sound out of the shofar

Excerpted and translated from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class from 17 Elul 5772.

Before Rosh Hashanah one year in the 1950s, a Jew who we will call Chaim asked a family in Crown Heights, New York, near the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s headquarters, if they could host him for the upcoming holy days. Chaim was anxious to participate in the Rebbe’s shofar blowing during the Rosh Hashanah prayers. He had been married for nine years and he and his wife had not been blessed with children. Chaim knew that before blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the Lubavitcher Rebbe would pray for all the individuals who had turned to him for blessing. He wanted to be there, as close to the Rebbe as possible, to be blessed with a child.

Chaim’s hosts advised him to get to prayers early to find a place near the Rebbe. Chaim situated himself in a good spot and waited.

The Rebbe came down to the synagogue with a number of shofars, as was his custom. The Rebbe, visibly earnest A nd serious,  began reciting the chapters of Psalms customary before the blowing of the Shofar. Chaim said every word with the Rebbe. All seven repetitions of chapter 47 in Psalms. He was intensely focused. The congregation was absolutely silent. All eyes were on the Rebbe. All thoughts were hinged on the success of the shofar blowing.

The Rebbe said the blessing on the Shofar and raised the first shofar to his lips.  No sound came out. Absolute silence. He took another shofar. No sound. The anxiety in the congregation mounted. The third shofar. No sound. Confusion and dismay filled the hearts of all those present. Chaim, who was standing near the Rebbe, remained intensely focused. He and his wife had been anticipating a child for 9 years. All his hopes were pinned on the Rebbe, that in merit of his shofar blowing, they would have children.

The tension was thick and pervasive. The Rebbe attempted to blow shofar after shofar, with no sound coming out. With all his personal pain, Chaim suddenly thought, “Perhaps my strong focus on what I need for myself is what is stopping the sounds from coming out.” He turned to God and said to Him, “Dear God, I forfeit my deep intention and prayers for a child for the good of the congregation.”

At that very moment, the Rebbe took another shofar and perfect sounds came out. Chaim cried profusely. One year later, Chaim and his wife were blessed with a child. A few years later, he brought the little boy to get a cup of blessing from the Rebbe. Chaim hadn’t told his story to anyone. He passed before the Rebbe. There was about a second to stand before the Rebbe before the next person’s turn. The Rebbe looked at Chaim and asked, “Is this the child from the blowing of the shofar?”

This story was related by the son of the family who hosted Chaim


During the blowing of the shofar, we give birth to Mashiach. But, according to the sages, the Mashiach comes only when we put him out of our mind (Sanhedrin 97a). Mashiach is essential for us, similar to the way Chaim felt about having children. But, Chaim’s focus was so strong that he created tremendous pressure. It was as if he was suffocating the Rebbe himself – so much so that he couldn’t get a sound out of the shofar. Chaim had to let go.

We may be over-focused on all the good things that we want and need. Those goals may truly be worthy. But they are liable to suffocate the shofar. By letting go for a moment, all the effort we exerted earlier will suddenly bear fruit. The Ba’al Shem Tov says that whatever a mitzvah, a good deed reveals in reality, manifests in most part after the mitzvah is complete. We may think that nothing happened after all our effort.  But when we desist, the Divine light manifests. Our effort reveals the Divine light, but only once we let go.

There are two revealed and two concealed dimensions of prayer, corresponding to the letters of God’s Name, Havayah, as reflected in the verse (Deuteronomy 29:28), “The concealed things are for Havayah, our God and the revealed are for us and our children, forever.”

Our prayers for anything we need in life are in the sefirah of malchut, as the verse says (Psalms 109:4), “I am prayer.” Malchut is the moon, which lacks light. It is always praying to be filled, like King David, who lived with the pervasive feeling that he was about to die, and continuously prayed for life anew. To pray for what we need, a great mitzvah in the Torah, is malchut. This is the lower hei of Havayah, the lower level of the revealed dimension of God’s Name.

The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that even when we have a personal problem, it should first be connected to our community, or even to the entire world. So if we are in pain, we should pray to alleviate the pain of the community. This does entail leaving our personal space a bit, but does not require us to forgo what we need. When we ascend to the level of the community, we are ascending from the lower hei of Havayah to the vav of Havayah, the second letter of the revealed dimension of God’s Name.

Sometimes, however, this is not enough. There are things that we have to release altogether. When we ascend to the level of release in favor of the community, we have entered the concealed dimension. Chaim was sure that he should have a child. In the revealed dimension, this is indeed the reason for his life. Yet, God knows better. To forgo our own personal redemption for the interest of the many, inducts us into the concealed dimension, the upper hei of Havayah, the lower level of the concealed dimension of God’s Name.

What if, however, there is a situation that requires the complete realigning of nature in order to be resolved? What does the tzaddik have to forgo in order to bless someone in contradiction of the laws of nature?

According to the Ba’al Shem Tov, the tzaddik would have to forgo his reward in the World to Come. This is an earthshaking thought. This is a novel situation in which an individual is willing to sacrifice himself for another individual. Forgoing one’s own good for the good of the community corresponds to the hei, the feminine energy of the mother principle, which corresponds to the World to Come. To forgo one’s World to Come, however, so that a couple who is clinically infertile can have children despite the laws of nature, for example, requires a recreation of the World. That comes from masculine energy found in the father principle corresponding with the sefirah of wisdom and the yud of God’s Name Havayah. This is the higher level of the concealed dimension of God’s Name.

To summarize: the first, lower hei level of prayer is when a person prays for himself. Above that is the vav level of connecting one’s needs with those of the community. Above that is the upper hei level of forgoing one’s needs for the benefit of the community (this requires removal of our thoughts from the need). Finally, the highest level, corresponding with the yud involves forgoing one’s needs for another individual.

Is there a fifth level to this model? Forgoing my own benefit for God? Is this more than forgoing my own benefit for some other person? God is the greatest “individual.” Forgoing my own benefit completely for the benefit of another Jew is the inner aspect of giving oneself over entirely to God.

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