A man visiting a Jewish cemetery in a foreign town stumbles upon something quite unexpected. On each tombstone is etched not the date of the person's passing, but rather, the age of the individual when he or she left this world — in years, months and days. Confused but intrigued, our traveler next notices that the ages of the departed are all very young. One stone reads "7 years, 4 months, and 6 days." Another reads "16 years, 6 months, and 23 days."
He soon comes across a member of the burial society, and upon asking him why everyone buried there had passed on to the next world so young, he receives a response that shakes him to his core.
"On our community's tombstones, we don't record the amount of total time that people spend existing on this earth," explains the helpful gentleman. "We record the real time they spent on this earth: The sum total of how much time they devoted to acts of kindness, refinement of character, the performance of mitzvahs and the study of our precious Torah's wisdom."
In light of this little tale (which I first saw related by Raymond Beyda on: www.torah.org.), we might suggest that whoever put up the three-part series of signs on the Atlantic City Expressway — "Stay Alert … Stay Awake … Stay Alive" — was on to something big (in fact, at the risk of sparking some sort of conspiracy theory, I can't help but wonder whether the N.J. State Department of Transportation is really run by the rabbinate).
But in addition to the importance of heeding these signs during our summer journeys back from the shore, we would do well to contemplate them on our journeys through each day.
Fortunately, Rosh Hashanah helps us internalize the themes of these signs and anchor them as daily mental billboards, jolting us back to reality when we become lulled into spiritual slumber by our lives "in the fast lane."
On Rosh Hashanah, we can hear these messages virtually resonate as the three blasts of the shofar fill the air: "Stay Alert … Stay Awake … Stay Alive."
These sounds reveal to us what it means to be living. As the shofar calls out to us, it beckons us to meditate on its motif — that being "truly alive" requires being spiritually awake. And that being "truly awake" requires being spiritually alert, consciously and consistently aware of our soul's mission in this world.
How does the shofar achieve this?
When we blow the shofar, we are filling an otherwise hollow shell of physical existence with an animated breath of spiritual life force. This act drives home a profound message: In a sense, when we are not awake and aware of our soul's mission in this world, our lives also resemble the empty lifelessness of an unblown shofar — of bodily matter devoid of spiritual circulation and expression.
The shofar's blast inspires us to go beyond mere survival by tapping into the vitality of the human spirit. Its sounds reveal to us that we have a choice between existence and life, and they cry out for us to "choose life."
May we all be blessed to go far with the shofar this Rosh Hashanah, allowing its blasts to break down our barriers and penetrate our resistance.
And may its cries awaken us to live the kind of life that our Creator would want to say "L'Chaim" to.
Jon Erlbaum is executive director of the Chevra, a group that does outreach to young Jewish professionals.