Rosh Hashanah Morning: Shofar: A Wake-Up Call for 2017

The blast of the Shofar is one of the most unique, visceral sounds we ever hear. There is something primal about it – air blown through a ram’s horn, and the resulting sound can’t help but stir something deep inside each one of us.

The shofar has long been linked to the observance of the High Holy Days. The Talmud[1] links the ram’s horn back to the ram we heard about earlier this morning:

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אַל־תִּשְׁלַ֤ח יָֽדְךָ֙ אֶל־הַנַּ֔עַר וְאַל־תַּ֥עַשׂ ל֖וֹ מְא֑וּמָּה כִּ֣י ׀ עַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֗עְתִּי כִּֽי־יְרֵ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אַ֔תָּה וְלֹ֥א חָשַׂ֛כְתָּ אֶת־בִּנְךָ֥ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ֖ מִמֶּֽנִּי׃

And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”

וַיִּשָּׂ֨א אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ וְהִנֵּה־אַ֔יִל אַחַ֕ר נֶאֱחַ֥ז בַּסְּבַ֖ךְ בְּקַרְנָ֑יו וַיֵּ֤לֶךְ אַבְרָהָם֙ וַיִּקַּ֣ח אֶת־הָאַ֔יִל וַיַּעֲלֵ֥הוּ לְעֹלָ֖ה תַּ֥חַת בְּנֽוֹ׃

When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. (Genesis 22:12-13)

Of all the different parts of the Akedah story: the donkey, the wood for the fire, the altar on top of the mountain, the knife, etc., it is interesting that the rabbis of the Talmud decided to focus on the ram as some type of emblematic detail of the story. Now, it is not the ram itself which they wish to remember; rather, the moment of sacrifice and the implicit devotion to God:

Rabbi Abihu said: Why do we blow on a ram’s horn? The Holy One, Blessed be God, said: Sound before Me a ram’s horn so that I may remember on your behalf the binding of Isaac, the son of Abraham, and account it to you as if you had been bound yourselves before Me.

Thus, according to Rabbi Abihu, blowing the shofar at Rosh Hashanah is akin to each of us, individually, being bound up on that altar.

I don’t know about you, but that isn’t the most moving imagery or analogy for me. The idea of sacrificing either myself or my child as an act of devotion to God does not inspire me, and actually distances me from this particular symbolism of the shofar.

Other traditional commentaries linked the ram to the idea of repentance, so prominent during this season. A midrash imagines that Abraham uses the moment of near-sacrifice as a bargaining tool for future generations:

Abraham: “Didst Thou not promise me to make my seed as numerous as the sand of the sea-shore?”
God: “Yes.”
Abraham: “Through which one of my children?”
God:  “Through Isaac.”
Abraham:  “I might have reproached Thee, and said, O, Lord of the world, yesterday Thou didst tell me, In Isaac shall Thy seed by called, and now Thou sayest, take thy son, thine only son, even Isaac, and offer him for a burnt offering. But I refrained myself, and I said nothing. Thus mayest Thou, when the children of Isaac commit trespasses and because of them fall upon hard times, be mindful of the offering of their father Isaac, and forgive their sins and deliver them from their suffering.”
“God: “Thou hast said what thou hadst to say, and I will now say what I have to say. Thou children will sin before me in time to come, and I will sit in judgment upon them on the New Year’s Day. If they desire that I should grant them pardon, they shall blow the ram’s horn on that day, and I, mindful of the ram that was substituted for Isaac for a sacrifice, will forgive them for their sins.”[2]

Here, Abraham’s actions on Mt. Moriah are, in a sense, “banked” for the sins and repentance which we will seek generations later.

The Rambam, otherwise known as Maimonides, was a Sephardic medieval Jewish commentator, physician, and philosopher. In his work entitled, Mishneh Torah, he dedicates a large portion of the text to Hilchot Teshuvah, or Laws related to Repentance.

His words are incorporated into the High Holy Day liturgy. He writes:

 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! Search your ways and return in teshuvah and remember your Creator! Those who forget the Truth amidst the futility of the moment and are infatuated all their years with vanity and nothingness that will not help and will not save, examine your souls and improve your ways and your motivations! Let each of you abandon his wicked ways, and his thoughts which are no good.” Therefore a person needs to see himself all year long as if he is half innocent and half guilty, and also [see] the whole world – half innocent and half guilty. If he sins one sin – he has tilted himself and the whole world to the side of guilt and caused its destruction. If he does one mitzvah – he has tilted himself and the whole world to the side of innocence and caused redemption and rescue, as it says, the righteous are the foundation of the world (Proverbs 10:25). This refers to a righteousness that has tilted the whole world to innocence and saved it. And for this reason the whole House of Israel has a custom to increase charity and good deeds, and to engage in mitzvot from Rosh HaShanah until Yom Kippur, more than the rest of the year. And everyone has the custom to wake up during the night on these ten days and to pray in the synagogue with words of pleading and words of surrender until daylight.[3]

Rambam’s words are, for me, the most inspiring. The sound of the Shofar wakes us up to both our individual responsibilities, as well as the role we each play in sustaining the world around us. Every single act performed by every single one of us tips the balance towards either destruction or redemption. Can you imagine recognizing that level of responsibility for the health and justice of our world? How would that recognition impact the way in which you made decisions day to day?

It is no secret that so much of our world is broken right now. At times, it can feel as if it will never be repaired. Our sense of safety as Jews has been slipping away as we witness an unimaginable rise in anti-Semitism, racism, Nazism, and just plain hatred. People’s homes have flooded or been destroyed by recent hurricanes and storms. Some folks’ friendships and relationships have splintered due to hyper-partisan disagreements. Civil rights which so many of us hold dear seem to be eroding around us day by day. Plus, absurdly enough, 140 characters or less may soon bring us to the brink of nuclear war.

What is our responsibility at a time like this? According to Pirke Avot 5:9, the ram of the Akedah was created at twilight at the end of the 6th day of Creation. That means that the ram and its horns are both in and outside of Creation. They are part of the world of our experience and yet point beyond it. Furthermore, according to the Midrash Pirke deRabbi Eliezer, one horn of the ram was sounded at Sinai when the Torah was given, the moment of Revelation, and the other will be sounded to announce the coming of the Messiah, which is the moment of Redemption. Thus, the Akedah and the ram connect us with Creation, with Revelation, and with Redemption.

This one symbol is a reminder that we are all connected, throughout time and space, to one another. We are grateful to Rita, Seth, and Maia for sounding the shofar for us – and yet, the mitzvah is in the listening, not the blowing. Our three baalei t’kiah, our shofar blowers, enable us to observe the mitzvah of hearing the shofar blast.

Okay, so we’re listening. But listening can be very passive. Once the Shofar has woken us up for the New Year, what do we do next? What action do we take?  I am joined by hundreds of reform rabbis, all over the country, in sharing the following thoughts with you, which will likewise be heard by thousands of our fellow Jews across America.


One Voice for the New Year[4]:

The Talmud teaches, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.” As Jews we are held accountable in ever-widening circles of responsibility to rebuke transgressors within our homes, in our country, in our world. One chutzpadik medieval commentator teaches we must voice hard truths even to those with great power, for “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.”

Today I speak words of protest, joining hundreds of my Reform rabbinic colleagues across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligation. We will not be silent. We will, without hesitation, decry the moral abdication of the government which fuels hatred and division in our beloved country. We, like the prophets before us, draw from the deepest wisdom of our tradition to deliver a stern warning against complacency and an impassioned call for action. We call on you to rise up and say in thousands of ways, every day, as proud Jews and proud Americans: “You cannot dehumanize, degrade and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man and child is beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight. We the people, all the people, are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine. All the people are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teruah, the Day of sounding the Shofar, whose piercing tones sound an alarm, express our fears and especially in these times compel us to respond with a resounding call for justice.

The shofar blasts: Tekiah [single shofar blast] The Sound of Certainty: As rabbis we are, from sea to shining sea, speaking to our congregations in every accent of America to declare in unison: acts of hatred, intimidation and divisiveness will not be tolerated in these United States. We stand upon the shoulders of the sages, poets and rabbis in every generation who fought for freedom. We speak in memory of every Jew and in memory of all people who tragically and senselessly lost their lives at the hands of evil oppressors. We call on our political leaders; progressives and conservatives alike, to rigorously uphold the values brilliantly articulated in the founding documents of our country, the “immortal declaration” that all [men] people are created equal. We call on every elected leader to responsibly represent our country’s history and advance its noble visions of tolerance. On this first day of the New Year WE are “Proclaiming liberty throughout all the land” [Lev 25:10].

The shofar blasts: Shvarim [3 shofar blasts] The Sound of Brokenness: Something crumbled inside us when we watched the televised images of Charlottesville’s beautiful streets filled with hate-spewing marchers. The wound reopened when we heard about a second case of vandalism at the Boston Holocaust Memorial, not so far from here. How much more vandalism, how many clashes, which other cities? We must not accept or become inured to some warped version of “normal,” of racist and anti-Semitic acts or rallies popping in and out of breaking news cycles. Let us never grow numb to the brokenness, but let our pain fuel our vows to respond – with peaceful protests, and with public calls for healing, by building alliances and by speaking in unison with other minorities and faith communities. Neither silence nor complacency nor waiting anxiously and fearfully for the next wounding event are options. Not for us. Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, possessed a rare understanding of unfathomable brokenness. His memorable words sound a warning to us today, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” May we never be neutral, never silent in the face of threats or of discrimination toward any. Let us interfere as [rofei lishvurei lev] healers of the broken[hearted], and [u’mchabaysh l’atzvotahm], binders of their wounds.

The shofar blasts: Truah [9 short blasts] The Sound of Urgency: The events of these simmering weeks are a wake-up call to our Jewish community. Racism is wrong whether it seeps into explicit anti-Semitism or not. The Talmud teaches that God created us all from the first Adam so that no human being could ever say, “my lineage is greater than yours.” But just in case we thought the white supremacists were after someone else, or that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with modern day Nazi sympathizers, or that we were somehow safe in the fact that most – but certainly not all – Jews in America are white, those fiery torches illuminated another truth, one we learn and forget only to learn again this day: if one minority group’s rights are threatened, we are all threatened. As Martin Luther King taught us, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny,” whether we are the least powerful or the most powerful person in our world.

The shofar blasts: Tekiah G’dolah [lengthy single blast] The Endless Pursuit of Justice: Tzedek tzedek tirdof the Torah admonishes: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land which I, God, give to you.” Our sacred text reminds us that for a community truly to inherit its place in the world, thoughtful leaders at every level must be dedicated to equality and to unity. Every community relies on passionate and engaged citizens; it relies on you to be insistent advocates for tolerance and enduring kindness between the diverse peoples of our nation. To pursue justice is to create a society that protects and enlivens every citizen. Let us be relentless, tireless builders of that society in our city and in our country — in this New Year.


Now, my friends here at CBSRZ, these imperatives can be overwhelming, and effecting change can feel impossible. When we feel discouraged, we can remember the words of Rabbi Tarfon: Lo Alecha Hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena.[5] You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.

The 17th century Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz taught that each group of sounds begins with a tekiah, a whole note and is followed by a shevarim, a broken note, divided into three parts or a even to a teru’ah an entirely fragmented sound. But each broken note is not left in its brokenness, it is followed by another tekiah, a whole sound. Rabbi Horowitz taught that when we hear shofar we hear this message – “I started off whole, I became broken, even splintered into fragments, but I shall become whole again! I shall become whole again!”

Our world shall be whole again, and the tekiah is proof of this.

I leave you with inspiring words from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov:

“If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can repair. If you believe that you can harm, then believe that you can heal.”

May we all act in ways which tip the balance toward righteousness.

May we take part in the repair of our fractured, hurt, and broken world.

May we each play our part in the healing of our country, our society, and our world.

And may we soon experience a return to shalom and shleimut: to wholeness and peace.

Ken Yhi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.

Amen.

 

[1] BT Rosh Hashanah 16a
[2] “Louis Ginsberg, in Legends of the Jews (Vol 1, pp 284-285). Midrash from Tanhuma.
[3] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4.
[4] This statement, co-authored by Rabbis Elka Abrahamson and Judy Shanks has many, many fingerprints on it. It developed out of a Facebook conversation on our CCAR page suggesting that colleagues (those willing) deliver the same message against hate, racism and anti-semitism in the aftermath of Charlottesville. Special appreciation to Rabbi David Stern, CCAR President who gave us permission to use some of his words directly, especially in the section on “urgency.”
[5] Pirke Avot 2:21

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