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Rosh Hashanah 5776/2015 Rabbi Howard Jaffe  


Rosh Hashanah 5776/2015 Rabbi Howard Jaffe

The year after I became Bar Mitzvah, my parents gave me the choice of attending Rosh Hashanah services or not.  Exercising my newfound autonomy, I chose not to attend.  And you know what?  I missed it.  Terribly.  And you know what I missed most?  I am guessing it is what you would have missed the most. 

I missed the sound of the shofar.  And I vowed that as long as I was physically able, that would never happen again.

How important is the sound of the shofar to you?  Would you risk your freedom – and possibly your life - to hear it?

Hearing the shofar Rosh Hashanah is actually the central mitzvah of this day. The rabbis tell us that if a person is to decide whether to go to a service where there is a wonderful worship leader but they will not hear a proper shofar sounding, they should go to hear the shofar (I feel constrained to add that, while there is no question about a proper sounding of the shofar at Temple Isaiah, I hope that it is the experience of everyone here that you do not feel that you had to make a choice).

At times throughout our history, however, the decision to hear the shofar was far more challenging and consequential.

As we know, after Judaism was outlawed and the Inquisition established in 1492, many Spanish Jews who outwardly converted to Christianity did what they could to maintain their Jewish identity and practice.  There are countless stories, even today, about individuals who are not aware of having any Jewish heritage, but maintain certain family traditions that include lighting two candles on Friday evening, often inside a closet, and even some who were taught strange words as children that they did not understand, and later learned were the words of the Shema.   In the days of the Inquisition, these practices were life-threatening. Getting caught once usually meant getting put under strict surveillance. Getting caught twice meant death at the stake.

One of the more dangerous practices, though surely one of the most cherished, was the sounding of the shofar. Don Fernando Aguilar, conductor of the Royal Orchestra in Barcelona, devised an ingenious, if terribly risky way of arranging for some of those Conversos, including himself, to hear the shofar one year.  He announced that there would be a public concert, highlighting instrumental music of diverse cultures, on September 28, 1497… which not so coincidentally happened to be Rosh Hashanah.  One version of the story suggests that he was under suspicion, and that the Queen, knowing how important Rosh Hashanah was to insincere converts, arranged for the concert to happen that day as a test. The concert featured various compositions, one of which included the “playing” of a shofar, complete with tekiah, shvarim, Teruah, and tekiah gedolah.  While there were, reportedly, numerous clergy and Inquisition authorities in the audience, the subterfuge apparently went undetected, though little is known about what happened to Don Fernando after that day.

Our challenge, to put it mildly, is somewhat less dramatic, but potentially no less consequential. Don Fernando and the other Conversos who attended the concert that day with the intention of hearing the shofar affirmed that there were values and ideals on which they were willing to stake their lives. Our choice is only slightly different: it is whether or not there are values and ideals on which we are willing to stake the meaning of our lives.

We associate the sound of the shofar with the story of the Akedah that we just read a few minutes ago. Some commentaries suggest that the middle call, Teruah, which sounds much like the sound of someone wailing, is supposed to remind us of the sound of Sarah when she heard that Abraham had taken Isaac up to Mount Moriah. But that is not the origin of the sounds of the shofar, nor is Sarah the only woman whose voice our tradition identifies with that wailing sound.

The sounds of the shofar blasts hark back to the days of the Israelites in the wilderness.  Tekiah called the people to attention. Teruah was a signal to break camp and fold up tents.  Tekiah Gedolah called B’nei Yisrael forward to the next place on their journey.

This day is known in our tradition as Yom Teruah.  Teruah, the sound of the shofar that called for B’nai Yisrael to break camp, to leave behind much of what had become familiar and comfortable and prepare to move forward, because there can be no progress staying put.  Teruah, the name of this day because it is the essence of this day. Teruah: time, once again, as every Rosh Hashanah, to leave behind at least some of what has become familiar and comfortable because there can be no progress staying put.

But the rabbis added an additional sound: shevarim, which literally means broken. We heard it a little while ago. It is composed of three short and sharp blows sounding like a moan. It calls out to us to say that not only do we need to break down, but to remind us that we ourselves are broken.

We do not need a Tekiah to get our attention.  We know as well as human beings have ever known how much our world hangs in the balance.

And we do not need the sound of the Teruah to hear the wailing. Although it has been loud and clear for a long time, only now that it has begun to emanate from the shores of Europe, have we begun to hear it.

But we may need the sound of the shevarim. We may need the blast of the shofar to pierce through our defenses, to call us to face our brokenness.

For it is only from that place of brokenness that we, paradoxically, find the empathy that calls us to respond to the brokenness of others, the brokenness of the world.

The songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen famously wrote: ““There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.”

“There is a crack in everything.   That's how the light gets in.”

If so, there is an awful lot of light in our world right now. Or at least a lot of space and a lot of places for the light to come in.

Rosh Hashanah comes to ask the question:  will we just stare at the light, or worse, turn away from it, or will we do something about what we see in ourselves, and in our world?

Do we, perhaps, need to hear the sound of the Teruah after all? Do we need to hear the wailing of others more clearly to be called to action? And if so, whose voice does it need to be? Whose voice is it?

As we mentioned, some commentaries understandably identify the wailing of the Teruah as the voice of Sarah, when she heard what Abraham had done with Isaac. And given the age in which they lived, it is not surprising that the rabbis would identify the wailing sound of the Teruah as the voice of a woman.  But they had a number of choices. Aside from Sarah, they might well have identified the voices that Rachel crying over her children, Leah or Chana wailing over their infertility, or any number of others. Astonishingly, the rabbis of the Talmud identify the sound of the Teruah as the voice of the mother of Sisera, a Canaanite general, who sought to kill the Israelites, and was unexpectedly defeated and slain.  In Deborah’s song of victory, found in the book of Judges, she mentions the wailing of Sisera's mother, who vainly awaits her son's return from battle. It is this wailing that the rabbis in the Talmud reference to describe the sound of the Shofar.

Of all of the mothers the rabbis could have chosen, why would they have picked Sisera's mother?

Perhaps to teach us a profoundly important lesson, especially on this day.

The voice of the Teruah does not have to be the voice of my friend. It does not have to be the voice of a member of my family. It does not have to be the voice of my ancestor. It simply has to be the voice of a human being in pain. It can even be the voice of a mother wailing over the death of her son who sought to kill us. Because our humanity is not measured by how we respond to those we love and care about. Our humanity is measured by how we respond to the other, simply because they are human.

And yes, I am speaking specifically, though not exclusively, about the refugees who are flooding into Europe from war torn Middle Eastern countries.  To those who say that countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, and Dubai should be taking them in, I say:

You are right.

They should.

But their not doing so does not justify closing our hearts and distancing ourselves from responsibility.  When the day comes that we as Jews, and as Americans, measure ourselves by the standards of those nations, we no longer have a valid claim to either of those identities.  There is no simple solution, and resettling the refugees does not address the core issue. But we know all too well what it is like when we sound the Teruah and no one listens. How ironic that today, after 70 years of hearing the Shevarim, after 70 years of being cracked open, it is Germany that has agreed to take in the largest number, it is Germany that has heard the Teruah and is responding most fully.

The sound of the shofar is preverbal, almost primal. It touches us in ways that words cannot. And to quote Rabbi Linda Hirschhorn, “Sisera's mother as the model for the shofar teaches us that the non-verbal sounds that she, and we, make with the shofar, defeat the specificity of her nationality, and leave us, instead, with her as simply, and deeply, human. It is precisely in that way, from our deepest, simplest, most human place, that we want to speak, on Rosh Hashanah. We want to subvert all of the categories we use to understand our world, all of the explanations of who we are and what we think we are supposed to do and believe, and stand instead, in the barest and most basic way we can.”

We turn then, once again, to the shofar.

Tekiah. One long blast. Pay attention!

Shevarim, three short and sharp blows sounding like a moan, calling out to us to say that not only do we need to break down, but to remind us that we ourselves are broken, and from that place, let in the light that illumines our lives.

Teruah. Nine short blasts, the sound of wailing, calling out to us to say it is time once again to break down the structures we have, and leave behind at least some of what is familiar and what is comfortable so that we can move forward and begin to form the future.

Tekiah Gedolah.  One long blast, to call us forward.

Let us turn, then, to page 284, and let us hear, truly hear, the call of the shofar…