Rosh HaShanah Teaching 5777/2016

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We call this the season of Teshuvah, usually translated as repentance, but more precisely meaning turning, returning, or completion of a circuit.

Jewish tradition focuses intently on words – engraved, written, spoken, whispered, chanted and sung. The Hebrew term for word is d’var from the verb to say, to speak.  This seemingly simple noun is translated variously as speech, saying, pronouncement, and also as advice, counsel, decision, reason, cause, subject matter, and even as events, things, something and anything!  It could be said that Judaism is one long love affair with words and their multiplicity of meanings.

Our High Holy Day customs are rich with language.   We pray and sing and read from the Torah, as we do on other holidays as well. But what ritual is unique to the High Holy Days? The sounding of the shofar (Ram’s horn).

Kabbalah identifies four kinds of beings in our world – from the stones, called domeym, the silent ones, to the plants – tsomeyach, the sprouting ones, to the animals, chayai, the living ones, and finally we humans, who are known as m’daber, the speaking ones, the talkative ones.  We define ourselves by our ability to express ourselves in words.  But on Rosh HaShanah the mouth is used to produce a non-verbal sound.  We can talk while engaged in all sorts of activities, but it is impossible to talk while sounding shofar and pointless to speak while hearing shofar.

Of course we chatty humans also communicate with our faces and our bodies, and other species as well have systems of non-verbal communication: the cries of primates, the whistle of dolphins, the call of elephants, the song of whales, the dance of bees – all without words but rich with content.  On Rosh HaShanah we attune ourselves to the non-verbal language of the shofar.

In Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, we read of the great, mysterious shofar heard on Mount Sinai, and of the shofar sounded to announce holidays, to declare battle, or to celebrate the coronation of kings.

We have three traditional ways of sounding the shofar: tekiah, shevarim and teurah

Earlier, Berel sang from Psalm 81: “Sound the shofar at the new moon…tiku vachadesh shofar!”  The shofar sound commanded here is tekiah, consisting of one long, strong note.  In the Book of Kings, the elderly David commands that his son Solomon be anointed as his successor and the shofar be sounded prompting everyone to declare, “Long live Shlomo HaMelech – King Solomon!” (1 Kings 1:34)  Tekiah is the sound of extraordinary good news, the kind that so often goes under-reported.  Last night I watched a video of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife

Dr. Priscilla Chan announcing their three billion dollar initiative to cure, prevent, or manage all disease by the end of this century.  That’s a tekiah gedolah moment if ever there was one!  A great tekiah!
Another sound of the shofar is shevarim – three short sustained notes.  The name shevarim comes from the verb meaning to break or to shatter.  On High Holy Days we strive to break bad habits and old ways of thinking that no longer serve us, to shatter complacency – like the brave Israeli veterans’ group Shovrim Shtikah, idealistic men and women who have risked their lives for state security and now risk their own security in Breaking the Silence about human rights abuses.  We need the shevarim to shake up the status quo and stir us to action.

The third shofar sound is teruah, which is made with nine quick consecutive notes. Tomorrow in our Torah service we’ll hear of teruah in Psalm 89: “Happy is the people that knows the shofar sound teruah; Eternal One, they walk in the light of your Presence – Ashrei ha’am yodeiah teruah, HaShem, b’or panecha y’haleichun.”  (Psalm 89:16, Machzor page 251)  Because of this verse we would expect teruah to be a happy sound, but the rabbis have taken it in the opposite direction. Classical texts associate teruah with the sound of a woman sobbing uncontrollably, as in childbirth or in mourning.  In the 13th century, Maimonides, who was both a rabbi and a physician, ruled that teruah should sound like both groaning and wailing, in the way that humans express pain.

On Rosh HaShanah we say, “L’shanah Tovah” and wish each other Happy New Year.   But the Bible calls Rosh HaShanah yom teruah, the day of teruah, which the rabbis of the Talmud translated into Aramaic as yom yevavah, a day of sighing and sobbing!  (Bamidbar 29:1; BT Rosh HaShanah 33a-b)  And the stories we read for High Holy Days are anything but happy.  In the Torah readings we hear the cries of Ishamel and Hagar stranded in the desert.  Rabbinic legends describe the whimpers of Isaac bound in fear and the sobs of his mother Sarah when she hears of his close encounter with death.

In the Rosh HaShanah haftarah from Jeremiah, the Divine Voice invokes the mythic figure of mother Rachel weeping for her children, and in the Book of Samuel we hear Channah weeping over her childlessness.  And in our haftarah reading on Yom Kippur we hear the lamentation of Jonah and people of Nineveh.  As if all these scriptural tales of woe were not enough, the rabbis of the Talmud tell us that in the wailing of the shofar we also should hear the cries of the enemy Sisera’s mother when she learns of his death.

“Happy is the people that knows the shofar blast, that knows teruah…they shall walk in the light of Divine Presence.” 

Torah scholar Aviva Zornberg raises questions:  Why are we supposed to know the shofar sound?  Isn’t it enough to hear it?  And what is the “…mysterious happiness that comes from knowing?”  (Beginning Anew, page 175)

Just as in English, in Hebrew there are several different words for happiness, joy, delight, contentment.  The ancient Hebrew term employed here is ashrei, from which we get the Modern Hebrew ishur, meaning validation. So we expect ashrei to be not a frivolous, but a grounded, substantive happiness.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, the Italian rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto taught that in the Jewish community, a person should feel as if saturated in someone else’s sorrow or good fortune (Tomer Devorah, Chapter 1, Part 4). We mourn together, we rejoice together, and in so doing we experience a certain effacement of ego and we are able to empathize with one another.

This is the Judaism we need for this time in history. We need to move beyond the “us versus them” mentality, both within and without the Jewish community.  Internally, we fifteen million Jews have a wide range of views – on religious practices and customs,  on resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on political priorities here in the United States.  At this time of deep divides, we need to cultivate empathy for our fellow Jews.

Externally also, we can no longer afford the “us versus them” way of thinking. Too often we lump together Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims in the category of “them.”  We must move beyond this.  It’s a small planet. There is no them; there is only us.  We share in the joys and sorrows of all humanity.

Next week, right before Yom Kippur, comes Columbus Day, observed as a Federal holiday since 1937.  Here in California for the past eighteen years, Columbus Day has been balanced with observance of Native American Day, a small but symbolic step to acknowledge the suffering of the indigenous population.  Let us hope that we can develop the cultural sensitivity to remember that Israeli Independence Day, Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, is referred to by some as al-Nakbah, the day of catastrophe.  We’re shocked that Palestinians don’t teach their students about the Holocaust, but not many Jewish students are taught the Palestinian narrative of displacement and impoverishment.

In Talmud we read: Great is teshuvah for it brings healing to the world – gadol teshuvah, shemeyviah refuah la-olam. (Yoma 86a)

As we learn to acknowledge, to hear and to know the suffering of others, we return to what it means to be part of the human family.  We are hard-wired for sympathy and empathy. In every moment of compassion there is completion of a circuit of blessing.

May the sound of tekiah move us to hope.  May shevarim shatter our illusions.  And when we know teruah as the cry of all suffering souls, may we grow in kindness, generosity and love.
This is what it is to be truly happy and to walk in the light of God’s Presence.

L’Shanah tovah tikateyvu.  May you be inscribed for a good new year.