2nd day Rosh HaShanah 2020: "The 7:00 p.m. Shofar"

 Do you remember -- back in March?  Yes, I know it seems like several years ago. 

Way back when in March, when the health crisis was so abominable in this area, people in various New York neighborhoods, and here in Hoboken, started an apparently spontaneous practice of stopping whatever they were doing at 7pm each night and applauding for health care workers.  Apparently this practice started near hospitals where shifts tend to change around 7pm, so such a salute could be heard by health care workers as they left or arrived at the hospital. We clapped and cheered, some of us used other homemade materials to make noise, generating a brief daily feeling of togetherness and solidarity. 

A few days after this practice started, I got a question from someone in our congregation, a question of Jewish law: "In the file of questions I never thought I’d need to ask my rabbi...  in the event of a global pandemic and a community’s desire to honor first responders by making lots of noise, would it be appropriate - or sacrilegious - to blow the shofar as our way to contribute to the cacophony?” 

And I responded that it would be very appropriate. And I appreciated the idea and also began to blow the shofar out the window of my home at 7pm - as did others in my family.  And we know we weren’t the only ones:  shofars at 7pm soon became a social media phenomenon across the New York area. 

I started to look forward each day to blowing the shofar at 7pm.  It became my wordless prayer that summed up the complex blend of emotions I was feeling and couldn’t necessarily articulate -- just as, for so many centuries, the shofar has been the complex wordless prayer of the Jewish people. 

On one of those evenings in March, one of my daughters took a video of me blowing the shofar. Amazingly, because it was not long ago, it’s like a time capsule from an earlier era, when we thought lockdown and quarantine would last maybe a month or two, when there was still some illusion that our country would speedily defeat this virus by pulling together.  In the video, my face while blowing the shofar reflects an earnestness and determination that I have to say - several months on - is refreshing and even nostalgic, because I think we’re in a different place now.

The Biblical book of Ezra tells a story that I think we will relate to.  (I am grateful to Rabbi Tali Adler for directing me to the special resonance of this story for Rosh HaShanah this year.) It’s a story about shofar blasts at a time of similarly complicated emotions, when a remnant of the Jewish people had the opportunity to return to Jerusalem after decades of exile in Babylonia.  They even got permission to rebuild the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem, and they gathered in Jerusalem to lay a new foundation for the Temple. Many of the people celebrated with joyous singing, accompanied by the sounds of trumpets and the shofar.  

But not everyone was joyously singing.  Many of the zekenim - the elders --אֲשֶׁ֨ר רָא֜וּ אֶת־הַבַּ֤יִת הָֽרִאשׁוֹן֙  who had memories of having seen the first temple before it was destroyed -- started weeping loudly.  Commentaries suggest that it was because they saw how small this second temple was going to be, so diminutive next to the powerful structure that the first temple was. While at the same time, the younger generation were shouting joyously at the top of their voices, with unbridled joy.  They of course had no idea there was anything disappointing about this experience;  they had nothing to compare it to. 

Then the book of Ezra tells us:  וְאֵ֣ין הָעָ֗ם מַכִּירִים֙ ק֚וֹל תְּרוּעַ֣ת הַשִּׂמְחָ֔ה לְק֖וֹל בְּכִ֣י הָעָ֑ם כִּ֣י הָעָ֗ם מְרִיעִים֙ תְּרוּעָ֣ה גְדוֹלָ֔ה וְהַקּ֥וֹל נִשְׁמַ֖ע עַד־לְמֵרָחֽוֹק׃  The people could not distinguish the shouts of joy from the people’s weeping, for the people were intoning a great teruah -- a great and powerful sound of the Shofar -- and the sound could be heard at a great distance.  The joyous sounds and the weeping sounds and the Shofar sounds all became conflated together in an indistinguishable cacophony expressing the complicated mix of emotions of that day -- because at intense moments of our lives, we don’t usually feel only one thing. And especially, when we gather together in community with others, as a community we certainly don’t feel only one thing. The returned exiles were expressing their intermingled feelings of sadness and joy and relief and discouragement and loss and hope.

And maybe their gathering sounds familiar to us as we come together this Rosh HaShanah to hear the sound of the shofar, at a time of strong and contradictory emotions. 

This year, the Shofar is our desperate non-verbal prayer for healing of body and spirit and society and nation and world.  The Shofar is our cry of agony at beautiful lives cut short, illness and funerals and shiva that we’ve experienced without the embrace of loved ones, with the pain of grief compounded by the pain of loneliness.  We will have more to say in tribute to those who have died, and to console the bereaved, as our holiday continues.

And the Shofar is also our cry of concern for jobs lost,  businesses suffering, financial insecurity; our cry of concern for those who are scared and those who are isolated; those who are coping in unhealthy ways, by taking risks or descending into despair or irrationality and conspiracy theories.  

And the shofar is our cry of frustration when we empathize with teachers and so many workers facing impossible choices, and with anxious and overworked parents, and with kids whose childhoods suddenly look very different.

But can there possibly be, at this moment, a קול תרועת שמחה - the shofar call of resounding joy, like there was in the time of Ezra?   The answer is yes - in fact, for our Shofar call to also convey joy and appreciation is also our responsibility.   The Shofar is also our vociferous cheer for our health care workers and first responders and medical researchers, who so generously share their wisdom and skill and their energy to help the world through an unimaginable time.  The Shofar is our cry of gratitude for the creativity of teachers, for the resilience of students, for the energy of grocery workers and transportation workers and postal workers and all essential jobs that don’t usually get celebrated.  For the mental health professionals and others providing care for those in most need. 

And the Shofar is also our cry of joy to amplify all the muted celebrations from the last six months, as we cheer for all the birthdays that have been celebrated since March, all the graduations, all the weddings, all the babies born, all the Zoom bar/bat mitzvahs, all the times of celebration.  The shofar is also our cheer for all those, of all ages, simply managing to live our lives - including the children who have lived like this for a startling percentage of their lives and are starting to think of it as normal.  And it is not our job to take away their exuberance.

The Shofar that is blown in one location and can be heard at a distance is also our way of marking that we have learned to experience distance differently this year. We’ve had the technology for a while, but only this year are more of us regularly connecting with people from around the country and around the world - gathering to learn together, to pray together, and even to sing together.  In recent months, our synagogue has welcomed people from at least 7 countries on at least 4 continents, and maybe more.  At a time of physical distancing, we may have learned to see the world as smaller and more connected.  In our torah reading today, we read that וישא אברהם את עיניו וירא את המקום מרחוק - Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the location he was headed to -- from a distance. Some of our commentators understand the word המקום  here - usually translated as ‘the location,’ as being a name of God -- because God is in every location - and also can be perceived at a distance. And there are many of us who have found this challenging time to be a remarkable opportunity to connect with Jewish learning and Jewish life as we emulate Abraham in connecting with God from a distance. 

And that’s not all. The Shofar is also our cheer at the explosion of every kind of creativity.  It’s our applause for all the gardening and homemade mask making; all the deliciously baked sourdough bread; the meticulously edited videos of choirs singing apart but together.  And it’s our cheer at every kind of generosity: all the meals made and delivered; all the grocery shopping for friends and neighbors, all the advocacy for justice that of course keeps on being necessary at times of global crisis and doesn’t take a break. The shofar is our cheer for the leaders and volunteers of non-profit organizations who are investing so much time and energy to assist those most vulnerable, made even more vulnerable at this time of crisis.  And the Shofar is our cheer for all the rabbis and cantors and volunteers and religious leaders of all faiths - and in this congregation -  who have suddenly learned how to lead our communities in prayer in bizarre and new ways, while simultaneously leading and comforting our communities through extraordinary challenges for their communal institutions and all the individuals and families.


The call of the Shofar means all of these things, and more.  That verse from Ezra is probably true about each one of us. וְאֵ֣ין הָעָ֗ם מַכִּירִים֙ ק֚וֹל תְּרוּעַ֣ת הַשִּׂמְחָ֔ה לְק֖וֹל בְּכִ֣י הָעָ֑ם   Even within each of us, we probably can’t disentangle all these emotions, which is one reason why we begin this year like every year with a sound of undifferentiated emotion, that represents the intermingling of the bitter and the sweet.  


There’s something that I know I teach about the meaning of the sound of the Shofar every year, but I can’t help it - I find that it’s just the teaching about the sounds of the Shofar that most resonates for me and transforms the Sounding of the Shofar into a prayer and a meditation.  This is the teaching of the Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, the baal Shnei Luchot Habrit, who taught that the order in which we hear the sounds of the Shofar tells a story - in fact, though he didn’t use these words, the Shofar is telling us the archetypical story of the Jewish people. That story has four chapters - which are  Tekiah - shevarim - teruah - tekiah.  Or in other words, the chapters of our story are ‘whole; broken; shattered; whole.”  

For the Baal Shnei Luchot Habrit, this is the story of the individual undergoing the process of teshuvah, repentance and renewal.  We start out whole and we carefully analyze our actions, we break ourselves down to determine what parts of us are going to endure for the following year, and then we build ourselves back up anew.

We have other sages who understand this pattern as a reflection of the journey of a human life with our inevitable disappointments, and hopefully with our ability to build ourselves back into wholeness and completeness following disappointment and difficulty.  And still other sages regard it as the story of Jewish history with its moments of brokenness and tragedy followed by opportunities to rebuild and to celebrate, or a story of the world -broken and shattered by human beings, and natural forces, that with God’s help we can build.

When I hear each pattern of the blasts of the Shofar, I make every effort to picture some element of my own experience of the world where this pattern exists. Sometimes the blasts of the Shofar give me the opportunity to marvel at the resilience that I have shown, the ways that I have been broken and have managed to endure.  Sometimes the blasts of the Shofar  encourage me to do the repair work that I know I need to do. And sometimes all I can do is to pray that the brokenness that I see around me will be able to  be repaired. 

Because the sound of the Shofar is a sonic representation of the words of the Hasidic master Rebbe Nahman of Breslov:  אם אתה מאמין שיכולין לקלקל תאמין שיכולין לתקן  If you believe that something can be damaged, also believe that it can be repaired. Our shofar blower demonstrates this truth by taking a whole and intact blast - a tekiah - And then breaking it in three parts, or in nine parts, or in three parts and THEN in nine parts, and then putting it back together again.  And doing so over - and over - and over - and over.  Because if the breaking is possible, then the healing is possible. 

Today as I hear the shofar’s blasts, I think about how -- at least on my block - we haven’t made noise at seven o-clock in many months.  That’s for a lot of reasons - some of which are very good, like that those most dire days God willing are behind us. But also - we got tired.  We who have lived through our share of disasters know that, for better or for worse, there’s a life cycle to every disaster.  Actually there is a lot I have learned from the writings of our neighbor in Jersey City, the Rev. Dr. Willard Ashley, who is a world authority on the pastoral impact of disasters.  He writes that in the immediate aftermath of the disaster you have the ‘heroic phase’ when everyone pulls together, when people set aside their differences and cheer for the extraordinary and self-sacrificial actions of remarkable people.  The feelings of unity and togetherness are energizing -- but they rarely last as long as we need them to.   Soon we get tired - and we move into what he calls the ‘disillusionment phase’  -- characterized by disappointment and conflict and incrimination and anger. 

Guess which stage our entire country seems to be in now - together with much of our world. Maybe not surprisingly.  Even before the pandemic, the stage was not particularly set for unity and togetherness and cooperation in the United States.  It has been a long time since these were words that would come to mind when you think of our country and its leadership.

But I take to heart the words of Rebbe Nahman, and the message of the Shofar:  if I believe the breaking is possible, I should believe the repair is possible.  The archetypical Jewish story told by the Shofar - which is also an archetypical human story - ends in wholeness rather than brokenness.  

The Jews returning to the land of Israel in the time of Ezra had many different emotions and different responses -- and yet they were united.  Our American community, our worldwide Jewish community, and our global community can achieve similar unity in diversity.  It is not easy, but we know it is possible because we have seen it happen before.   May the sound of the Shofar help us to redouble our efforts to repair what has been ruptured.  If the breaking is possible, the repair is possible.


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