A hundred years ago, in one of the neighborhoods of Jerusalem, a group of workers was under pressure to complete a particular building, and they continued working during the Rosh Hashanah holiday.
When the neighbors realized what was happening, they immediately notified Rav Kook, the greatest spiritual leader of the time, esteemed by religious and secular Jews alike. Shortly thereafter, a messenger of the Rav arrived at the construction site with a shofar in his hand. He approached the workers, who were surprised to see him, and offered New Year's greetings. He then announced that Rav Kook had sent him to blow the shofar for them, in accordance with the obligation to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. He respectfully asked them to take a break from their work and listen. The messenger then proceeded to recite the blessing and began to blow.
The words from the Rav and the sounds of the shofar achieved their goal. Each blast shook the delicate chords of the soul and awakened the Jewish spark in the hearts of the young workers. They set down their work tools and gathered around the man blowing the shofar. Some were so moved that they began to cry. The ancient blasts of the shofar, reverberating in the unfinished building, transported them back to Europe, to their parents’ houses in the shtetl. They saw images of their grandparents, the houses and the synagogue, a world of Jews standing in prayer.
Questions began to pour out, one after another. What has happened to us? Where are we? What have we come to? The young men stood around the emissary, confused and absorbed in thought.
When the shofar-blowing was over, there was no need for words. The workers unanimously decided to stop working. Some asked the messenger if they could accompany him. They quickly changed their clothes and joined in the holiday prayers with Rav Kook.
In a short while, we will all stand, like that world of Jews, in some ways different from them, with our non-Jewish family and friends, adults and children together, to hear the calls of the Shofar. Unlike the workers in the story, we have chosen to stop work in order to be here on this holy day. Still, the shofar is calling to each of us. Wherever we are, those primal strains, the piercing notes of the ram’s horn are meant to wake us up.
How are we asleep?
We don’t live in normal times. I don’t need to enumerate the many ways that the norms of democracy and decency have been upended, and there is no end in sight. We have found multiple ways to cope. We may be working very hard to resist. We may be hyper alert to every news bulletin, every article, every post, every comedy show. We may studiously avoid the news bulletins, articles, and posts. We may be filled with righteous anger, living with despair, or dwelling in overwhelm. Undoubtedly, most of us are worrying about what is wrong today. At the same time, are we mindlessly sleepwalking through the rest of our lives? It is time to wake up—to a new way of being alive.
This ongoing crisis may bring us the opportunity for a radical transformation. We don’t know whether our country will go back to the way we consider normal. It is up to us, now more than ever, to live in the world as we wish it to be. Not only to fight the battles, join the protests, sign the petitions. We also need to envision and to take steps to create a world of unity and civil discourse, a world of compassion and concern, a world of stability and the comfort of predictability.
Moreover, our children are watching. Whether we are parents or grandparents or we have no children of our own, the children in our midst are noticing. They are taking the world in and from what they see, they are fashioning their own idea of what is normal. It is our job to correct for the imbalances, to teach them what we consider normal. Compassion. Honesty. Humility. Respect for others. Welcoming strangers.
Likewise, they are watching us to see how we respond in difficult times. If they see us escaping, they will learn to run away from their problems. If we are despondent, they will believe they are powerless. If we are overwhelmed, they will believe the world is impossibly chaotic.
The shofar calls us to wake up and crawl out from under this blanket and envision the world we wish to create. From the sounds of the shofar, we can learn how to hold onto the challenges of our current reality and wrap them in a powerful vision of how we want the world to be.
This shofar sandwich, broken notes lovingly placed between sustained notes, offers a metaphor: we were whole, we became broken, and we will be whole once again.
The shofar begins with the tekiah, the long loud note of wholeness.
In these Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, when we hear that sustained, pure tone, let it return you to a child’s view of the wonders of the world, with all their power and might.
A thirteen-year old boy scrambles up to the peak of a mountain in the Rockies, and with a grin from ear to ear, utters a single word, “majestic.”
A three-year-old child, pushed to make it to the top of a mountain in New Hampshire, looks around and enthusiastically announces, “what a beautiful view! I love it!”
A high school senior stepping up to the rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time, stands silent for many minutes, turns to his parents and solemnly reports, “It’s breathtaking.”
We call this experience awe. The capacity to slow down long enough to notice the raw power that is beyond our control.
Millions felt it watching the eclipse.
When the darkness shrouded the earth, a woman I know in her fifties sobbed uncontrollably. She later described sunsets radiating all around her, crickets chirping, birds hushed. People whooping and screaming. Totality. And two minutes and forty seconds later, it was over.
We have witnessed the power of the hurricanes and their aftermath with awe and reverence, with the helpless feeling as we watch water and wind inundate cars and crush the roofs of houses.
Similarly, the mystery of the creative process can lead to rapture.
The feeling of joy and wonder at a master musician drawing out Beethoven’s music with his bow, as if for the first time. The audience, surrounded by the grandeur of the music, sits transfixed, then rises as one in thunderous applause.
Standing for what seems like an hour before a work of art that envelops the heart and mind with color and movement and drama and tranquility.
Let’s imagine today that we are standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, as it smokes and thunders, hearing the shofar blasts for the very first time, awaiting the divine words and then, having heard but a single letter, the silent alef, falling on our faces, crying, “Enough, Moses. We’ve heard enough. You go up and tell us what God desires of us.”
In the careless and raw cynicism of our age, where is the awe? Where is the reverence we once knew as children? Confronting us with our small part in the vast cosmos, awe inspires us to gratitude and humility. In the presence of such timeless splendor, we understand that all humans are equally insignificant. The unbroken tekiah sound engulfs us, awakening our sense of the power of the universe, its tones reverberating in our souls.
We were whole. Then we became broken. We hope to become whole again.
The middle calls of the shofar are the broken notes: shevarim, 3 short blasts, and teruah, nine breathy blasts. The plaintive tones of the shofar call forth the images of injustice and suffering in our world. They call us to notice the places that are needy. They urge us to repair the breech.
The Rabbis of the Talmud, attempting to determine the exact meaning of the shofar sound that the Torah calls teruah, could not agree on whether the broken notes of the teruah are long moaning sounds or short whimpering sounds. As in most rabbinic disputes, they decided to make two different calls: shevarim and teruah. To the rabbis, these are not simply musical notes. Moans or whimpers, they arise from the pain of human suffering and loss, from the heartbreak of seeing one’s dreams dashed, and from the contradictions that afflict our very souls.
The Rabbis of the Talmud note that teruah was translated into Aramaic as yevava, which is also a Hebrew word that appears only once in the entire Bible, in the book of Judges (5:28). Yevava is not a normal cry. It is the soul-splitting moan sounded by a mother anxiously waiting for her son to return from war. She sits by the window and wails, “why is his chariot so long in coming?” But we, the readers, know, as she senses, that her son already lies dead.
There is no grief like that of a parent who has lost a child. In the shofar’s sobs we feel the mother’s pain pierce our hearts. But the story the rabbis chose to connect to the sound of the shofar is far more complex, because the son who has died in war is no simple soldier on the battlefield who followed orders. The son is none other than the enemy general Sisera, whose army was defeated by the Israelite judge Deborah. When his soldiers fall, Sisera escapes, seeking refuge with a woman named Yael, from another clan, neither from Sisera’s nor Deborah’s people. Recognizing the brutal general, Yael offers him milk, which puts him in a stupor, and then murders him by her own hand.
The Bible enshrines Yael and Deborah as heroes, women who saved others from the cruelty of war. Yet the Bible also records that Sisera had a mother, and she was worried for him as a mother worries for any child. Not seeing him, her world is shaken. And she wails a yevava. This is the sound the rabbis hear in the teruah call. Even though she is the enemy, they hear only the cry of a mother. A moan. A whimpering. A soul who has been shaken to her core.
In that cry, the rabbis are telling us, we too must be shaken. We must let go of the walls that divide us and pay attention to human suffering. And not only the suffering of those on our own side. Hearing the cry of our enemy’s mother ought to move us beyond what we have always believed to be true. Even our enemies are someone’s children. They are God’s children. The teruah breaks into our consciousness to face the contradictions in our own lives, the suffering that we have come to accept, the justifications that undergird our most cherished principles, and the complacency of knowing we are right.
The teruah calls us to hear the brokenness and in response, to break down our own well-defended egos and to respond to suffering with compassion. We were whole, we have become broken, we hope to be whole again.
But our shofar ritual does not end there. Every teruah, every shevarim, every broken note is followed by a second tekiah. Having our deepest truths shattered, we return, whole once again, but different. The tekiah comes to mend our own broken hearts. But how?
You all know the often-repeated line attributed to Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” But as we’ve learned, nothing is so simple, so neat, and Gandhi actually said something that does not fit on a bumper sticker.
Gandhi said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.... We need not wait to see what others do.”
Gandhi is describing the work of teshuva, repentance. It is the only way we know to repair the brokenness in our lives.
Gandhi challenges us: Work on ourselves first. Through our own choice and our own resolve. And do not stop there. The task of teshuvah begins by mending my own broken heart. That changes everyone around me. We were whole, we were broken, we will become whole again.
I want to share one last story, a story of a change that’s taken place in my life. It’s a story of a return to wholeness, about holding onto joy until joy grabs hold of you.
You may recall that last year I described my inner turmoil about visiting my younger sister for her daughter’s bat mitzvah at their home in the West Bank.
This summer, my sister celebrated the marriage of another daughter, one of her five children. Brian and I wanted to be there. I had met my niece’s boyfriend last summer. It was clear they were in love and everyone loved them. Brian and I were the only close family members on the bride’s side able to make the trip from America. We wanted to be with them to celebrate.
The wedding was unlike any wedding I’ve ever been to. And at heart, it had all the essential elements of every wedding I’ve known. We traveled to the outdoor wedding site on the outskirts of Jerusalem at Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, across the Green Line. Before the ceremony, the groom, dressed all in white, was surrounded by an eclectic horde of young men, friends from his yeshiva, some with long peyos and large kippot, some clean-shaven, some with hats, his father, his future brothers-in-law and father-in-law, teachers and male guests. The bride, my niece, was sequestered at the opposite side of the outdoor gardens. She sat on a cushioned bench in a lovely arbor, with her sisters, girlfriends, mother, and a crowd of women milling around in eager anticipation.
Had I focused on the outer trappings, and on my own political and religious stance, I might have missed out on one of the greatest moments of joy I’ve ever seen.
I waited next to my sister as the two fathers escorted the groom to his bride. The yeshiva boys were singing and dancing ecstatically behind him. His smile was dazzling. The fathers were solemn. The bride broke out into sobs. As my sister explained, the bride and groom had not seen one another, not even texted for an entire week. But it wasn’t only seeing her beloved’s face that moved her. For this bride and groom,
their marriage was a deeply spiritual event, with the potential to catalyze a cosmic union between God and God’s own exiled presence, between the Kudsha Berich Hu and the Shechina. They were about the rock the entire world.
Soon we were all singing, caught up in a joyous procession, escorting these two to the huppah, surrounding them on all sides with love and prayer. The rabbi blessed the two of them to have a home filled with the gifts of gratitude and welcoming guests, of children and joy, a litany of blessings before even beginning the words of the ceremony. And after more singing and rejoicing, calling different family members and rabbis to take part, the groom placed the ring on his bride's finger. At that moment, you could see the electricity pass through their fingers and light them up. These two young people, who had been a couple for over a year, had never touched. And for the rest of the ceremony, those hands were clenched in fervent emotion: joy, hope, prayer, love.
Many thoughts came into my head at that point. I could have dwelled on the doubts I harbored. I could have felt uncomfortable, feeling that I didn’t belong. I could have chosen to be offended. Instead I chose joy.
After the ceremony, we danced. For hours. I danced with the bride as she pulled me into her inner circle. I danced with my sister. We danced with abandon. And we sang as we danced. And we sang to the bride and groom as the young men surrounded them inside a circle of love of joy.
My sister and I were once whole. We became broken. We are again whole. We may hold dramatically different political perspectives, such that we might never meet if we weren’t sisters. And now we have each gained more understanding, and have shared more joy than we have ever felt before.
Tekiyah-shevarim-truah-tekiyah. We were whole, we were broken, we become whole again. When you hear the shofar, hear it all. The awe, the suffering, the joy. You might ask, “How is it possible to feel joy when there is so much suffering?” Why not ask, “How is it possible to hold onto anger when there is so much joy?”
The best known custom at any Jewish wedding comes at the end, when the couple steps on a glass, and everyone shouts “mazal tov”! The glass, we are told, is meant to remind us of our broken world, whether because of our grief that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and is no longer, or whether because our world is still unredeemed. We break the glass, not to diminish our joy, but to hold onto it, to cherish it because we are aware of how broken the world still is, how much work we still need to do. Joy is even more necessary as an antidote to suffering.
Our task is to focus on redemption. How do we heal this broken world? The sound of the shofar also echoes the ancient ritual that the Torah says took place on Yom Kippur once every fifty years. At that moment, the shofar sounds to proclaim the beginning of the Jubilee Year, when we forgive all debts, release all slaves, refrain from tilling the earth. The shofar ushers in a year of total economic equality, where no one owns more than anyone else, where the land is revered. The Jubilee may be more myth than reality. There is no evidence that this economic transformation ever took place. But our Torah dreamed that human beings could create this redeemed world without divine intervention.
This is the kind of myth that Parker Palmer speaks of, when he describes the gap between our aspirations and our reality.
“Myths do more than name truths that lie deeper than mere facts, truths that will never show up in data that historians would find credible. They also name aspirations that might be achieved in the facts of our lives but remain as yet unfulfilled….When we openly acknowledge this gap between aspiration and reality and are willing to live in it honestly, a myth can encourage us to bring what we are a bit closer to what we seek to be.”
We were whole, we were broken, we become whole again.
In the face of our current reality, we are called today to renew our aspirations.
In an age of falsehoods, may we teach honesty.
In an age of selfishness, may we step up in service.
In an age of arrogance, may we be gracious.
In an age of isolation, may we make connections.
In an age of cynicism, may we practice gratitude.
In an age of despair, may we bring hope.
In an age of distress, may we find joy.
Ken yehi ratzon.
Rabbi Barbara Penzner
Rosh Hashanah 5777