Rosh Hashanah Listening to the Call of the Shofar
Although it’s not Yom Kippur yet, I might as well begin with a confession.
My natural tendency during this season of teshuvah, is to swing rather dramatically between the poles of self-judgment and compassion. I zealously take on the role of prosecuting attorney – enumerating my failings, flushing as I recall moments of regret and shame. (Okay, “moments” may be a bit of an understatement.)
After I’ve had about as much of that as I can bear, I begin to rally, first hesitantly and then with growing resolve, coming to my own defense.
While this process can be riveting, and can hold my own rapt attention indefinitely, I have the nagging feeling that it’s not exactly what the Kadosh Baruch Hu has in mind for us. To quote Adin Steinsaltz: “Teshuvah is not just a psychological phenomenon, a storm within a human teacup. It is a process that can effect real change in the world, in all the worlds.”
In our culture, which is so preoccupied with the drama (and illusion) of the sovereign self, it is easy to confuse the call to teshuvah with the ubiquitous calls all around us to self-improvement. This can lead in two equally unhelpful directions.
First, there is the pabulum found – in one form or another — in countless volumes on the shelves of the self-help section in every major bookstore. You can be better. You can be happier. You can be richer. You can be thinner. You can be more well-organized, more beautiful, more popular, more powerful, more successful. You can be more!
Second, there is the trope that tends to have more traction in new age circles and is no doubt a reaction to the unforgiving demands of the dominant discourse. This one says: You are enough. You are good enough. You are doing the best you can. Everyone is doing the best they can. More than that, you are already perfect the way you are. Everything is already perfect the way it is. Just breathe.
Setting aside the problem that the latter perspective is just patently un-Jewish, the fact is that neither of these approaches helps me get — to use Steinsaltz’s metaphor – beyond the storm in my own teacup.
Neither helps me extend the horizon of my own heart.
And that is what I’m longing for this year.
In that spirit, as we prepare ourselves to hear the call of the ram’s horn this morning,
I want to return for a moment to the ram. I want to return to this moment in the story we just read: Vayisa Avraham et eynav vayar v’hinei ayil achar ne’echaz bas’vach b’karnav. Abraham looked up, and his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. Vayelech Avraham vayikach et ha’ayil vaya’alehu l’olah tachat b’no. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. And Abraham named that site Adonai-yireh, whence the present saying, “On the mount of Adonai there is vision.”
A poem, on being caught in the thicket.
The ram’s horn is silent at first as is the ram. Caught in the thicket, Waiting for Abraham to lift his head and see, It appears at the last minute, Out of nowhere, When it’s almost too late.
Of course, it was there all along. Since twilight On the eve of the first Shabbat, we are told. It was there before darkness fell. (We barely knew what darkness was then.)
It was there all along. Waiting for us to open our eyes. Waiting for us to see another way.
It’s not just our stubbornness that blinds us. Sometimes it’s the commanding voice of faith. Sometimes it’s the commanding voice of despair.
And sometimes it’s the thicket itself. The thorny, tangled overgrowth of our lives.
It’s not that we’re blind, We’re just busy. Schlepping the wood, Tending the fire, Building the altar, Trying to quiet the children — Trying to answer their questions — Even though God knows We can’t answer our own.
Up until this point in the story, up until the angel calls out, and Abraham looks up, up until the ram suddenly appears, caught in the thicket, the trajectory of the story — the tragic momentum of the story — seems irresistible, irreversible, inevitable.
The sacrifice has to be offered. The child will have to die. This is the power of the ram’s horn. It beckons us back to this moment in the story.
No longer silent, it calls us back to the ram from which it came And asks us:
Think about the thicket of your own life. What possibilities have you not seen? Think about a story you are telling yourself — whose outcome you think you already know. What alternatives have you not noticed? And think about the path we are all on together The altars at the end of the road The children we love but seem prepared to sacrifice.
Look up. Listen.
Incline your heart, your ear To the hollow, bent ram’s horn Through which human breath becomes a summons and a blast.
What might we hear? How might we respond?
The rabbis of the Talmud debate about the nature of the teruah we are commanded to hear on this day — what the shofar blast is actually supposed to sound like.
For them, it is at least on one level, a technical problem. The Torah tells us this is Yom Teruah, but what’s a teruah?!
Their (not entirely obvious) answer: It is the sound of a woman weeping.
They get there in a somewhat round-about way – based on a linguistic connection in the targum between the word teruah and the word yebavah – crying or sobbing – that appears in a story in the Book of Judges. It’s the story of a battle led by Deborah and Barak against Sisera and the Canaanite army. The Israelites win the battle, the Canaanite army disperses in fear, and Sisera is killed rather brutally by the heroine Yael.
The story is told twice in the Book of Judges, once in narrative form and once in verse.
Shirat Devorah, the Song of Deborah, is a triumphant account of the Israelite’s military victory, but there is an unexpected and poignant image just before the end of the poem.
Suddenly, Deborah offers us a glimpse into the experience of Sisera’s mother on the day Sisera dies.
“Through the window peered Sisera’s mother, behind the lattice she cried.”
All that day, we are told, Sisera’s mother stood at the window of her home, crying, watching and waiting for her son to return. “Why is his chariot so long in coming,” she asks. “Why so late the clatter of his wheels?”
The Talmud tells us that Sisera’s mother let out 100 cries on that day, corresponding to the 100 blasts of the shofar service.
There is some further discussion – about whether the sound of her cries was more of a low, aching moan, or a frantic, breathless sob. (Hence the different sounds of the shofar service – to make sure, of course, we cover all the bases).
But there it is. Incline your heart, your ear To the hollow, bent ram’s horn Through which human breath becomes a summons and a blast.
And what you will hear Is the sound of Sisera’s mother weeping for her child. The sound of a mother weeping.
We can conjure a thousand reasons not to hear this woman’s cries. We do it every day, and not only with people we consider our enemies. Some days we don’t even bother coming up with reasons. But the shofar calls us up short. This is the cry of every mother whose child isn’t spared. For whom no angel calls out. For whom no ram appears.
There is another midrashic explanation offered for the sound of the shofar – and here, too, it is the sound of a woman weeping, but this time closer to home. In Pirke de Rebbe Eliezer, we are told that the blasts of the shofar echo the cries of Sarah after the binding of Isaac, when she heard had happened – or almost happened – to her son. What she heard, of course, is the story we just heard this morning.
The midrash describes the conversation that took place between Isaac and his mother Sarah when he returned from Mount Moriah.
“Isaac returned to his mother and she said to him, ‘Where have you been, my son?’ He answered,
‘My father took me and led me up hill and down dale’ . . . [And when he had told her the whole story] she cried out, ‘You mean, were it not for the angel, you would already be slaughtered?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ At that, she screamed six times, corresponding to the six tekiah notes of the shofar.
She had not finished doing this when she died.”
Once again. Incline your heart, your ear To the hollow, bent ram’s horn Through which human breath becomes a summons and a blast. And what you will hear Is the sound of a mother weeping. This time, the sound of Sarah weeping for her child.
Here the shofar blasts become a kind of epilogue to the Akeidah. The ram calling out: You need to hear the rest of the story. There was a sacrifice. This story was not without a victim. I could spare the child’s life, But the mother’s heart was broken.
The Psalmist proclaims:
Ashrei Ha’am yod’ei Teruah. Adonai b’or panekha y’halekhun Happy is the people that knows the sound of Teruah. They walk in the light of Your divine presence.
The Hasidic Master known as Degel Machaneh Ephraim teaches that knowing the sound of teruah means allowing our hearts to be shattered, in order to open ourselves to the light of the divine presence.
Here is how I am understanding his words this year.
To hear the sound of the shofar Is to stop what we’re doing To lift our eyes from the path To see what possibilities might be there, Caught in the thicket, Waiting for us to take note.
To hear the sound of the shofar Is to open ourselves to the cry of mothers weeping for their children, And to the cry of the Shechina weeping for all of us.
To hear the sound of the shofar Is to extend the horizon of our heart. Until it aches, Even until it breaks.
To hear the sound of the shofar Is to incline ourselves to the hollow, bent horn And allow the human breath to become for us a summons and a blast.
As I try to keep my own heart open to this summons, I have been carrying with me lately the beautiful words of the writer and trauma therapist, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, from an essay called, “You Were Made for This.”
“My friends,” she writes, “do not lose heart . . . I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people. You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking.
Yet, I urge you, I ask you . . . do not lose hope. Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you.
In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely . . . One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.”
On this day, May the ram and the ram’s horn be a summons and a blast opening our hearts to the divine light that is present within us, and all around us, waiting for us to see.
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld delivered this D’var Torah on Rosh Hashanah 5777 at the Newton Centre Minyan. Rabbi Cohen Anisfeld has been dean of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School since 2006. She previously worked as a Hillel rabbi at Tufts, Yale and Harvard universities, and has been a summer faculty member for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel since 1993. From 2011 to 2013, she was named to Newsweek’s list of Top 50 Influential Rabbis in America, and in 2015, Anisfeld was named one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by The Jerusalem Post.