Rosh Hashanah Day 1-The Shofar: A Call to Worship and to Repent 

It is so wonderful to see so many people gathered together today to join us in worship. Parents are united with children, grandparents with grandchildren, uncles and aunts with nephews and nieces. I want to be sure that everyone knows that you always have a place here at the Jericho Jewish Center. The program sheet that we provide is just the tip of the iceberg of what we are offering during this year. Please be frequent visitors and please give me your input as to what you’d like to see at your Jericho Jewish Center.

Sound of the Shofar-by Lucille Frenkel

Call of the past and out of the past,

You rouse us to face to the future.

Sound of the ram’s horn, its meaning precise,

Reminds us to recall the sacrifice

Of a past which begot us so we may beget

Finer future.[1]

I’ll never forget when I participated in the Hazon Labor Day Bike Ride.  This bike ride went from Camp Isabella Friedman in Falls Village, CT into Manhattan.  Immediately before we took off we heard the blowing of the Shofar.  When we arrived at the Manhattan JCC at the end of our two-day ride, we also heard the blowing of the shofar.  It was very meaningful to me to have this bike ride bookmarked by the blowing of the shofar and to think about the shofar’s significance at this time of year.

Every day, since the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul (one month ago exactly) we have been sounding a ram’s horn at morning minyan.  We especially sound it at Rosh Hashanah in the Musaf Amidah (additional penitentiary prayer).  We also have a section of this prayer called the Shofarot.

The history of the shofar is a fascinating one. Its first mention occurs in tomorrow morning’s Torah reading when Abraham saw a ram caught by its horn in a thicket and killed it.[2] In Numbers[3] and Psalms,[4] the shofar is instructed to be used to announce the New Moon, fast days and days of rejoicing (תקעו בחדש שופר בכסה ליום חגנו). In Leviticus,[5] we see the origin of using the shofar for the New Year, which is referred to there as a “day of blowing” (יום תרועה). The New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is further referred to there as a zikaron teruah, a remembrance of blowing.

In the Book of Joshua, the shofar is used for a different purpose, blown as a sign of war before the Battle of Jericho  (no relation to us). It is a catalyst in the walls of Jericho coming down and in the subsequent Israelite victory. The Shofar occupied an important place in the orchestra of the Temple, alongside the trumpet. On fast days and feast days there was a shofar that would blast in the midst of all the trumpets (חצוצרות וקול שופר).[6] Because of the sadness that resulted from the loss of the Temple, there was a ban on playing musical instruments for ritual purposes. As a result, the shofar, which was not considered a musical instrument, became identified as the object used chiefly for religious use. Over time, however, its use gradually faded along with the other musical instruments, except of course on הימים הנוראים, the Days of Awe.

What message does the use of the shofar convey to us? Some of us hear the musical notes and think about the persecution our people have undergone and the loss of lives and land in our past. Others get entranced in the wailing noises and the combination of notes, appreciating the distinct musical quality. Tekiah: the attention grabber. Shevarim: moaning and groaning. Teruah: sobbing and wailing. Others find that the shofar reminds them of God’s creation of the world and of God’s creativity in making even a ram’s horn a significant object.  This relates to Rosh Hashanah being the birthday of the world, the day on which we thank God for creating the world.

The shofar also serves as a call to worship. After the Torah and Haftarah readings, we are re-centered through the hearing the sound of the shofar. Most significantly, the shofar is also a warning to repent for past transgressions. It is beseeching us “Turn inward! Look at your actions! Change yourself!”

According to rabbinic tradition, hearing the shofar is what triggers in us a desire to repent, especially when repentance is difficult to achieve.[7] Through hearing the shofar, many of us think about our past year, both the good and the bad, and what we can do to help make a better next year, and that is an essential part of repenting. It is a warning to us to reflect on and examine our personal behavior, to strive to improve our thoughts and our actions.

Unfortunately the warning call of the Shofar hit the United States very hard in a number of ways this year. We experienced hatred in the streets of America, with hooded Klansmen yelling “Seig Heil!” “Jews will not replace us!” and “Jews are Satan’s children!” We experienced a swastika in our own backyard at Merry Lane Park and anti-Semitic graffiti spray-painted at Syosset High School. We have seen hatred that always existed emanate out into the public sphere. It is of course not all from the alt-right; the anti-Semitism spewed by BDS activists and their refusal to allow conservative speakers at their college campuses is shameful and disgraceful. $600,000 in armed security and concrete barriers for Ben Shapiro to speak at UC-Berkeley? Despicable.

Some have said I have a moral obligation to speak about the political issues of the day. This is as close to politics as I’ll get for now, but if you want to go further in depth, join me at a Politics and the Pulpit discussion later today from 12:00-12:45 pm in the Rabbi Richardson Beit Midrash (teens and adults encouraged to attend).

We have an obligation to respond against the hatred that rears its ugly head and spews out from around us. That’s why we had the rally to Break the Hate on Sunday August 27 at the Mid Island Y, and why I am wearing the yellow bracelet that says No Place for Hate that the ADL gave out there. Hatred of others has no place at the Jericho Jewish Center, whether from the left or the right.

What concerns me most is the breakdown of communication occurring today. As Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, Associate Dean of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote last Sukkot, “We’ve lost touch with how to speak with one another…seemingly overnight, our national conversation has sunk into a morass of racism, classism, Islamophobia and misogyny. And yet it didn’t happen overnight. We created-and allowed to be created-a system that encourages each of us to demonize anyone from a different background and with a different perspective. We got used to interacting only with people who agree with us. We got used to dismissing anyone whose perspective was different by saying they were stupid, uneducated, “didn’t get it.” We were the enlightened ones. Everything became about “we and they” (and I would add, us versus them).[8]

How did we get to the point where there have been fights at the breakfast following morning minyan over political issues? Since the last fight over half a year ago we generally avoid political issues but is that really better-to sweep issues under the rug and pretend they don’t exist? There has to be a middle ground between shouting someone down and speaking about the sports scores. As one who often doesn’t speak out because of a desire not to offend anyone or fear of a reprisal, I have to say that there’s got to be a way to speak about issues without getting so worked up that we lose control over ourselves. We need to remember that passion is not a bad thing: it means we care.  The challenge is when we become ideologues, so intense about our ideas that we put them on a pedestal over those around us, or when those ideas lead to hatred, dehumanization and devaluation of others.

At the same time, I see a few messages of hope. Billy Joel wearing a yellow star at his concert at Madison Square Garden on August 21. Pink, who I did not even know is Jewish, and Regina Spektor speaking against the neo-Nazis while on tour in Berlin, having seen the hatred from Hitler’s capital (ימח שמו, may his name be erased). Strong comments from Charlottesville Mayor Mike Singer and from Rabbi Tom Gutherz of Charlottesville’s Beth Israel Synagogue. These signs of hope tell us that the hatred experienced at Charlottesville will not divide us-for we are much stronger than that. Similarly, the Shofar, heard today at synagogues throughout the world, serves as a reminder to us to uproot any hatred and prejudice that we feel towards others and to move forward with love and with an open heart.

What is the shofar warning us to do or avoid doing? Will it motivate us to try to connect to our fellow humans or to G-d in a deeper way?  The resonant sound of the Shofar needs to hold timely meaning for us; otherwise it is just a vestige of what our ancestors used to do.  As we continue to hear the Shofar during Musaf, may we think about how the Shofar warns us to change our behavior for the better, to open ourselves up to new possibilities of connecting with others. Let us examine how we can heed the sound of the Shofar as a call to action, to let go of previously held prejudices or hurt that we’ve felt and respond to the world with only love. The Shofar is sounding-may we have the resolve, the strength and the courage to hear and act according to its message.

The following prayer was written by my colleague, Rabbi Ari Saks, the new rabbi at the Huntington Jewish Center, for the Shabbat after the violence in Charlottesville. I have kept the parts of the prayer that apply to today (היום). I encourage us to heed its message as we turn inward momentarily for the personal prayer of the Hineni:

Adonai El Malei Rachamim, Lord God who is full of compassion, we are feeling the absence of Your compassion.

 

We know You placed into our hands the choice of blessing or curse (see Rabeinu Bachya on Deuteronomy 11:26), but God at times our hands seem too weak to handle that choice.

 

We react out of our most base instincts, we fear that which we do not know, and we cultivate hopelessness for political gain.

 

But B’yad’kha Afkid Ruchi, into Your hands, O God have we entrusted our spirit.

 

Hands that hold us up, that do not strike us down; hands that caress our wounded hearts, that do not inflict upon us any more harm.

 

Please God, help us find the space to love when the instinct is to hate.

 

Open the hearts of your creations who are full of hate to the power of your compassion while instructing us on the just way to be intolerant of intolerance as we proclaim, “Never Again, Never Again, Never Again.”

 

May You comfort the families of all who have perished as a result of hatred.

 

And may You inspire the vision and the will within all of humanity to achieve a day with no hate and only peace.

 

We continue with Cantor Goldstein leading us in Hineni on Page 124.

[1] Lucille Frenkel, A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), page 130.

[2] Genesis 22:13

[3]  Numbers 9:10

[4] Psalms  81:4

[5] Leviticus  23:24

[6] Psalms 98:6

[7] Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 33b

[8] Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, “Face to Face,” JTS Torah Commentary, October 21, 2016.

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