Sermons

Shofar for Our Souls ~ 2 Rosh Hashanah 5779 ~ 11 September 2018
September 28 2018

Josette joins me in the hope that this year will be a shanah tovah, one of blessing for you and your family, the people of Israel and the world.

Rosh Hashanah is saturated with memories. Occasionally, we are so overwhelmed by these memories that we cannot speak, we cannot articulate why they are so significant. But they remain at the core of souls, at the heart of our inner being.

Ritually, today is described as  יוםזכרוןתרועה, the day of the remembrance of the shofar blast(Lev 23). One of the major sections of Musaf is called Zikhronot. In Unetaneh Tokef, we speak of God as recalling what has been forgotten and opening the record of remembrance —  ותפתחאתספרהזכרונות.

On a personal level, there are memories of people we love, special foods and shared meals, a child leaving for university for the first time or bringing a special friend home for a holiday visit, being in shul, playing under the steps, hanging in the foyer and corridors, growing up or watching our children do so.

Independently of Rosh Hashanah, we occasionally remember how our personal lives intersected with important events on national and international stage. This past summer in Israel, Josette and I attended a 50th anniversary reunion of our high school class.  I came of age in late 1960s. Maybe some of my memories will resonate for you.

In 1967 I listened on a transistor radio to news about the Six Day War, an event that was transformative for my Jewish identity. 50 years ago, “Hey Jude” signalled the breakup of the Beatles. There were civil rights marches with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and then his assassination in 1968.

There were urban riots in Chicago, the murder of Robert Kennedy,  and anti-War protests at the Democratic National Convention. I became involved in the Soviet Jewry movement—a quest for human rights that changed Jewish life—behind the Iron Curtain, throughout the Diaspora, and brought one million more Jews to Israel.

Here, in the same period, some of you recall  Expo 67 and the FLQ crisis of 1970.  You may remember demonstrations during the 1971 visit of Soviet Premier Kosygin. The dramatic goal and  Canadian victory in the 1972 hockey series in Moscow.  Years of efforts, based at Beth Tzedec, to surreptitiously save the remnants of Syrian Jewry. The Blue Jays winning the World Series in 1992 and 1993.

In 1993, I came to Beth Tzedec with Josette and our three sons: Yakov, Rafi and Amir.  The Congregation was healing from a conflict after a series of contested elections for the leadership of our Kehillah. When asked what my goal was, I simply said, when I leave, the shul should have a normal transition from one rabbi to another. Notwithstanding our more recent conflict, I hope this will be accomplished.

I arrived in Canada two years after the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many thought that these signalled a new time in history. We were watching an historic decline in anti-semitism. In our newly adopted country, I was astonished at the rapid change of government from Campbell to Chretien and was disturbed in 1995 by the possible break-up of Canada.

My first Rosh Hashanah began three days after the Oslo accords were signed 25 years ago, on September 13, 1993. I remember saying that I hoped this would lead to peace, but feared that much blood would still flow before then. I couldn’t have imagined what would come.

The Purim shootings of Muslims in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the horrible years of bombings and deaths in cafes and buses, discos and hotels that were part of the Second Intifada, the withdrawal and subsequent conflict in Lebanon, the evacuation of Gush Katif,  Hizbollah rockets, and the missiles, tunnels and kite-fires from Hamas controlled Gaza. The two state solution, which was once heresy, became an accepted political goal. Now, after 25 years, it is gasping for air.

Today, of course, is the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9-11, with Tower 1 hit at 8.46, Tower 2 at 9.03, the Pentagon at 9.37, and at 10.07 the plane crash in Pennsylvania. Our lives have been irrevocably changed by the rise of Islamic extremism, wars in the Middle East and the world-wide migration of 60 million refugees.

Over these 25 years, we have witnessed so much together. Take a moment to reflect and remember one or two events of personal importance to you.

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As I enter my last year as your Rabbi, I think about the many people—devoted volunteers and dedicated staff, committed congregants and creative colleagues, community leaders and tzedakah recipients, incisive students and dynamic teachers, interfaith partners and political figures—with whom I have walked and prayed, studied and supported during these years at Beth Tzedec.

I have celebrated with you more than 1,500 births and b'nei mitzvah and almost 1,000 weddings. We have walked through the valley of death—some in ripe age and others in horrible tragedy—more than 1,000 times. I am grateful to you for trusting me at these moments of great personal meaning. I treasure the texture of the relationships that have meant so much to me.

What direction will the future bring? Let me paint a picture with a story. A female Masorti rabbi arrived in NYC from Israel early one morning. She came to her hotel room where the curtains were open. She put on her tallit and tefillin and was beginning to pray when she noticed someone in the office building across the street waving at her. It was a Muslim man wearing a flowing robe. He moved his hands, signalling her. She indicated confusion. He began to point. Then she realized what he was telling her. That was the direction of Jerusalem.

I hope this new world will be different. I hope we will see more women putting on tallit and tefillin and more Muslims and Jews helping each other with prayer. In our kehillah-community, we need to emphasize empathy and engagement, to support others in their prayers and aspirations, to cry and celebrate with them. 

One of the ways I have tried to help you in prayer has been through my shofar blowing. In the words of Alden Solovy, as the wind whistles through the hollow bone, I offer my prayer without words. 

When we conclude the first sounding of shofar, we recite these words:

אַשְׁרֵ֣יהָ֭עָםיוֹדְעֵ֣יתְרוּעָ֑ה  ה’ בְּֽאוֹר־פָּנֶ֥יךָיְהַלֵּכֽוּן׃

Joyous are the people who love the sound of shofar.

They walk by the light of your Presence.  (Psalm 89)

The shofar sound leaves its mark on this day and in our souls. What thoughts go through your minds when the shofar is sounded? What feelings reverberate in your souls?

There are some mitzvot which include a rationale for their actions. We spend time in the sukkah to remember the Wilderness trek. We put on tefillin to bind ourselves with an awareness of God. We remember the Exodus by eating matzah.

What is the purpose of shofar? The Torah doesn’t tell us, but various rabbis offer explanations. Rabbi Saadia Gaon of 10th century Bagdad, offers 10 reasons for sounding the shofar. Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman of 13th century Spain teaches that when we sound the shofar, it triggers something in the Holy One. God remembers the covenant and our deeds.  The theology of Ramban emphasizes an interactive relationship with God.

I choose to emphasize how the non-verbal quality of the shofar affects us. Today, in addition to all our words of prayer, there is something in the sound of the shofar which is more than words can convey.  Prayer is verbal, but speech is inherently limiting. In the Kaddish, we say that God is לעילאולעילא, above and beyond our words of praise and blessings. Language cannot express what is in our heart and soul. As the wind whistles through the hollow bone, I offer my prayer without words. 

When we grieve over the death of a close friend or a loved one, we are sometimes hard-pressed to articulate the depth of our feelings. When a loving couple stands together under a ẖuppah, they may offer words, but the statements are inadequate. When we hold a new-born child or grandchild, feelings are aroused that cannot be fully expressed.

For me, the shofar brings together Sinai, when the blast of the shofar increased in sound as the Torah was transmitted to us. I feel the promise of a better world, a messianic redemption. I can’t prove either the past event or the hoped for future. But they are imprinted in my Jewish DNA. The shofar resonates with joy and jubilation. As the wind whistles through the hollow bone, I link myself and all of us to Jewish history and hope.

But the shofar sound is more. According to rabbinic tradition (TB Rosh Hashanah 33b), the staccato teru’ah reflects the one hundred sobs of Sisera’s mother as she cried over the loss of her son. Who was Sisera? He was the commander of a Canaanite army that waged a 20 year war with Israelite tribes in the early years of settlement in the Land.

Rav Yehuda Amital z”l was a survivor of Nazi slave labour camps who became one of the great teachers of Israeli Religious Zionism. He did not articulate the contemporary parallels. But given the location of Yeshivat Har Etzion in an area also claimed by Palestinians, the many yeshivah students who have fought in the IDF, and the students who have been killed while defending Israel, his comment is striking.

…nothing is more natural than a mother’s concern for her child. …despite coming from two different worlds, there is a common denominator between the one hundred sobs of Sisera’s mother and the six screams that Sarah screamed on hearing of the binding of Isaac. (Levit Rabbah 20:2).  What connects them is the deep-seated maternal concern for the welfare of her child — and this is also the force of the sounding of the shofar, which rises from the depth [of our souls].

The shofar expresses particular Jewish joys and hopes as well as basic human fears and anxieties. It is comparable to crying at a simẖah.  As the wind whistles through the hollow bone, I evoke our fears and anxieties about the year to come.

The shofar offers an inner prayer. The ram’s horn is simple and represents the silent stirrings we may have when we wait for surgical results. Rav Amital observes that the cry of the shofar represents “the most inward, profound and unique point in a person’s heart.” The Talmud teaches that if one places a shofar within a shofar, one fulfils the obligation to hear the shofar only if the sound comes from the inner horn. God yearns to hear our inner voice on Rosh Hashanah.

As you know, we have no Biblical record of Avraham speaking with his son on the three day path to the Akeidah-Binding. Eric Aurerbach in Memesis writes that the silence is deafening. Soren Kiekegaard imagines Abraham as a knight of faith, silently following God’s command.

But Rav Amital suggests that despite Avraham’s silence, inside he is churning and praying without words. When we recite selihot prayers, we say “May the One who answered Avraham on Mt Moriah will also answer us.  מישענהאתאברהםבהרהמוריההואיעננו.” By referring to these prayers, we recognize  their reality.

According to this, Avraham was silently praying though the journey and during his ascent of the mountain. Thankfully, his inner prayer prevailed. As the wind whistles through the hollow bone, I hope to support your inner prayer.

According to a midrash, it was on the first Rosh Hashanah, after the sin of eating the forbidden fruit (possibly an etrog, definitely not an apple), that God called to Adam and asked, “איכה, where are you?”  The question, “איכה, where are you?” is addressed to each of us, every day, in every place.  Where are we and where do we want to be? This is the human condition. We hide and God must search for us.

Rav Amital says that there is something even more frightening than running and hiding. A person may forget one’s own sense of self. On Shabbat, Rabbi Moshe Meirovich discussed five regrets most mentioned by  people facing their demise. One of them is having lived for others’ expectations and desires, not for what was personally important to us. 

An imaginative midrash teaches that when we die, the Angel of Death comes to our grave and says, “Tell me your name.” If one responds, “I do not know my name,” then one is left bereft of salvation.  Sometimes, a person’s self-image is known by her external actions and experiences, not his inner thoughts and feelings. A name, which represents the real identity of the individual is forgotten.

To enable us to remember our name, there is a tradition to associate our name with a verse from the Bible and to repeat it as one concludes his or her personal Amidah. My verse is “ברוךאתהבבואךוברוךאתהבצאתך  — Blessed are you as you enter and blessed are you as you leave.”The idea here is to retain a deep sense of our identity, of who we are and what is truly significant to us.

We do not create language, language creates us. So our prayers affect the way we think and speak. As we hear the shofar, it calls us to take the jumble of feelings that are often inexpressible and to bring our inner dreams and prayers to God. As the wind whistles through the hollow bone, I want you to remember your name, your deep-most yearnings for yourself.

Even at the moment of the Akedah, Avraham appears silent. But then, something remarkable happens.

Avraham lifted his eyes and saw: Hineh! here! Behind him a ram! Caught in a thicket by its horns. And Avraham went and took the ram and offered it as an offering-up in place of his son (Gen 22.13)

Avraham’s gaze is focused on the horns of the ram caught in the bramble, in the thicket. His silent prayer, his inner hope is answered.

We often feel ourselves caught in the bramble and thicket of life. So we sound the ram’s horn, expressing what is ineffable, fearing and hoping.

כיאתהשומעקולשופרומאזיןתרועהואיןדומהלךברוךאתהה' שומעתרועתעמוישראלברחמים"

for you listen to the sound of the shofar and heed the teru’ah … Praised are you, who hears the shofar blast of your people with compassion.

May the memories of the wind whistling through the hollow bone, help you to judge yourselves with compassion and may God do so as well.

I wish you a Shanah Tovah this year and for many years to come.


Ten Reasons for Sounding the Shofar offered by Rabbi Saadia Gaon (Bagdad, 882-942 BCE)  https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/decoding-the-shofar/

Yehudah Amital,“Sounds Without Words” and “An Inner Voice” in When God is Near (Maggid, 2015).

Alden Solovy articulated the image of the wind in the hollow bone. 

https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-wind-in-the-hollow-bone/