Sermon For Rosh Hashanah, Day 1: 5771//September 9, 2010.
Shanah Tovah. Just a few minutes ago, we listened to Anschel Weiss sound the shofar for us quite beautifully. The blasts of the shofar give us such a mystically inspiring feeling because they transcend all words; they get to the heart of what people are feeling but cannot necessarily articulate. Several years back, Rabbi Kieval and I did a high holiday exercise with our USY youth group called “I Shofar That Emotion,” whose title is a kind of wordplay on the famous Motown hit song, “I Second That Emotion,” sung by the great Smokey Robinson. We brought in a variety of shofarot, the Hebrew plural for shofar, and –in keeping with ancient teachings- we asked the USYers to show how they would convey different feelings without using words, and only making sounds with a shofar. How could the blasts of the shofar help them to imagine voicing those deepest human emotions and anxieties that often cannot –and should not- be expressed in words? I want to try this exercise with you this morning, though we will have to improvise a bit, since I don’t have 700 shofars to hand out to everyone praying here today. Instead of blowing on a shofar, I invite you for just a couple of minutes to use your own voice and become a shofar. As we sound out each of the shofar calls with our voices, think of some feeling, some idea, some urgent insight or warning that you need to call out to someone else, or to yourself. Imagine, as the sound pours out of your throat, something important to which you want to give a voice, something that you need to have recognized.
I understand that, for some of us, this kind of exercise will feel silly, or hokey, or just plain uncomfortable. Certainly, if you choose to sit quietly and listen to others making these human shofar calls, that is fine. If closing your eyes as you are making these sounds helps you feel less self conscious, then close your eyes. However, I encourage you to try this spiritual exercise of imagining that your voice is a shofar. We are going to shout out the three basic shofar notes. I will start, then I invite you to repeat the sound that I make. We will pause briefly after each call. Here we go:
Tekiah! (sound) Now you call. (pause)
Shevarim! (sound) Now you call. (pause)
Teruah! (sound) Now you call. (pause)
I hope that each imaginary shofar call that you made called up important things for you that you need to voice. Now, if you are skeptically thinking that what we just did is nothing more than another fluffy, new age, feel good, touchy feely, pop psych meditation, think again. One Hebrew word in our tradition that is used to describe the sound of the shofar is Kol which literally means, “voice.” The shofar itself has a voice that is so simple, clear and uncluttered, it provokes very primitive, at times childlike, emotions in us. We hear its voice, and perhaps we feel that fear stirred up in us when an ambulance or fire truck siren wails ominously on its way to an emergency. We hear its voice, and perhaps we feel that aching compassion stirred up in us when a baby cries without consolation. We hear its voice, and perhaps we imagine shouts of rage between people fighting, moans of desire between people in love, the elated yell of two friends greeting each other after a long absence, or our own cries of desperation and protest to God and Man in the darkest moments of life. The shofar’s sound is an echo of each of our voices in every life situation. Jewish tradition alludes to this when it teaches that the shofar blast known as Teruah could be nine staccato blasts (blow shofar) like a person wailing, or three longer blasts, called Shevarim, (blow shofar) like a person sighing heavily in sadness. Originally, the number of shofar blasts required during Rosh Hashanah was a mere thirty, but over time the custom developed to blow a hundred notes on the shofar in public each day of the holiday. Later interpreters of Jewish practice explained the hundred shofar blasts by comparing them rather imaginatively to the hundred cries of a woman in active labor. Situated at that most awesome, painful, beautiful moment of helping her newborn to transition from the womb to being in the world, she cries out with the recognition that new life is beginning, and that all life will ultimately end. So too, as the new year is born, we listen to the shofar cry out in our behalf, as we cry out for life, and give voice to the sobering truth that mortality will catch up with some of us in the year to come, and all of us eventually.
When we consider the role of the voice and speech in the history of human evolution, we should not be surprised that Jewish religion would establish such a powerful connection between our voices, our deepest thoughts, emotions, and even actions, and the shofar. Jared Diamond, the renowned scientist and social critic, points out that even though modern human beings evolved and diverged physically from our cousins, the chimps, a million years ago, our great leap forward as full human beings only happened a mere forty thousand years ago: a blip on the timeline of human and natural history. What made this happen were evolutionary changes in our heads and necks that allowed us to use our voices to speak and develop language. Once we could speak and communicate with each other, human creativity and ability leaped forward, securing our place as the most powerful –and simultaneously the most destructive- of all species. Diamond points out that we share with our closest primate cousins almost everything in our genetic make up, except for this singular gift of meaningful speech. With it comes the almost limitless capacity to make free choices by being able to give voice to every thought and to understand and respond to the thoughts of others. But the dark, often demonic, side of this great leap forward is the monstrous human capacity to use our unfettered power to silence the voices of other people and other species. For example: I recently learned that cultures at war with each other have been committing acts of genocide for millennia, not merely since the 20th century. Another example: I recently learned that, well before they had contact with European colonialism and industry, native cultures from North America to the south Pacific islands were already mindlessly annihilating hundreds of species of animals for thousands of years in their quest for food, leading gradually to the slow deterioration of our global environment that we in the West have merely catalyzed. A final example: I recently learned that the current yawning gap between the powerful voices of the world’s wealthiest nations and the near silence and powerlessness of vast segments of Asia and Africa is due, not entirely, but in part to the blind accidents of history and geography. Societies in the right climates that were blessed with animals and crops they could cultivate, became the victors who have taken the spoils for thousands of years in a grossly uneven global competition for food, resources and power that continues today.
Theoretically, all human beings possess equal potential to make their voices heard –to plead and protest their case before family, community, society and the world, to attain and possess power, security, comfort. Yet, paraphrasing what the animals of George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm taught us so cynically: some human animals have the tools, the luck, and the power to be more equal than others. This is the depressing, despairing truth about being human, a truth that is cemented by the sad realities of human greed, aggression and short sightedness. In the great cacophony of our planet’s many peoples, communities, classes, and nations, the voices of some shout down or drown out the voices of others. That is why this seemingly tame musical ritual of blowing shofar on the day commemorating the world’s creation grabs us by the soul and will not let us go. Every musical note blasted from the shofar represents a voice of some human being crying, shrieking the demand –“Here I am, don’t ignore me!-“ into the vast space between that person’s lips, the world’s ears, and ultimately, the attention of God. These crying voices abound.
There are the nearly silenced voices of countless women and girls in the developing world who are brutally repressed by religiously motivated terror, physical abuse, sexual slavery, and the status of chattel conferred upon them by the men in their societies. Read the unbelievable book, Half the Sky, by prize winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn, to learn these women’s stories and to hear their voices. Find out from them what you can do –as a Jew, as a human being- to give them back their voices through various strategies of empowerment and Western support.
There are the nearly silenced voices of disadvantaged children from neighborhoods no more than two miles away from us in our own city, who could just as well be dwelling in another galaxy. They brush shoulders with many of our children in the halls of the middle schools and the local high school, but the equalities and similarities mostly end there. How many of these children possess the deep potential to add their voices of creativity, insight, leadership, and courage to the ongoing dialogue of society? How many of them are born, will live, and die in voiceless, dead end poverty because of parental neglect, a subculture that tells them education is meaningless, the persistence of racism, and governments at all levels that don’t listen to them because poor people lack political clout?
There are the nearly silenced voices of our friends, neighbors, colleagues, teachers, students, and fellow congregants who suffer quietly or wordlessly what the renowned psychiatrist and rabbi, Abraham Twerski calls the shame borne in silence: domestic violence at the vicious hands of family members and other people in positions of physical and emotional power. The old, emotionally numbing self deceptions that domestic violence and sexual abuse don’t happen in the Jewish community have been long discredited. It is time to listen much more carefully to the voices of the Hagars and Yishmaels who are right under our noses.
There are the nearly silenced voices of hundreds of species of living things the world over that are nearing mass extinction not because of natural selection but because of our environmental short sightedness. I am no Neo-Luddite. I believe and participate in the blessings that technology, science and industry have brought and can bring to the lives of every person on this planet. But biodiversity and global environmental health cannot continue to be the poorer cousins of progress; if so, we might as well say goodbye now to this planet on which our attempts at human advancement will become utterly futile, as we destroy the fragile, elegant balances of life and nature that sustain us. We, our captains of industry, and our leaders need to listen as one to those voices of warning. We are coming dangerously close to what the ecologist Rachel Carson called the Silent Spring.
There are the nearly silenced voices of the lonely people who live alongside of us in the midst of our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and our public spaces. They appear to be at the center, yet they feel marginalized and ignored because of the deaths of loved ones, the ravages of divorce, our society’s polite obsession with privacy, and the devastating, uprooting effects of mobility upon families and communities.
You know, this year our synagogue theme is “100 Years, 100 Voices.” We are rightly and proudly celebrating our 100th anniversary of existence and achievement as a sacred Jewish community. Throughout this year to come and well into next year, we will explore the many voices – that is, the people and ideas- that have made our congregation a wonderful place over the last 100 years. Together we will explore 100 of the greatest ideas, values, practices, people and events that have made, and that make, Judaism and the Jewish experience so meaningful. I want to expand our theme a little bit: I want to challenge each of us to make this the Year Of the Shofar, a year in which we find some way to be a resounding, piercing voice of advocacy, of compassion, of protest, of caring for at least one other person or community. We will offer at least 100 different ways for you to find your voice within Judaism and this Jewish community this coming year, and some of them will be in the form of being a voice for others. For example, over the years, our congregation has been growing a collective voice in behalf of people in the wider community who cannot make their voices heard sufficiently because they lack the power and resources to do so. Get active in the programs of our social action committee, by bringing food to the synagogue next Friday afternoon as we kick off our Project Isaiah Food Drive prior to Kol Nidre. Find out about how they can help you to contribute to helping the poor and the homeless of our community, and to defending our global environment by guarding our earth, our water, our precious resources here at home. For a number of years, our congregation has been growing a collective voice in behalf of our brothers and sisters who cannot make their voices heard sufficiently because they are challenged by disabilities. Learn more about and help support the truly magnificent work that our preschool and religious school programs do to integrate children with special needs and their families into our school communities and into Jewish life. Make a commitment this coming March to volunteering at our annual seder for people with special needs. Many of our brothers and sisters spend their entire lives in group homes with tremendous personal challenges, at times neglected by their families and easily forgotten by the rest of the world. Imagine yourself helping to bring true joy and a sense of personal liberation to them through the celebration of Passover. But the congregation is not the only place in which to make your voice heard in behalf of others. Some say we are cursed by living in the state capitol, but I would ask us to think differently about this. The Capitol District is home to one of the largest centers of political and social activism in the nation, and our state government’s terrible health notwithstanding, our activist community is alive, robust and thriving. Pick one issue, one concern, one cause that you want to fit into your busy life, and make a difference in the lives of people who lack a powerful voice. You be their voice in your small, modest way. You be their shofar.
In a few moments, we will listen to the shofar blasts of the Musaf service. Each set of blasts is specifically connected to the unique blessings recalling God’s universal dominion, God’s undying remembrance of us and all humanity, and God’s revelation of the Torah amidst the shofar blasts at Mount Sinai. As we listen to those notes, my hope is that we can imagine ourselves as shofarot, ready in mind, body and soul to meet this coming year with courageous voices whose echoes pierce the heavens and bring down the walls of oppression.