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RH Erev 5777  SHOFAR
Is Gd Judge or King?


Some of you come to services on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and we don’t get a chance to see you pretty much the rest of the year. I want to make it clear that I actually understand that. After all, I was in the very same position some 25, 30 or so years ago. Without going into all the details that brought me from that place to up here in front of you on this sacred occasion, let me share with you that I still have some questions about these holidays.

It took me ten years to get through rabbinical school. Life kind of got in the way. Marriage, bereavement, marriage again, employment, a couple of kids…But I did learn about the history of our holidays. I learned that Shabbat, the basic model for all holidays is, according to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a weekly island in time, when, if we pay attention to some very basic principles, we can experience a little bit of heaven on earth; and all the more so our holidays, when we explore our peoplehood in a religious context. The Torah tells us that Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot are celebrations of our liberation from slavery, establishing our people’s connection with Gd through the revelation at Sinai, and how we lived in the wilderness until we got back to our own land, where we had to take on the challenges of Independence. These three holidays are three stops along the way from slavery in a foreign land to getting home, free.

But then we get to what we’re here for tonight. And the Torah says about the meaning of Rosh HaShanah…nothing. Gornish. Bupkis. Now, the date of Rosh HaShanah is mentioned, what, twice in the Torah as a day for the sounding of a note, a sound, a blast. We call the person sounding the shofar a “Ba’al Tekiah”—Tekiah means something that’s stuck. That’s why when we call for the shofarista to sound a Tekiah, it’s a long sound; because it’s stuck. Same thing happens when a CD gets stuck on one note.

The Torah is silent on the meaning of the sounds of the shofar. We know what Matzah and the bitter herbs are for. We get what the sukkah is about. The fasting on Yom Kippur also has its symbolic value {but is the symbolism explained in the Torah?}. But sounding the shofar?  You might ask, “Is that tekiah about the ways we get stuck?” You can come up with all kinds of interpretations and meanings, but first, let’s look at the two mentions of Rosh Hashanah to see what the Torah does say:

Leviticus 23 “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts (zikhron terua’).”

Numbers 29: “On the first day of the seventh month you shall hold a sacred assembly. You shall do no laborious work, and you shall mark a Day of the Blowing of the Blasts (Yom Terua’).”

In the original Hebrew, the term “shofar” is not even mentioned in these verses. One calls it a zikhron terua’, a remembrance of the sound, and the other calls it a Yom terua’, a day of the sound.  It seems more like the lead up to the big holiday, which in biblical times was…NOT Rosh HaShanah. It was Sukkot. Imagine that. Back in the day, Sukkus was far more important than Rushhashunna. My, my, my how times have changed.

So for the next few minutes, let’s look at what that shofar that we’ll hear tomorrow and the next day could mean. What might it have to say to us in our day?

It’s not such an easy day, after all. Seeing everyone is great, and the apples and honey are sweet, and some of us have new clothes or shoes, but the messages and theology can seem a bit, well, mixed-up. Maybe that’s why I, and probably you too, have questions. In the disparaging words of Forward columnist Jay Michaelson a couple of weeks ago, Rosh HaShanah is an “amalgam of celebration and repentance, conviviality and sobriety. Are we supposed to celebrate the birthday of the world or get busy with apologizing to Gd? Do we wish each other a happy new year or a serious, pious new year? … ”

Good questions, Jay. I’ll add one to consider: What kind of new year starts in the seventh month anyway?

Well, as many of you know, the Mishnah lists four New Year’s days; one for counting the years of the reign of kings, one for tithing animals, one for the trees, and one for counting up to the sabbatical year. The first month of the Hebrew calendar is not this month, Tishrei; it’s called Nissan. And no it didn’t used to be called Datsun. Moreover, there isn’t a month called Toyota. Nissan’s the month with all the miracles of Passover: the burning bush, the sticks that turn into snakes, the plagues, the splitting of the sea, and all those things made famous by Cecile B DeMille and Charlton Heston, and to a lesser extent a few years ago by Christian Bale. Charlton Heston may not have been Jewish, but I guess it was even more difficult for the American public to accept a Moses played by a guy named Christian.

There are many rabbinic sources that add a great deal of depth to the legends of Nisan. I came by one that’s not so ancient from Neshama Carlebach, the singer whose claims to fame include being the daughter of the famous singing rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach. She teaches in the name of her father:

“Even though the first month of the Jewish year is Nissan, the Jewish people celebrate Rosh Hashana- the New Year- in the month of Tishrei. This concept is meant to teach us something quite powerful. The Passover story occurred during Nissan marking it as the month of miracles and fanfare. If Rosh Hashanah was part of all that, we might assume that for a new beginning to occur, the same fanfare and miraculous noise would have to fill our lives. Celebrating the New Year beginning in the middle of the year shows us that to mark this time of renewal, we need nothing but our own selves, our own voices, our own strength, and our own faith to carry us.

“Most of our lives are not filled with the miracles of Nissan; and most of our lives are not filled with the majestic sounds of the Shofar blasting. Too much of our lives are filled with the sadness of broken dreams, broken hearts and broken promises. 

“Still, we are stronger than we know, more capable and more powerful than we allow ourselves to realize. At this time of year, we are reminded that we can move mountains. We can shake the heavens. We can transform and change every moment of our lives. If we choose to take the world with us, we can do that too. We just need to decide to start the process, and setting off is often the hardest part of journey.”
That journey starts tonight. Right here, right now.

We start the new year halfway around the calendar from Nissan because we are celebrating the possibility of transformation that comes from within, and not the signs and wonders performed for us from without.

The rabbis of the Midrash saw it another way. The first of Tishrei starts the seventh month. And so we should look at the specialness of the number seven. Seven always comes to signify something holy. Frankly, I like the word “kadosh” instead of “holy” because the word “holy” always strikes me as just a bit snooty. As in “holier than thou.” In Hebrew, “kadosh” means set apart for a special purpose. And if you’ve ever been in a community where Shabbat was properly observed, you’ll know what I’m talking about. In Jerusalem there’s a siren that sounds on late Friday afternoon at the time to light candles, and there’s a palpable difference in the air immediately. Traffic in the street decreases, the decibel level goes down significantly and you can almost hear the striking of thousands of matches lighting candles. It really is a day apart as people acknowledge that if the One who made the world rested on the seventh day, so can they. We say that Rosh HaShanah is Yom Ha’arat Olam, the birthday of the world. But Shabbat celebrates creation every week.

It’s not just Shabbat that makes the number seven so special, though. The number 7 is the Divine number of completion. The word for a week, Shavua’, as you might suspect, comes from the number 7, as does the word for taking a solemn oath. A bride walks around her groom 7 times under a chuppah. The first verse in the Torah has 7 words.

The Torah also talks about letting the land lie fallow every seven years for what is called the Sabbatical year, the Shmita. And after seven Sabbatical years there comes a Jubilee. In Hebrew the Jubilee is called the Yovel, which is another word for a horn used to make a noise: a shofar.

Which brings us back to: What’s the shofar for? In the Torah there are verses that do use the word “shofar,” though not in the context of Rosh HaShanah. We’ll see a number of them tomorrow during the Musaf service, along with a collection of verses relating to Gd as Melech, King, or Sovereign, and another collection of verses about how Gd remembers His promises to us.  And of course we’ll hear the shofar at the end of the Torah service tomorrow, and again at the very end of Yom Kippur. In the Hebrew Bible, the shofar was used to call the people together to the Tabernacle when they were wandering in the wilderness. It was also used as a warning, a call to battle, it was used to usher in the year, and it was used to coronate earthly kings.

Some later commentators say that the shofar announces that a court is in session. After all, this is a time for reflection and looking at our lives. The Hebrew word for “to pray” is “L’hitpalel,” and it literally means to judge yourself. It’s not just that Gd is judging you. You don’t have to believe in an old man in a robe on high to get what it means to judge yourself. Sometimes we’re far harder on ourselves than Gd would be, were we to be in Gd’s court.

So the shofar calls on us to ask the hardest questions we can about our lives. Who am I? Why am I here? How shall I live? What have I done with my life up to now? Who have I done wrong, and how can I make it right? What are my failures and how can I overcome them? What’s broken in my life and needs fixing? What is the next chapter I’m writing in the book of my life? Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. But, in the words of Jonathan Sacks, if you’ve ever had a real High Holiday experience, you have not had an unexamined life.

This drama has been going on since Abraham first called Gd to task, calling Gd the “Judge of All the Earth.” Albert Einstein spoke of the almost fanatical Jewish love of justice that made him thank his lucky stars that he was born a Jew. Which is kind of funny, because we’re not supposed to believe in astrology.

The Machzor, the prayer book we use for holidays, is replete with references to Gd as Judge. But even more prevalent is the image of Gd as King. In the book of Judges, Gideon calls Gd the King. In the book of Kings, Gd is called … King.

So Gd is anthromorphed into a King, and a  judge.  I have to wonder, if Gd was nominated for Judge on the Supreme Court, you think he’d get a hearing before the election? But I digress.  

The King imagery, frankly, is part of what makes the High Holiday liturgy difficult.  Gd as King or even Ruler, or Sovereign, is not as relatable as, say, Gd as Parent. Gd the All-Merciful, or even Gd as Judge. The prayer “Avinu Malkeinu,” our Father, our King, helps, but we have a lot of liturgy to get through before we can sing that. Gd as King is not as pervasive an image in the Shabbat liturgy. Which is why if you come on a regular basis, you might find the prayers more accessible than what is in your High Holiday Machzor. And I’ve frequently said that the most relatable, down-to-earth prayers are in the daily service.

One place we do see the image of Gd as King daily is in the prayer we call Aleinu. There are two parts to the prayer. One, we sing; and that part talks about how we are obliged to praise our King, our Lord and Creator, there is none other. The second part is usually raced through at breakneck speed, or skipped altogether, but it talks about a time in the messianic future when Gd will rule over not just Jews but the world; and all will recognize what the prophet Zechariah says, that on that day, “ba-yom ha-hu” Gd will be one and Gd’s name one. It’s really a prayer for the entire world. It describes how, in the future, we’ll be able to tell Gd is the Ruler of all the earth: it’s when everyone will be treated with dignity, the unfortunate of the earth will be taken care of, and all will be equal before the law. We’ll use the freedom that we celebrate on the other holidays to build a society acknowledging Gd’s sovereignty and our responsibility to treat everyone with fairness, and justice and a healthy dose of compassion.

Aleinu is at the end of every service, morning afternoon and evening, weekday, Shabbat and holiday. But it started in the Rosh Hashana service, in the Musaf, as an introduction to the section that talks about Gd as King, Melech. We call it Malchuyot.  Under the hood of it all is the idea that there is no ruler without a people. It’s kind of symbiotic: We kept the idea of Gd as our sovereign alive, and that kept us alive as a people. And our mission is to act in the way that will bring all the world to realize Gd’s Oneness.

If the other Toraitic/biblical holidays, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, celebrate our people’s freedom and teach us what’s important about being Jewish, and how to be better Jews, Rosh HaShanah teaches us what we have in common with every other human being and how to be better members of the world community. Our hope is for that messianic day on which Gd’s word will guide everyone’s actions.

If Gd is the Judge, the shofar calls the court to session. If Gd is the King, the shofar signals His coronation. For Jay Michaelson, the columnist with Rosh Hashanah problems, this is what redeems the holiday service: “even amid the insincere sincerity and mass market packaging, there’s still the shofar, the epitome of Jewish magic and ritual.

“Where the prayer liturgy is prolix and verbose, the shofar is wordless. …the primal call of the shofar can be a shattering experience, packing thousands of years of history and pre-history into one inchoate cry.

“… at its best…the ancient magic of the ram’s horn is a reminder both of how much has been lost in terms of spiritual intensity and of how much is still available—if you want it and work for it yourself.  The shofar is vivid and immediate. It calls to you personally.”

We’re going to hear the shofar about 200 times in the next two days. Let’s all be sure to listen. Let’s be sure to have our answer ready when it calls.

Shanah Tovah



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