Rosh Hashana 5779: Student Rabbi David Aladjem
Rosh Hashanah Sermon – 2018/5779
L’Shanah tova – May all of us, and all the world, be written in the Book of Life for a good and sweet New Year!
תִּקְע֣וּ בַחֹ֣דֶשׁ שׁוֹפָ֑ר בַּ֝כֵּ֗סֶה לְי֣וֹם חַגֵּֽנוּ׃
כִּ֤י חֹ֣ק לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֣ל ה֑וּא מִ֝שְׁפָּ֗ט לֵאלֹקי יַעֲקֹֽב׃
Blow the horn on the new moon, on the full moon for our feast day.
For it is a law for Israel, a ruling of the God of Jacob;
One of the most potent moments of the High Holidays for me – every year – is the moment when we hear the first tekiah blast from the shofar. It always leaves me with a feeling of awe. Here we are in the 21st century, looking at our I-phones and FaceTiming with people around the world. And yet, on this first day of the year, we hearken back – quite literally – to a sound that our ancestors probably first heard 3,000 years ago – maybe more. We come face to face – or perhaps it would be better to say, ear to ear – with our deepest roots as Jews.
The shofar is mentioned twice in Torah, first at Mount Sinai and then, later on, when it announces the Jubilee Year. Tonight/today, I want to talk about the role that the shofar played – pun intended – at Mount Sinai; I will talk about the Jubilee Year on Yom Kippur.
At Mount Sinai, Torah tells us that we heard at least five different voices:
First, there was the voice of the shofar (Ex. 19:16), which was the “carrier wave” for all the other voices. Just like in a musical score there is a bass line that provides the foundation for all of the other melodies, the voice of the shofar provided – and provides today, at this very moment – the foundation for Revelation.
Second, there was the voice of Moses, or as the tradition calls him, Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher. Moses was the one who – by his very example – was teaching us how to come into an intimate relationship with the Divine, how to speak to the Divine (Ex. 33:11): “face to face, like a person speaks to her friend.”
Third, and not to be overlooked, there was the Voice of G’d, giving us Revelation. The mystical tradition (Zohar 2:81b) teaches us that G’d’s voice is the “great voice,” the sound that fills heaven and earth, that created the waters and the dry land.
Fourth, the mystics (Zohar 2:81b) also teach us that, at that moment at Mount Sinai, we also all heard the “still small voice.” By contrast with the “great voice” of G’d, the “still small voice” is a voice that many of us only hear a few times in our lives. This is the Voice that comes to us in dreams and in those singular moments in our lives when we truly feel the Presence at our side. This is the Voice that gives us insight into our lives and calls us to become the holy people that G’d intended us to become when we were born.
And fifth, the mystics also teach us that (Shaar HaEmunah Ve’Yesod HaChassidut, Introduction to Beit Yaakov, ch. 5:3), at Mount Sinai, all of these voices came together, like a fanfare of trumpets, into the Voice of Life – the melody for a life filled with joys and disappointments, beautiful sunrises and hummingbirds but also traffic and the need to do the laundry. All of these voices are the Voices of G’d.
So, for 3,000 years (or even more), hearing the blast of the shofar has been a way for us to return to the Moment of Revelation, to remember the five Voices of holiness, to remember the moment when we all stood together at Mount Sinai. Our tradition tells us that each of us heard just the words that would be most meaningful to us; each of us heard G’d whispering in our ear just the words of encouragement and love that we needed at that awesome moment. Each time we hear the shofar, therefore, we can immediately be transported back in the imaginal realm to our standing at Sinai. Hearing the shofar, we can stand again in the Presence of the Divine. And when we do, we can reclaim our own Divine spark. And then the world – and our souls – can be renewed.
As I began to ponder the shofar and our willingness to time-travel on its blasts, I realized that the very name “shofar” is a signal to us that something deep is happening when we blow shofar, something much more important than listening to an early – and very imperfect – trumpet. In Hebrew, the word shofar comes from a root that means “to improve” or “to make beautiful.” So, what the shofar is doing – in its very essence – is calling to us to improve and to become more beautiful, to become the beings that we are in G’d’s hopes and dreams for us.
Just think about that for a moment. Here at the beginning of the year, we take a 3,000-old instrument and listen to its quavering and discordant sounds. I don’t know about you, but when I look back on the year that is just now ended, I see lots of jangles and missteps. I see lots of ways where I have missed the mark, where I have said “no” when I should have said “yes,”; when I have said “yes” when I should have said “no.” But at the same time, I can also see, woven in and among the threads of my life, the threads of a plan – dare I call it G’d’s dream? – for my life. And I strongly suspect that if you look at your life carefully, as we are called to do over these next ten days, that you will see those threads as well.
Now, even as I say those words – that the Holy Blessed One has a dream, a vision, for my life –
I can already hear the voices of judgment in my ears. Those voices – sadly – are very familiar to many of us. They are the voices who constantly proclaim our shortcomings, the ones who tell us that we’re no good, that we’re failures. I tell you, quite honestly, that those voices are pretty strong, at least in my head. I hope – with all my heart – that you don’t have similar voices. But given the nature of our society today, I suspect that you do. And my heart shares its sorrow with your heart. This is not what G’d intended for us.
But the voice of the shofar carries a different message. The shofar carries with it the Voice of the Holy Blessed One. She has a very different message for us and She speaks to us in very different ways. She says: “I love you so much. I am so sorry that you stumbled; let me pick you up again. Maybe we should try again. There is always hope for tomorrow.” The Holy Shechinah, the Immanent Presence, has infinite compassion for each of us and loves us because of – not despite – our many failings.
Rabbi Naomi Levy talks about this Voice of the Divine in her lovely book Einstein and the Rabbi. She quotes the Song of Songs: “I am asleep but my heart is awake; the voice of my beloved is knocking.” We are each asleep, she says (p. 202), but in each of us there is a little part that is awake and that can hear the knocking. Love is knocking. The soul is knocking. G’d is knocking. There is a little voice calling out to you: “Hold on and I will lift you up, hold on and I will show you how this world is even more beautiful than heaven.”
The question, my friends, during these Days of Awe, is whether we can hear the knocking on our hearts, the gentle nudging of our souls, to turn back towards G’d’s vision for us. Nothing else is important. I know that this is heresy, especially coming from a rabbinical student, but G’d doesn’t care about whether you come to services or not, whether you fast or not, or really anything else that is traditionally associated with observing the Days of Awe. G’d cares – and cares deeply – only about whether you will listen to the small still Voice calling you home. Following the halahcha, following the traditional practices of our faith, are ways to train ourselves to listen to that Voice at every moment in our lives. If those practices work for you; wonderful. If not, the Holy Blessed One has other plans for you – and the invitation in this new year is to listen to them deeply, to take them into your soul, and to live them every day.
My friends, this is the challenge and the promise of these Days of Awe: to listen to the small still Voice of our Beloved, the one who says, again in the words of the Song of Songs: אני לדודי ודודי לי, or “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.” And if we do, it will be a very good and sweet year for us and for all the world.
כן יהי רצון
May this truly be G’d’s will