Rosh HaShanah, 5781: Rabbi Greg Wolfe

The Shofar’s Cries to Arise: Breaking Our Hearts on the Way to Wholeness

Rabbi Greg Wolfe’s Rosh Hashannah Sermon

Even in today’s modern world, fires can ravage entire communities, well we know, leaving lives uprooted in the wake of terrible destruction. So you can only imagine, long ago and far away, in the days before professional firefighters and modern equipment and techniques, how frightening the outbreak of a fire could be for the townspeople. A whole town, or a good part of it, could go up in flames and smoke just like that.  And so, when fire broke out, everyone left their business or work, and rushed to help put out the fire. There used to be a watchtower in every town that was taller than all the other buildings where someone kept a lookout at all times. As soon as the lookout saw smoke or fire, they would sound the alarm. The townspeople would then form a human chain between the fire and the nearest well, and pass pails of water on to each other in order to put out the fire.

And so it was that a youth from a small village went to procure supplies for the very first time in the nearest big town. While he was there, he witnessed a marvelous and mystifying sight. All of a sudden, there was a mighty blast from a trumpet that could be heard all throughout the town. Quite a hubbub ensued, with people scurrying this way and that. The youth was confused and asked one of the townsfolk what was going on.  Patiently, they explained that the sound of the trumpet is alerting everyone that there is a fire so it can be extinguished. The young man is amazed by this marvelous idea. What a wondrous thing this horn must be to be able to put out a fire! I must get one to bring to my village. Thereupon, the village lad went and bought himself a shiny brass trumpet to show his friends back home. When he returned to his village, he was full of excitement. He called all the villagers together. “Listen, good people,” he exclaimed. “No need to be afraid of fire any more. Just watch me, and see how quickly I will put out a fire!”

Saying this, he ran to the nearest hut and set fire to its straw roof. The fire began to spread very quickly.

“Don’t be alarmed!” cried the youth. “Now watch me.”

The lad began to blow the trumpet with all his might, interrupting it only to catch his breath, and to say, “Wait, this will put out the fire in no time!” But the fire did not seem to care much for the music, and merely hopped from one roof to another, until the entire village was in flames.

The villagers now began to scold and curse the lad. “You fool,” they cried. “Did you think that the mere blowing of the trumpet will put the fire out? The trumpet is not magic! It is only the call of an alarm, to wake up the people, if they are asleep, or to break them away from their business and work, and send them to the well to draw water and put out the fire!”

And so it is for us when we come together on Rosh HaShanah to hear the sound of the shofar (just a note: the special shofar service can be heard on our CBH youtube channel!). Some people, like the wide-eyed village lad, may believe that it is simply enough to hear the shofar’s wailing cry and that the shofar will do everything for us; that there is no urgent need for us to respond or to act. But the purpose of the shofar, like the trumpet, is only to rally everyone to action, to awaken those who are asleep to join forces and come together to put out the fires of the world, drawing life-sustaining waters from the Living Well, the Source of our lives. The sound of the shofar is not an end but the means to accomplish something that no one person could achieve on their own. The stirring call of the shofar alerts us to what we must do in this moment: Wake up! Pay Attention! Our world is on fire, in more ways than we can count, and we have important work to do! When we hear the cry of the shofar this year, will we also hear the cries of the world? And are we prepared to take action, to get involved, to make a difference?

There are certainly many burning issues that are so alarming at this moment: the Environment, the Pandemic, the economic challenges, the horrible devastation caused by the wildfires burning throughout the west, the storms along the Gulf Coast, and the political turmoil and divisions that are raging in our country. But the one issue that tears most at my heart right at this moment, that one that calls to me so profoundly is the horror of the racial injustice and the institutionalized racism that are built into the very fabric of our country. Perhaps it is the terrible shock I feel that, after so many years, we still have made so little progress on these issues that are of utmost importance! I am truly shaken that we are still witnessing this kind of brutality against black people today; that it would take far too long to recite all of the names of those innocent black souls—many of these names we already know by heart: Michael, George, Ahmaud, Breonna—whose lives were senselessly, often cruelly, ended. And the list grows day by day. I feel ashamed, and maybe you do, too, that we have not yet rooted out our racist policies and behaviors in our country; that so many hearts and minds are still infected by the poisonous virus of racism, a disease far more fatal than COVID-19. The shofar calls us to experience this dis-ease within ourselves and then do something about it! We can no longer just be “not racist.” “After centuries of racial hierarchy, all sides have been wounded,” writes La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the Kellogg Foundation: “Whenever a policy or decision gives privileges to some and not others or perpetuates injustices, the collective community suffers, and part of our common humanity is lost. It leaves some wounded and unable to work towards our collective interest.” ( In order to transform ourselves and our society, we must now become actively engaged in being “anti-racist,” and work together with a broad coalition of like-minded allies to change those policies, systems, and institutions that perpetuate this insidious disease.

Each of the calls of the shofar can teach us the steps we must take to become an instrument of justice ourselves and move the world towards its fullest potential, a world repaired and redeemed, built on tzedek, righteousness and chesed, lovingkindness. Tekiah: the single long blast, wakes us up and focuses our gaze inward; Shevarim: the trio of plaintive sobs, calls us to truly hear the pain around us; Teruah: the staccato cries of a broken heart, arouses with in us compassion and care for those suffering; and the Tekiah Gedolah: the triumphant final blast inspires us and lifts us up so that we can respond and take bold action! (This framework for conceiving of the sounds of the shofar was inspired by a teaching from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality).

Tekiah! A call to look inward! Every turning, each step towards teshuvah, making real change, begins with a demand that we take a hard look at ourselves. This is not always so easy. It can be very painful. But Tekiah is a call back to our wholeness. The Tekiah starts as a wake up call to our own white privilege, a privilege that most of us Jews have, but don’t often notice. This was quite a bitter awakening for me. I always considered myself progressive, inclusive, and open-minded. I was shocked to learn that I had unknowingly been perpetuating and supporting a rigged system that primarily favored people who looked like me.  Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s in California, I was raised with a deep sense of fairness and equality for all people. Justice was important to our family, but in the last number of years I have awakened to my part in the perpetuation of these racist ideas and practices. I have blithely benefitted, my whole life, from the simple fact that I am white. The fact that I was afforded certain opportunities in my life; that my parents and children were, too, was due in so many ways to our “whiteness.” We all attended certain schools, and our family enjoyed access to many privileges that we never really understood were connected to the benefits accorded us simply for being white. And just that we live the life that we do, without any of the daily concerns that continually afflict black people, is something that I am only beginning to appreciate. I am sharing this disturbing journey—that I and many of us are on— not to make us feel bad, but to move us forward; not to beat ourselves up, but to help us learn and grow, to help us engage in a communal teshuvah, an active, conscious turning, to always work at becoming better.

Maybe it is not so surprising that many of us are only now waking up. The hardest thing about waking up, Father Tony Dimello teaches, is that you don’t want to wake up. It is often so much easier for us to remain blissfully ignorant, to look any where else.  Why, even David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and later a senior advisor to the president, admitted recently in a Washington Post OpEd that he did not even truly understand the depths of racial injustice, despite his years of actively working on these issues. He writes:

“When I left journalism for the life of a campaign strategist, I worked for Washington and spent more than two decades in politics working to tear down barriers to black and Hispanic candidates in places where they had not won before. I had the honor of helping to elect and reelect America’s first black president.

I thought all of this reflected a deep understanding of the struggle — a certification of my manifest commitment to justice and equal rights.

I was wrong.

Despite my work, I was too often oblivious — or at least inattentive — to the everyday mistreatment of people of color, including friends and colleagues, in ways large and small.” (

But, remarkably, ever since the killing of George Floyd this past May, something has shifted in our country. It’s like alarm bells finally went off for people outside the African American community. It is not like we had not seen plenty of horrible examples of young black men being gunned down or murdered across this country. But, like a jarring wake up call, a jolt to the national consciousness, we could no longer ignore the very painful picture that had been staring us in the face for so long. The events of this past year revealed to the world and to ourselves, in the starkest and most undeniable terms, that racism and white supremacy in our country have yet to be eradicated and must be addressed once and for all. People have been roused from their slumber now, and, I believe, that we have reached a tipping point where we have the momentum to institute real change in our society. But it is going to take all of us. It is not going to happen if we allow ourselves to simply go back to sleep. We can only move forward together, by joining our hearts and hands with one another and with other groups, to tear down the walls that divide us and hold us captive. Let us hear the call of Tekiah this year and notice: We are waking up! We are changing. And the world can change, too. There is hope when we realize that we can be a part of the solution; that, when we arise in response to these cries, we can make a difference in bringing about the transformation of our world.

True change, I believe, will take hold when we open our hearts, when we hear each other’s stories, when we learn about one another’s experiences and encounter each other deeply as human beings. Change comes from within us. As we begin to hear and feel the pain of those who are suffering, something powerful shifts within us. This is the role of  Shevarim! This shofar blast shatters the defenses around our hearts so that we can experience “their” pain as “our” pain. I recently had a heart shattering moment when I listened to a story shared by an African American Jewish woman. She told of a moment so mundane for most of us, but so fraught with anxiety and fear for her…because her teenage son is black. She lives in a big metropolis on the East Coast. She had asked her son to run a few errands for her on his bike. The afternoon light was waning and she was waiting for her son to return. Even as she knew on one level that all would be well, she could not keep her nagging thoughts at bay. Her son was a good student, a wonderful kid.  He never got into any trouble. And yet worry began to bubble up. The kind that grabs you in the pit of your stomach and won’t let go. I began to imagine what it must be like for her, each time she sends her son out into the world: the waiting, the concern, the never knowing for sure that he would come home. Would he end up just another statistic? Would he end up in the wrong place at the wrong time? Would he become the next name of the growing list of young black men brutalized by police? These were the questions that were always roiling her heart. And at that moment my heart broke wide open as I began to think about my own kids and what it would be like to be her. Her son came home just fine that afternoon, for that afternoon. But I realized that is not really the point. We all worry in some way about these things, about our kids safety. But I could not imagine having that very real anxiety lurking over my shoulder each and every day.  That insight into a mother’s reality pierced me to the core.

Shevarim!—The broken notes! I could feel her pain so deeply that I felt it was mine, and I cried. I cried for her, I cried for me, I cried for all of us. I have never had to have “the talk” with my children about what to do if they are ever stopped by the police. I have never had people look at me like I don’t belong when biking with my kids to a park. I have never had the humiliating experience of being stopped for simply driving while black. And yet African Americans, in the US and even here in Davis, live with the potential of such degradations and humiliations each and every day. One Jewish Black mom told the story about how it even takes longer to get through her day because she can’t even cross the street, in the crosswalk, with confidence that drivers will see her and stop for her.  I am learning that as a white person we bear a great deal of responsibility for letting these systemic injustices continue and be perpetuated. Hearing these stories puts a face on them for me and makes them real. The pain of a mother regularly waiting for her son to return, never quite sure if he will make it home safely, was just too much for me to bear. Let us hear the call of Shevarim to do the work in our hearts that allows for our own growth which can lead to the healing of the world.

Once our hearts have been broken open, there is room for more. Teruah!, the third of the shofar calls, invites us to welcome care and compassion into our hearts. Teruah attunes our heart to the Divine love that resides within all of us, allowing us to heal ourselves, one another and the world. Before we can act as instruments of justice, we must awaken a sense of love and compassion that will fuel the work that we need to do in the world, to repair the places that are wounded.

Healing can take place for us as individuals and as a society. Together, we are always striving to grow towards the light. We might call this turning in love, this growing in compassion, when done consciously, teshuvah. As our hearts soften and become more receptive, we are ready to embrace teshuvah, not as a return to what was, but as a push forward towards what can be, a brighter future for us all. Teshuvah is not actually about beating our breasts in guilt, as many might assume, but rather can be understood as a beautiful, loving, compassionate gift we can give to ourselves and those we may have hurt. Even those we don’t know personally. The contemporary rabbi, Danya Ruttenberg, teaches that, “The reason to do [this teshuvah] work is not because you are BAD BAD BAD until you DO THESE THINGS, but because we should care about each other, about taking care of each other, about making sure we’re all OK. I do these things,” she writes, “because I am taking seriously the idea that I might have hurt you–even inadvertently! Even when we say, “I wasn’t at my best, this is such a hard time!”—it is an act of love and care. It is an opportunity to open our hearts wider than they have been, to let in more empathy, more curiosity about how my choices or knee-jerk reactions have impacted you, have impacted others. To care about others’ perspectives. To let your experience matter, deeply, to me.” Teruah is a call to turn in caring compassion towards others. It is an opportunity to say I see you, I am concerned for you, and I want to do better.

The famous basketball player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote earlier this year that, “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere.” ( In the blaze of the sunlight, nothing remains hidden, the truth becomes visible. Our compassionate hearts know that there is only one response. As thoughtful Jews and as caring human beings, we have a moral responsibility to channel our compassion into deeds of love and justice. We can no longer stand idly by as others are persecuted, denigrated, murdered and live in fear. We are taught in our Torah that every single human being, no matter who, is created in God’s image and represents a holy life of inestimable value that must be protected and cherished. We are challenged to be pursuers of justice and champions of freedom. We carry our Jewish responsibility for each other with great reverence. Again and again, we are commanded in the Torah to care for the most vulnerable because we have been there! We, too, were slaves, and that experience has been seared into our souls as an obligation for all time. It has shaped our lives in countless generations.  Let us hear the call of Teruah, today and every day, and may our compassionate hearts nourish our work for justice and freedom in every age.

This is the holy work that is calling us now as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world. But even more specifically, today is the day commemorating the creation of all humanity with Adam (who, we remember, was originally created as both male and female), meaning from the Earth, Adamah. This is truly a universal moment to awaken our innate care for each and every person in God’s great world. Tekiah, we have looked deeply into our hearts; Shevarim, our hearts have broken open to the pain and sorrow caused by racial inequities; Teruah,  we have been filled with compassion.

And now we come to the final step—the Tekiah Gedolah! The teachers at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality capture the meaning of the tekiah gedolah in this way: “[It] is a rallying cry, urging us to lift our own voices to cry out and mobilize on behalf of the vulnerable among us… [to] devote ourselves to transforming ourselves into shofars, becoming instruments through which the healing and restorative power of the Divine might flow.” Now, if we hope to quench the fires of hate and racial injustice, we must let the call of the shofar pierce our hearts! We must not only hear the cry of the shofar, but heed its call. We must be ready to roll up our sleeves, grab our buckets full of our passions and commitments, and get to work repairing our damaged, scorched world.

At Bet Haverim, we hope you will become a part of our growing and vibrant Team Tikkun Olam, under the leadership of Roy Kaplan, as we create communal opportunities to respond to this burning issue of our day. Together we will advocate, educate and collaborate. We have already hosted programs on the history of racism in the US with Prof. Bruce Haynes, the power of protest in Jewish tradition with Rabbi Seth Castleman, and a panel presentation on re-imagining how our police force can evolve and respond to the new challenges of our day. We look forward to sharing more programs and classes with you, and welcome your suggestions. We also work hand in hand with the Jewish congregations in our region and the Religious Action Center of Northern California to harness our power and impact in a focused way, advocating for policies that will truly make a difference. Let us actively engage in the Poor People’s Campaign and get involved in transforming policies and systems that oppress the poor, a large parentage of whom are People of Color. Let us read together and discuss the myriad books now available—such as How to be an Anti-Racist, The New Jim Crow, and White Fragility— that can inspire and inform the work that we do. Help us reach out and build bridges of connection with communities of color where we can be compassionate allies, working on issues that are of mutual importance. I urge each of you to allow this issue of racial injustice to touch your heart and crack it open. Search out moments of connection with those in the African American community, who may also be right here in our own Jewish community, that move and inspire you; where the bond is real and personal and meaningful. Know that you are a beautiful shofar, capable of awakening others to the imperative of this moment, and breathing life and hope into our world.

Our rabbis taught: Shevarim and Teruah, cries of our brokenness, are always surrounded by Tekiah, notes of wholeness. This is especially true of the Tekiah Gedolah, our final resonant note that hovers and lingers and persists until we simply have no more breath left. The Tekiah Gedolah rises ever upwards, lifting us up and reminding us that the hope for wholeness is always there, a beacon guiding us to discover how, when we bring our broken pieces together, we can create a new wholeness; not the same, not a return to what was, but a creative journey towards something altogether different and new, better. A world transformed by caring and justice, righteousness and love. This is the essence of the teshuvah that the shofar calls us to embrace completely, today, with our broken hearts.

ken y’hi ratzon