Rosh Hashannah Day 1 5773

One of my favorite stories is one which you perhaps have heard as well. In the old Soviet Union there was a minimum security work camp. The prisoners worked inside the camp during the day, and then left the camp at the end of work and slept in a village nearby.  A guard stood at the entrance to the camp.  He was stationed there to make sure that none of the prisoners smuggled out valuable items they could sell outside of the camp.  Each day one particular prisoner would come out from work with a wheelbarrow loaded with hay. The guard would search the hay, but he could never find anything hidden in it. Each day, the guard would let the prisoner pass. Day by day, year by year, the same scenario was repeated. Try as he might, the guard could never find anything in the hay the prisoner might be smuggling out of the work camp. Finally, the day came when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and all the prisoners were let go. The guard approached the man on his final day of work, and asked him, “Tell me, I could never find what you were hiding all those years. I promise I won’t say anything, but it has been driving me crazy – what were you stealing?” “You still don’t get it, do you,” said the prisoner. “I was stealing wheelbarrows!” So it is with us. We see, yet we do not see.  We look for one thing, yet another, more important thing, is hidden before our very eyes.  We ask questions — but sometimes we don’t ask the right questions! Year after year we listen to the sounds of the Shofar – we think we have heard it, and yet, perhaps we are missing the most important message.  Today, as we come together on this first day of Rosh Hashannah,  I would like to explore two questions about the Shofar blowing that perhaps have never occurred to us to ask. If we answer these questions, hopefully we will come to a deeper understanding of the sounding of the Shofar – an understanding which I hope will enhance the meaning of today’s service for all of us.   The first question: Why do we always sound the shofar in sets of three? The second question: Why do we always begin the shofar sounds with a tekiah, and end the shofar sounds with a tekiah? First, know that the sounding of the Shofar is THE fundamental mitzvah of Rosh Hashannah.  The mitzvah comes from the book of Numbers, where G-d instructs the Jewish people to celebrate the first day of the seventh month by abstaining from work, gathering together, and sounding the Shofar. “It shall be a day of TERUAH,” says scriptures, meaning a day of sounding of the Shofar.  When the rabbis of the second century developed the Rosh Hashannah service that we recite today, they had a problem.  Of course a central part of that service had to be the sounding of the shofar. That was what the bible said. The problem was – if scriptures said it was to be “a day of TERUAH”, what was a TERUAH? What sound was that?  None of the rabbis knew what a TERUAH was supposed to sound like!  How could the Jewish people blow the shofar and fulfill the Biblical commandment if they didn’t know what sound to make?  {Please look on page 592 for this section} They had their theories. One group of rabbis believed that an authentic TERUAH sounded like someone sighing. “Let it sound like someone sighing,” said this group.   Another group of rabbis believed that an authentic TERUAH sounded like someone sobbing. “Let it sound like someone sighing,” opined this group.   One of the groups of rabbis was right, and one of them was wrong, (or maybe both of them were wrong) but nobody could claim with certainty which was which! Wisely, the rabbis decided to cover all of the bases, so to speak.  They decided to compromise. They decided to be inclusive. That is how we arrive at the sounds of the shofar we hear this morning.  In the first set, we sound “sighing leading into sobbing” – shevarim teruah- In the second set we only sound the “sighing-shevarim” and in the third set we only sound the “sobbing-teruah”.    Ponder this kernel of wisdom the next time you hear the sound of the shofar.  We have been listening to a pattern of sounds for two thousand years that were arrived at through compromise! We are hearing this certain pattern of sounds because nobody insisted that they were right and the other was wrong!   Yet, too often, it is the exact opposite with us. We hold opinions, like that of the rabbis with regard to the sound of the shofar, which we are unable to substantiate as fact.  Yet, this doesn’t stop us from insisting that we are absolutely right, and the other person is dead wrong.   It occurs in our homes, between husband and wife, between parents and children, between brother and sister. It occurs between friends, and in our places of work.  I daresay it occurs between in our State Capitols and in Washington DC, and between nation-states as well.  We try to convince one another that we are right and the other is wrong.  Neither wants to budge. Each party digs in their heels.  Each is convinced of their own rightness. Pride and ego get in the way. Neither wants to back down.  Each party feels aggrieved, misunderstood, and hurt.  Each says, “If I back down, if I give in, I will appear to be weak. And therefore, I don’t care who started this fight. I don’t care who is right or wrong. I am not going to back down, no matter what! This is one I have to win and you have to lose!” [1] If we find ourselves in a similar situation today, “give heed to the sound of the shofar.” Our insistence on being right, our reluctance to admit we could be wrong, our refusal to compromise, our inability to see and acknowledge the other’s point of view, an opinion different from the one we hold, can corrode relationships between family members, between colleagues, between neighbors and between nations.  If we wish to live together in peace, if we want to live together in wholeness, we must find a creative way, like the rabbis did, to include our different ideas and opinions in the solution.  The Book of Proverbs states: וְאִישׁ שׁוֹמֵעַ לָנֶצַח יְדַבֵּֽר “The person who truly listens – that person’s words will endure.”  Too often, we are poor listeners.  We don’t take the time to understand what the other person is saying.  We want the other person to understand us, first, before we will listen to them.  Instead, we should first try to understand what the other person is saying, what they are trying to get across.  If they feel understood by us, they are much more likely to be open to what we are trying to say.  If we want our words to have an impact on them, we must first learn to listen.  A wise person, say our rabbis, does not interrupt their friend's words; they do not reply in haste. Let’s move on to our second question of the morning. Why are these broken sounds, the shevarim and the teruah, always bracketed by the Tekiah, the unbroken sound of the shofar?  Why do we always start with a Tekiah, and end with a Tekiah, in each set of shofar blows?  It is as if the sounds of clarity and conviction encapsulate the cries of doubt and of hesitation. Let me suggest that this pattern represents the Jewish experience of past, present and future.  It represents how the Jewish people view time. For the Jew, the past is as certain as the sounding of the Shofar at Mount Sinai.  “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Almighty took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with signs and with wonders.”  G-d led us through the wilderness, gave us the Torah, and brought us into the Promised Land.  We recount, we affirm, we remind ourselves of the birth of our people every day in our prayers and every year at the Passover Seder.  In this way we celebrate and remember the unbroken traditions of our people that stretch back to the very first Jewish people, Abraham and Sarah.  That unbroken tradition, that certainty that we carry as to who we are and where we have come from, is symbolized by the first unbroken sound of the Shofar blast, the TEKIAH. In the same way that we know where we came from, we know where we are heading in the future.  In Judaism, the future is as certain as the sound which will announce the Messiah.  We are confident that human history will lead, eventually, to Messianic times.  We are not sure what Messianic times will look like, but we privileged have a small experience of Messianic times each time we observe the Sabbath.   We taught that every Sabbath contains a “foretaste” of the “World- to- Come”.  Each prayer service for the past two thousand years has ended with the Alenu, which itself concludes with a description of Messianic times from the prophet Zechariah, “And Adonai will be king over all the earth; on that day, the Lord will be One and His name One.”  In all ancient societies time was perceived as a wheel, – as an endless cycle of birth and death: spinning ceaselessly, never altering its course….”  These were societies in which fatalism was the operant philosophy and where the idea of human advancement was absent.  Thomas Cahill, in his book, The Gift of the Jews,  writes that the Jewish people brought to the world “a new vision of men and women with unique destinies – a vision”, he writes, “that thousands of years later will inspire the Declaration of Independence and our hopeful belief in progress and the sense that tomorrow could be better than today.” Yes, the Jewish people introduced the radical idea that history is not just a series of random events, but a history that is leading somewhere. History is a journey moving toward an end that we can help shape.  This end, this certain future, is symbolized by the TEKIAH, the unbroken sound of this final shofar blast. If the past and the future are assured – what remains uncertain is the present, symbolized by the broken sounds, the teruah and the shevarim.   These broken sounds represent the times in which we live – the uncertainty of the present.  What is our responsibility, individually and as a community, in our own time? Our responsibility as individuals is to hope — to never give up.  Our lives sometimes resemble the broken sounds of the shevarim and the teruah.  We may begin at a young age with a blueprint for our lives that is as clear and unbroken as the sound of the tekiah.  But then life intervenes. We stumble, we fall, we improvise, we make mistakes, and we try again.  We yearn for growth, we strive for achievement, but our progress is halting, like the sounds of the shevarim.  We get lost, we get stuck, we surge ahead and we fall back. Our shouts of triumph are followed by the sobs of defeat. During these times we must have the confidence that we can make meaning of the tests and challenges in our own lives.  During these times we must believe that we can make our lives whole again, like the sound of the Tekiah. As a religious community, our responsibility is to remember the past, to bear witness and to use that remembrance to do our part to make the vision of a brighter future come to be.  The writer Leonard Fein says of the Jewish people: By virtue of our longevity, by virtue of our classic marginality, by virtue of the need for self-preservation, we have been …… witnesses to grandeur, to folly, to evil, to redemption. Our task is to speak out, to tell what we have seen, to say what we know….. Ours is to tell of the journey from slavery to freedom and all that follows there from…. ours is to speak truth to power and to be chroniclers of injustice.[2]

No one could argue that our world is a very broken place.  But as a Jew, one does not have to accept it that way.  We are not a fatalistic people. We believe that as a community we could and should work to repair the world.  The final sound of the shofar, the tekiah, symbolizes the goal toward which we must all work and toward which we are certain to make progress, even as we live in uncertain times – times of folly, times of injustice, yes, times of evil. We may not complete the work. But that fact doesn’t exempt us from engaging in the world. This then, is the message of the Shofar.  Like the story of the prisoner and the guard that I told in the beginning, it has always been right before our eyes, yet hidden. The first lesson is that compromise is possible, no, necessary, if we are to build an enduring family life, national life and a more just world. For the very sounds of the Shofar we hear today is the product of compromise. The second lesson is to remind us that we come from a proud past and are heading toward a glorious future. We must remember that past and use it in the service of the present so we can march toward a better future. We should never lose hope that we can repair the broken parts of our own lives, and heal the broken-ness of the world as well.  Judaism is an optimistic religion. The sound of the Shofar, calls to us to work for a brighter, more secure and more perfect life for ourselves and for the world in which we live. Shanah Tova Tikatevu!    

[1]“In our homes……no matter what..” courtesy of Rabbi Jack Reimer