One Voice for the New Year 5778
Who doesn’t love hearing the sound of the shofar during the High Holy Days? Other than the holiday meals with family and friends, some of my earliest memories of this season involve listening to the call of the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah. Similar to the way I encourage families to retrieve their children and bring them into the sanctuary for the Shofar service, I remember sitting between my parents while my rabbi called for the notes that the Ba’al Tekiah magically produced from his instrument – a ram’s horn of all things! In my adolescent years, the thing to do was to actually time the length of the Tekiah G’dolah – the final blast of the holiday. I do not remember any of the specific times, but the chatter during the blast and the oohs and ahs that followed were a testament to the delight we all experienced at that moment.
I purchased my first shofar in Jerusalem, at the conclusion of my first year of rabbinical studies at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. During that year, I trained to become an Israel tour guide and educator for groups of teens. That summer, I guided my first NFTY group on a five-week trek throughout the State of Israel. While leading my students through the Cardo in the Old City of Jerusalem, I purchased my prized shofar. I spent a long time in the shop searching for the right instrument. I finally selected this one [hold up the shofar]. I love it not only for its musical quality, but I love its look: shiny and polished on one side of its long, curvy tube, and rough and natural looking on the other.
The more interesting part of this story was transporting the shofar home. Having spent most of the prior two years abroad, I had a lot of stuff to bring back to Southern California from Tel Aviv. I had a layover in New York where I changed planes and airlines, and it is here that I went through customs. Imagine me – much younger and slimmer with an excellent tan – pushing my luggage cart, which was piled nearly as high as I stand with all of my worldly belongings. In the front basket of the cart were some of my more delicate carry-on items, including my shofar. To help protect it, the merchant had stuffed paper into and around both openings, over which he tied together two large plastic bags in order to cover most of the shaft.
As I carefully balanced my cargo while pushing my cart towards the customs line, a uniformed officer approached me. He greeted me kindly, and asked, pointing at the long antler, “Can I ask you what that is?” Not expecting an encounter like this, my mind began to paint every possible picture as to why he might be asking me about the shofar? The craziest impression depicted him as a narcotics officer inquiring as to the drugs I might be smuggling inside this unique, long, sealed-up tube. I am many things, but an International Drug Smuggler is not one of them! Obviously, that is not what occurred. In reality, he represented the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and he was inquiring as to whether or not I was poaching contraband from endangered animals. A quick answer as to the origin, nature, and use of my ritual object, and I was on my way…not as a felon, but as an enthusiastic 2nd year rabbinic student eager to share the beautiful music of my Shofar.
From my first memories as a child in the pews, I still delight in hearing the melodic call of the Shofar, and the emergent drama that begins with the single blast of Tekiah. It continues with the three medium sized tones of Shevarim, followed by the nine staccato notes of T’ruah. The final sustained call of Tekiah Gedolah provokes the ultimate climactic response, where the inner soul and the outer senses collide and move us forward on the path of righteousness!
The Shofar service is designed purposefully with a crescendo effect in mind: each subsequent note reverberates with an increased sense of urgency. Our tradition teaches us that the Shofar is not simply an instrument used to announce the New Year. More importantly, the blasts of the Shofar rouse the body and spirit to action! The trumpeting shouts of the ram’s horn are the ultimate wakeup call. They direct us to perform the hard work of Teshuvah – the idea of returning to oneself – to our core values: to doing mitzvot; to emet, tzedek and mishpat: truth, righteousness and justice; to making amends with God and each other through sincerity and a willingness to change our ways. All of this so that we can begin the New Year with a clean conscience and a sense of At-One-Ness – which is the result of Atonement.
We can appreciate the crescendo effect borne through the Shofar service when compared to our recent experiences with Hurricane Irma. As we watched from afar the devastation that Hurricane Harvey wreaked upon communities throughout the northern Gulf coast of Texas, we became aware of another storm far off in the Atlantic. As Irma swelled up east of the Caribbean, a distant Tekiah could be heard, representing a first call, a simple warning; the potential for a storm heading our way.
As Irma grew larger in mass and her gales more powerful to hurricane strength, we watched her intently as she encroached upon the Caribbean islands. We witnessed the utter destruction of Barbuda, Anguilla, and St. Martin; the massive damage inflicted upon the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico; and we became fearful: not necessarily for our own safety, but for the well-being of residents of other islands in Irma’s devastating path, as she grew to one of the largest and potentially most devastating storms on record.
(Editorial note: During the delivery of this sermon, Hurricane Maria had just struck Puerto Rico. Though not written into the document, I did include some words about the most recent destruction off the cuff throughout.)
By this time, most of us became fixated on the news as meteorologists attempted to predict where Irma might strike should she invade the continental United States. Most models confirmed that she would. The clarity of the three medium blasts of Shevarim disturbed us as we began to make initial preparations. Our awareness heightened, we stocked up on household essentials, food and water; we communicated with friends, family, and neighbors about what we might do; we made reservations in the event we might choose to evacuate.
Then we learned that Irma was definitely going to pummel Florida – and hard. Still not entirely clear as to her exact path, we were certain we would feel her intensity. As the urgency of the nine staccato notes of T’ruah resounded clearly like a bugle announcing the beginning of a hunt, we emptied the shelves of grocery and hardware stores; we brought in everything from the outside that was not firmly secured and we put up our shutters; we filled our gas and propane tanks and extra canisters; we tuned up our generators; and we either packed up our cars and drove or flew north, or we prepared to bunker down and confront Irma, as she passed over our homes like an Egyptian plague.
On Saturday morning, with Irma pounding on our doorstep, Governor Scott announced that anyone still planning to evacuate needed to do so immediately. This “last call” served as the final lengthy reverberating plea of the Tekiah Gedolah – the emergency siren or foghorn blaring with unquestionable urgency. Irma hit the Florida Keys with such destructive force, and she appeared to be on a direct collision path to Naples, eying Sarasota. Many, including my family, did leave our homes that morning. Sometimes it truly does take that final blast of the shofar to stir us to action before it is too late – which is exactly why it is there. Because the next time we hear the scream of the siren, its serves a different function entirely. It signifies that the event is over. The final Tekiah Gedolah we experience is at the conclusion of Yom Kippur – when, metaphorically speaking – the Gates have closed.
The chaos inflicted by Irma, like that of Harvey before her, did not end when she dissolved. The path of destruction ran long and deep. Communities from Barbuda to Charleston will continue to suffer the consequences inflicted upon us for quite some time. Certainly there are those who were hit harder than others. Our Tekiah Gedolah, our final call to action, is to do what we can to help communities rebuild.
Many of you know by now that we are collaborating with our friends at Church of the Palms to collect goods and gift cards to help people here in Florida get back on their feet. I hope that each of you will join me in fulfilling this mitzvah by contributing in any way, small or large, that you are able. A list of goods and drop-off place and times will be distributed early next week in an email, or you can call the temple office for details. I am collecting gift cards to places like Lowes and Home Depot, Target and Walmart, Costco and Sam’s Club, Publix, Walgreens and CVS. I will personally deliver them to my rabbinic colleagues in Naples and Ft. Meyers, who have assured me that they will distribute them to needy families throughout southwestern Florida, Jewish and otherwise.
Just as we are called to action as a result of a natural disaster, so too must we hear the Shofar’s call when we believe that our morals, values and acceptable ways of living are threatened. About a month ago, in the wake of the Charlottesville protests and the unacceptable response from our Commander in Chief, reiterated just this last week, when he likened neo-Nazism with left leaning protest groups, one of my rabbinic colleagues in Minnesota, Elka Abrahamson, came up with a brilliant idea. In a posting on our Central Conference of American Rabbis members Facebook group, she asked if any of us might be interested in joining as One unified Voice, and now quoting her directly, “in order to share a message that emerges from values and moral leadership that is really carefully crafted.” She imagined the power of hundreds of Reform Rabbis collectively calling out for unity, justice and taking a stand against antisemitism on this very day.
The response was breathtaking. Within the next 24 hours, literally hundreds of Reform rabbis, myself included, responded with a resounding yes. Over the course of the next several weeks, we shared ideas, studied Jewish texts, participated in a webinar, and fashioned a delicately woven statement. Co-authored by Rabbis Elka Abramson and Judy Shanks, what I am about to convey to you has many, many fingerprints on it, including those of Rabbi David Stern, the current CCAR President, and has the blessing of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism. Collectively as a Reform rabbinic body, we believe that this statement represents many voices, souls and rabbinic hearts. I share it with you now:
The Talmud teaches in Shabbat 54b, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.” As Jews, we are held accountable in ever-widening circles of responsibility to rebuke transgressors within our homes, in our country, in our world. One chutzpadik medieval commentator teaches that we must voice hard truths even to those with great power, for “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.”
Today I speak words of protest, joining hundreds of my Reform rabbinic colleagues across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligation. We will not be silent. We will, without hesitation, decry the moral abdication of the President who fuels hatred and division in our beloved country. This is a message presented out of our deeply cherished Jewish and American values. And that if our values mean anything we have to be willing to live them and speak them in the world. If that means that some of you may perceive this as political, then so be it.
We, like the prophets before us, draw from the deepest wisdom of our tradition to deliver a stern warning against complacency and an impassioned call for action. We call on you to rise up and say in thousands of ways, every day, as proud Jews and proud Americans:
“You cannot dehumanize, degrade and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man and child is beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight. We the people, all the people, are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine. All the people are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teruah, the Day of sounding the Shofar, whose piercing tones sound an alarm, express our fears, and especially in these times, compel us to respond with a resounding call for justice.
The first shofar blast, Tekiah, represents The Sound of Certainty:
As rabbis we are, from sea to shining sea, speaking to our congregations in every accent of America to declare in unison: acts of hatred, intimidation and divisiveness will not be tolerated in these United States. We stand upon the shoulders of the sages, poets and rabbis in every generation who fought for freedom. We speak in memory of every Jew and in memory of all people who tragically and senselessly lost their lives at the hands of evil oppressors. We call on our political leaders; progressives and conservatives alike, to rigorously uphold the values brilliantly articulated in the founding documents of our country, the “immortal declaration” that all people are created equal. We call on every elected leader to responsibly represent our country’s history and advance its noble visions of tolerance. On this first day of the New Year WE are “Proclaiming liberty throughout all the land” [Lev 25:10].
The second group of shofar blasts, Sh’varim, represent The Sound of Brokenness:
Something crumbled inside us when we watched the televised images of Charlottesville’s beautiful streets filled with hate-spewing marchers. This event reopened the wound we felt when the exterior walls of our own beloved Temple Sinai were vandalized with Swastikas last winter, and not two months later an arsonist set fire to the New Tampa Mosque an hour’s drive from here. How much more vandalism, how many clashes, which other cities? We must not accept or become inured to some warped version of “normal,” of racist and anti-Semitic acts or rallies popping in and out of breaking news cycles. Let us never grow numb to the brokenness, but let our pain fuel our vows to respond – with peaceful protests, and with public calls for healing, by building alliances and by speaking in unison with other minorities and faith communities. Neither silence nor complacency nor waiting anxiously and fearfully for the next wounding event are options. Not for us.
Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, possessed a rare understanding of unfathomable brokenness. His memorable words sound a warning to us today, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” May we never be neutral, never silent in the face of threats or of discrimination toward any. As we glean from Psalm 147: Let us interfere as [rofei lishvurei lev] healers of the broken [hearted], and [u’mchabaysh l’atzvotahm], binders of their wounds.
The third group of shofar blasts, T’ruah, represents The Sound of Urgency:
The events of these simmering weeks are a wake-up call to our Jewish community. Racism is wrong whether it seeps into explicit anti-Semitism or not. The Talmud teaches that God created us all from the first Adam so that no human being could ever say, “my lineage is greater than yours.” But just in case we thought the white supremacists were after someone else, or that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with modern day Nazi sympathizers, or that we were somehow safe in the fact that most – but certainly not all – Jews in America are white, those fiery torches illuminated another truth, one we learn and forget only to learn again this day: if one minority group’s rights are threatened, we are all threatened. As Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny,” whether we are the least powerful or the most powerful person in our world.
The final Shofar blast, Tekiah G’dolah, represents The Endless Pursuit of Justice:
Tzedek tzedek tirdof the Torah admonishes: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land which I, God, give to you.” Our sacred text reminds us that for a community truly to inherit its place in the world, thoughtful leaders at every level must be dedicated to equality and to unity. Every community relies on passionate and engaged citizens; it relies on you to be insistent advocates for tolerance and enduring kindness between the diverse peoples of our nation. To pursue justice is to create a society that protects and enlivens every citizen. Let us be relentless, tireless builders of that society in our city and in our country -- in this New Year.
You experienced the resounding boom of the Shofar this morning. Be mindful of its message. The time for action is now. Together we can and will ensure that this year, 5778 will be a year of expressing our goodness, where acts of Tikkun Olam, including helping those in need through our acts of tzedakah – charity, and g’milut chasadim – which I will define here as advocacy work, will serve to protect the downtrodden and oppressed. A year of mending and healing that which is broken in our society. A year that we can truly look back upon as a Shana Tovah U’m’tukah – a wonderfully sweet New Year, because goodness and mercy permeated the soul of the individual, our nation, and our world!