My sermon for the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5774.
The Cry of the Shofar
Congregation Dorshei Emet
Rosh Hashanah Day 1: September 5, 2013
Rabbi Julia Appel
The Torah describes Rosh Hashanah in the following way: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.”
We see here and elsewhere that the oldest name for the holiday is not “new year,” but “Yom Teruah,” the day of loud blasts, the shofar blasts. The shofar defines the day, which otherwise is like every other holy day of the Torah. So the shofar is important. It has a message for us. What is the shofar trying to tell us?
On Rosh Hashanah, the rabbis of the Talmud teach, the shofar trumpets to announce the re-coronation of the King, of God. We shake with fear and awe as we proclaim the Greatest Sovereign’s reign anew. They quote God telling us to recite before God on Rosh Hashanah “verses of Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot. Malchuyot (kingship) in order that you crown me over you; Zichronot (remembrance) in order that your remembrance should rise up before me for good; and with what? With shofar.” (RH 16a) There is authority, power, control.
The far away King, grand and stern. The trumpeting ceremony, the sovereignty. The Ruler deciding our fate. These become the meaning of the day and of the shofar. But what if these images are unrelatable? It makes the holiday unrelatable as well.
Today, I want to offer a different take on the shofar. It’s a counter text, a narrative of the holiday that is equally present in the texts and traditions of Rosh Hashanah, and yet is the very opposite of the far away king.
Throughout the holiday, from the choice of Torah readings to the Talmudic discussions of the shofar to the sound of the shofar itself, one thing that keeps coming up is not actually coronation.
It is the sound of crying. Crying out and sobbing. And it is distinctly a woman’s cry. A mother.
Who are these mothers crying in the voice of the shofar? Who are these mothers whose cries the shofar encapsulates? They are the mourning mother. They are the barren mother. And they are the birthing mother.
I want to suggest that by examining all of these mothers crying out, we will learn how to hear the sound of the shofar, and how to pray on this Rosh Hashanah.
I am indebted to the great Aviva Zornberg for many of these texts from her essay “Cries and Whispers: The Death of Sarah” [from Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days by Gail Twersky Reimer and my teacher Judith Kates. See also Rosh Hashanah Readings edited by Dov Peretz Elkins.]
* * *
The Mourning Mothers
1) Whereas in one part of the Talmud, the rabbis say that the shofar symbolizes crowning the King, in a different part of the Talmud the rabbis try to figure out what the shofar is supposed to actually sound like. After all, the Torah only says to sound a loud sound.
They argue over how long each shofar blast should be and in what order. But all of them agree: The sound of the shofar is, surprisingly, like the sound of a woman crying. The question is only whether the sound should be like moaning and therefore what we now know of as the 3 wavering blasts of shevarim, or like broken staccato sobs and therefore what we now know of as the 9 short blasts of teruah. In the end, they decide to be safe, and include both sounds, plus the regular singular tekiah, in our shofar service for Rosh Hashanah. That is why we have the combination that we hear today.
How do they learn the sound of the shofar from a woman crying? Here is the radical part: They quote an obscure section from the prophets: It’s the verse describing the mother of the enemy general, Sicero, when she realizes that he is not coming home from battle. The mother of Sicero cries at the window, and the Hebrew word for crying is related to the word used elsewhere to describe the shofar blasts.
You remember Sicero, right? The enemy general that Yael killed, thereby handing Devorah the prophetess her victory against the Canaanites?
So here, the shofar is the sound of the mother of our enemy crying over her dead son. Why imbue the shofar with the sound of mourning, the mourning of our enemies?
There is a second mourning mother in our Rosh Hashanah canon. She is Sarah, the mother of the Jewish people. But who is Sarah mourning? Her child is alive!
On second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the Akeidah, the Torah story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. Of course, Sarah doesn’t appear. She shows up in the first day reading, miraculously giving birth to Isaac at age 90, but here nothing.
The rabbinic midrash, retellings of Torah stories, reads her into the story of the Akeidah. In the Torah, the Akeidah story is followed immediately by the death of Sarah. On the surface they are unconnected, merely chronological. But the rabbis say that the Akeidah is what really killed Sarah. The midrash tells that Sammael, a version of Satan, is mad that Abraham passed God’s test with the Akeidah. So he goes to Sarah and says:
Have you not heard what has happened in the world ? She said to him: No. He said to her: Your husband, Abraham, has taken you son Isaac and slain him and offered him up as a burnt offering upon the altar.’- Immediately she began to weep and she wailed and cried three cries (“bechiyot”), corresponding to the three Tekiot (of the Shofar),” and three howlings “yelalot”) corresponding to the three disconnected short notes (“yevavot”) (of the Shofar), and her soul fled her, and she died.
–Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, 32
The shofar for this midrash is the sound of our mother Sarah, shocked, screaming out, wailing for her son, whom she thinks has been sacrificed by his own father. She cries aloud six times, barely able to get through her response before life flees her body.
The third mourning mother, from the first day’s Torah reading is Hagar. Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac and something makes her feel he is not good for Isaac. Sarah demands that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away, and God agrees. Hagar is sent out into the wilderness with Ishmael and a bottle of water. She puts Ishmael under a bush to protect him from the sun, and sits off a ways so she doesn’t have to watch him die. She lifts her voice and she weeps, “v’tisah et kolah va’teivch”, thinking that Ishmael has surely died. And God answers her. “Fear not,” God says to Hagar. “I have heard the boy where he is. Come, pick up the boy and hold him in your arms, for I will make a great nation of him.”
Cry out for the past, the shofar tells us. Cry out like a mother who has lost her child. Cry out to God for the terrible things that have befallen you, that have befallen all of us, this year. And also have compassion upon those who’ve lost something this year, even if they seem to be your adversary. Feel how precious life is. Don’t waste it. In the coming year, remember this. And live every moment fully. Cry out for the past, the shofar tells us.
* * *
The Barren Mother
The most obvious of our crying women is the centerpiece of the first day Torah service. You cannot miss her. We spend 38 verses telling her story. Our attention goes right to the haftarah, right to Hannah. Hannah’s barrenness is her defining characteristic, that and her crying out in prayer and desperation. She gives birth to a prophet, Samuel, but our reading on this holy day isn’t about Samuel at all. It’s about his mother. It’s about Hannah.
Hannah sits in the great Temple at Shiloh, bitter with grief, and “titpallel al-Adonai u’bacho tivkeh” – she prays to God and cries a deep cry. She bargains, she makes promises: “Eternal God, if You take notice of your servant’s affliction, if You keep me in mind and do not forget me, giving me a son, I will dedicate him to You for life.”
The shofar’s cry is also the cry of the barren woman. It is the cry for what could be, it is the cry of how the future doesn’t seem heading where we want it to be, the cry to please, please, I beg you, change where this all is heading.
Hannah’s shofar tells us: Cry out for the future. For your hopes and your dreams. They may yet be possible. What seems like your sentence may yet change. Do not give up hope. But cry out for the future.
* * *
The Birthing Mother
Finally, we come to the birthing mother.
The shofar is a difficult instrument to blow. It’s not as though the ancient Israelites didn’t know of other instruments. In the Temple, there were silver trumpets, and silver and gold mouthed straight horns. Not to mention flutes, harps, and plenty of other instruments that more readily give their sound!
But with the shofar, we are never sure it will work. It often takes an initial breath. Even the most seasoned shofar blower occasionally finds him or herself with no air. Sometimes it simply does not catch. Or maybe it does, but it wasn’t what you expected.
We cannot be sure that this all will work. We cannot be sure of what the new year holds in store for us, or for our families, friends, community.
Just as a new mother labors and births a baby and yet doesn’t know who this tiny child will become.
HaYom Harat Olam
On this day the world was created. We call this the birth day of the world
But tradition tells us that actually, that world was born on 25 Elul, and 1 Tishrei is day 6 of creation: The day of creation of people. These are the first human “births”, of God birthing us from dust and from flesh.
There are others that help in a birth. Supporters. Caretakers. Midwives. We know of midwives in the Torah, very important midwives, the midwives of Exodus, Shifrah and Puah, who save the Jewish people by defying Pharoah and saving Jewish babies. Shifrah. The root is from sh-f-r to make beautiful because, the commentaries explain (Rashi), she would take the newborns and clean and swaddle them and make them beautiful. But another commentary (Baal HaTurim) explains that her name is related to the hollow reed “shifoferet” – a blowing instrument like a shofar, used by midwives to resuscitate a newborn who needed help breathing. Shifra is deeply connected to shofar.
So what is the shofar? The shofar is the midwife of the year. The shofar blown helps the new year come into being. Helps God and us to birth this year together. Or: The shofar is the cry of the mother in labor, working hard to bring new life into the world.
Cry out for the present and the world that is coming into being right this very moment.
An excerpt from the poem “A Prayer for Blowing Shofar” by Janet Zimmern.
At this awesome season
with all possibility we pray today:
By our choices and deeds,
with Divine Intervention,
Supernal Midwife of Israel
and of All Creation,
to birth as yet unknown wonders,
miracles of Life.
May the birthcries of my shofar blasts
be pleasing to You,
as the words and deeds of Shifra
with fear of You, she
lovingly births Your People:
to do Your Will.
Breathe life into us anew!
While others take us for dead.
Lest we face despair of lost hope,
may abandon ourselves.
God, cleanse us of our sins
like the midwife
who cleanses the newborn infant.
Wrap us in the beautiful garments
of the Soul.
Bathe us in Your Light
so our Divine nature may shine
Deliver us from the narrows
of, God Forbid, an evil decree,
into the breadth of sound.
Signal in us an expansion.
may we birth this coming year!
send me no angel, no seraph, not even
Hayot HaKodesh (Holy midwives!)
Be Thou my Midwife!
Be Thou my angel!
Be Thou My Self!
Birth me yet again anew,
renewed for this coming year.
The shofar is the central element of Rosh Hashanah. It is called “Yom Teruah,” the day of sounding the shofar. We blow the shofar 100 times over Yom Teruah. It cannot be missed.
What does the shofar mean? What can it teach us about how to pray on this Rosh Hashanah?
Very few of us have been to the coronation of a king, which was also true thousands of years ago. But most of us have experienced or witnessed the crying out of laboring to birth a child, of desperately hoping to conceive, of, God forbid, losing a child.
This is what the shofar teaches us: On Rosh Hashanah, Yom Teruah, Pray like a mother who has lost her child. Which you may in fact be. Pray like a barren woman aching to become a mother. Which you may in fact be. Pray like a mother in labor, working hard to birth a new person into this world. Which in fact, we all are. On this day, on Rosh Hashanah, we are all struggling to birth ourselves anew, to birth the world anew. There is a new you arriving at this very moment.
Cry out for the past. Cry out for the future. Cry out for the present.
And may we be inscribed for health, happiness, and good life in the year ahead.