Tomorrow we will gather to experience one of the most important spiritual moments of this day that we call Rosh HaShanah, the New Year. That experience is the sounding of the Shofar. Although it may not seem to us to be the ultimate purpose of our sacred gathering, the sounding of the ram’s horn (or antelope, or kudu) is actually the oldest ritual associated with this day.
The Torah calls today shabbaton zikhron Teru’ah, mikra kodesh, which we translate as:
- a Shabbat-day, meaning a day of rest no matter what day of the week it is
- a day to remember the sound of teru’ah, one of the three Shofar sounds we will hear tomorrow
- a day for a holy gathering
|וַיְדַבֵּר ה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר||HaShem spoke unto Moses, saying:|
|דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שַׁבָּתוֹן–זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ.||Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, the first day of the month shall be a holy day of rest for you, a remembrance of the teru’ah, a day for a sacred gathering.|
Interestingly, today is not the first day of the Jewish calendar year. When we call it Rosh HaShanah, the Head of the Year, we are asserting the significance of this day. But we get the emphasis wrong: we don’t sound the Shofar because it’s the beginning of our spiritual year: it is the beginning of the year because we s0und the Shofar on this day.
Our tradition declares this the day on which the world itself is born, and born again, and born anew. That’s not because we can calculate the physics back to the big bang, but rather, it’s an aspirational statement. An ancient Talmudic story promises us that this day can be the beginning of the world for each of us, and for all of us – if we learn to listen to what we must be able to hear in order to bring about such a blessed renewal – and, apparently, also manage to remember what we have heard. Zikron teru’ah, the remembrance of the sound of the Shofar.
But what are we to remember? Our Tanakh attests to the importance of the Shofar at peak moments such as this in our history. Its different sounds all demand attention. The Shofar is a sound of alarm; it declares a moment of great intensity. The sound of the Shofar accompanied the great moment when we became aware of the presence of G*d at Sinai – and according to one old story about that day, the Shofar served, literally, as a wake-up call, since our ancestors had fallen asleep in the meantime.
The great Jewish scholar Maimonides, or, as we call him, Rambam, teaches that meaning of the shofar is this: WAKE UP. Or, as it is said on the streets of the United States in these days, it’s time to “get woke.”
This term, which is associated with the Movement for Black Lives, is defined as “a cultural push to challenge problematic norms, systemic injustices, and the overall status quo through complete awareness….the phrase itself is an encouragement for people to wake up, and question dogmatic social norms.”
Rambam would have agreed. He writes that the shofar calls to each of us saying: “Awake, you sleepers from your sleep! Consider your deeds…do not be like those who miss the truth in pursuit of shadows, and waste their years seeking after that which is empty.” (MT Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4)
The Shofar calls to us to be sensitive to what is true and what is not. It calls us to wake up to see how we can be socially manipulated, and how our acts, thus influenced, participate in oppression of ourselves and others. The Shofar calls us to wake up to our own potential to act to heal the world.
In short, the Shofar is calling upon us to get woke, to act woke, and to stay woke.
- Shevarim: Get Woke
It is written: * The Presence of G*d was manifest upon Mt Sinai, and the voice of the shofar was heard, sounding louder and louder through the thunder and smoke. *
Consider the voice of the shofar, this strange and harsh sound. By Jewish law we are not allowed to mellow the sound by affixing a mouthpiece to the simple animal horn; there is to be no artificial barrier between breath and lips and horn and sound.
It’s not easy to make a clear, clean sound come from this simple instrument. It would be so much easier with a mouthpiece, like that from a bugle. But when this horn sounds, it is a sound like no other – it is a sound like the sound of the truth, when you hear it.
Sometimes the truth we need to hear is terrible to hear. Ancient midrash describes the shevarim notes of the Shofar, three “broken” notes, as yelalah: a Hebrew word describing the sound of unanswered anguish. This is a cry that echoes in a silent, cold, uncaring void. It is a wail of hopelessness.
The midrash offers a painful interpretation of what our people remembers when we hear the shevarim call of the Shofar. This interpretive midrash relates to the Torah reading, the one we find so terribly difficult to understand: the Akedah, the near-sacrifice of Isaac. The Torah relates that Abraham hears G*d commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac, and at the last moment, his hand is stayed by a messenger of G*d, an angel. A ram is sacrificed instead. The story is terrible enough, but of course there’s more – we need to know where was Sarah? As it is, the next story the Torah relates is that of her death. The midrash fills in, using the figure of the satan, the personification of the evil among us:
When Abraham came from Mt Moriah, the satan was furious that he had failed to realize the sacrifice of Isaac. What did he do? he went off and found Sarah. “Ah, Sarah, have you not heard what’s been happening in the world?” She replied, “no.” He said, “your old husband has taken the boy and sacrificed him as a burnt offering, while the boy cried and wailed in his helplessness.” Immediately, she began to cry and wail. She …wailed three times, corresponding to the broken notes of the Shofar. Then she died, and Abraham came home and found her dead.
In this midrash, the satan creates fake news, causing Sarah to imagine this horrible scene, and as a direct result, she dies, in agony. Sarah imagines Isaac’s death cries, cries of helplessness in the face of overwhelming forces. The shevarim is the sound of the living creature that cannot be saved from death. Sarah, also held by an anguish that she cannot survive, echoes his cries.
According to the midrash, it is these cries that we re-enact in the ritual of the Shofar. The text concludes that “the Shofar blasts on the New Year transform Sarah’s death into atonement, because the broken Shofar tone is a sound of groaning and wailing.”
This atonement comes through hearing, and through remembering. The Shofar calls in the voice of the murdered. The shevarim reminds us that we have heard the hopeless wail of the tragically bereaved – it challenges us to remember that we have heard it, in the world, and in our own community.
The Torah’s version of the Akedah seems to offer some veneer of comfort over the horror of the story, since Isaac was saved and a ram was sacrificed in his place. But Sarah was not saved, and in her mind Isaac is not saved, and thus the cry of her despair, and his, is retained in this ritual, as “atonement” for her descendants.
The requirement of atonement is that we get woke to the terrible truth: children are dying. The hand that holds the knife is not being stayed. There is no comfort for this pain, and there can be no atonement that allows us to turn away from it.
- Teru’ah: Act Woke
The second sound of the Shofar is the teru’ah. According to Jewish tradition,
* It was because of the sounding of the Shofar that the wall of Jerikho fell, as it is written, “when the people heard the kol shofar, they shouted a teru’ah gedolah, a “great teru’ah,” and the wall fell down flat.” *
In this account of the fall of Jerikho, the Shofar is sounded, but it is the people who make the sound called teru’ah, the staccato blast that is the second sound of the Shofar. Just as Sarah gave voice to the shevarim, so do her descendants call out the teru’ah. The voice of a mother who died helplessly in a cry of pain is answered here by children who remember that pain, and who call out their response, their connection.
Our makhzor includes this line from Psalms about the teru’ah: “happy is the people who know the joyful sound.” In our so far rather horrifying investigation of the meaning of Shofar sounds, we might well be justified in asking WHAT joyful sound? So far the voice of the Shofar seems to evoke nothing but death and destruction.
But the teru’ah is a call quite different from the brokenness of the shevarim. The shevarim is a cry of anguish, and the teru’ah, in our tradition, is the sound of a cry of two states of being, both a shriek that knows loss, and a cry that seeks connection despite loss, through the experience of loss. Rather than a cry of helpless hopelessness, it is a cry of pain and outrage. Outrage is, after all, the first step toward changing one’s situation – or the world’s.
To cry out in teru’ah is to hear a call of helplessness and to respond; it is to act woke. Acting “woke” is to behave in a way that, according to one source, “is radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures.” But not so as to sit back in cynical detachment – no, for Jews, acting woke must mean to act.
This does not necessarily mean that all will rise up to act together as one. As the teru’ah is made of nine separate notes, so we, as we raise our voices, do not all sound the same. That is why there is such a diversity of organizations that have formed to lift up the voices and concerns of different groups in our society. As the Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc puts it, there are (at least) four ways of acting woke, just as there are four children of the Haggadah. There are: (1) the one who is overwhelmed, (2) the one who laments, (3) the one who negotiates, and (4) the one who resists. All four face the same reality: “Right now in America, we’re living in dangerous and unacceptable times. It’s precisely in times like these when we discover who we are as a people, as a society, as a nation. We don’t get to choose the historical moment we live in, but we do get to choose how we respond.”
To learn from the Jerikho example, to act woke is to do what is necessary to tear down walls. There are stubborn personal walls of believing too much of what we read and hear in our media, in our government institutions, and in our own circles that we call progressive, and just. There are strong political walls built of our assumptions regarding the responsibilities of citizens for the acts of government. And there are massive social walls built out of our habits of work and play, of consuming and discarding, of comfort and convenience.
To act woke as an act of teru’ah is to find a way to hear and to remember the terrible shevarim that shatters our comfort, and also to be able to hear “the joyful sound.” It is at one and the same time to seek a compassionate balance between our understandable desire to live happy lives, and the understanding that some are denied that basic human desire. That is the teru’ah, the sound that responds to shevarim with recognition and affirmation, and yet insists on the hope that we can find a way to fulfill the mitzvah v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha, according others the respect and freedom of choice we seek for ourselves. In so doing we are woke if, in the Rambam’s words, we do the work to look beyond the shadows, toward the truth.
- Tekiah: Stay Woke
Now, you may be one of those who is annoyed by the halakha which directs that the Shofar is not sounded on Shabbat. After all, you might say, if the Shofar’s sound is so integral to the meaning of the holy day, it should be sounded no matter what day of the week it is.
It is the poignant truth that it was only after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple that the sounding of the Shofar was restricted. According to a 14th century source, there was one place where the Shofar was still sounded on Shabbat until the 11th century, and that was in the community of the great Rabbi Isaac Alfasi. The 19th century Rabbi of Kotzk explained this based on a Talmudic teaching:
From the day of the destruction of the Temple, the Holy Blessed One has nothing in this world but the four cubits of halakha. The four cubits of halakhah take the place of the Temple, in which the Shofar was sounded on Shabbat; and in the days of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, the entirety of the four cubits of Jewish meaning in the world were concentrated in his community.
The voice of the Shofar hasn’t been heard on Shabbat since. For us to assert that we ought to blow off a millennium of tradition and sound the Shofar on Shabbat, then, we would have to have the hutzpah to say that the four cubits of meaning in our day are concentrated in our community. Better, maybe, for our hopes for atonement, to maintain the humility of a tradition that reminds us that the world is not yet redeemed, and that we are not yet all woke.
It’s not all humility, brokenness, and sin on this day, though. On this day of Rosh HaShanah we hear one more sound, and that is the Teki’ah. Teki’ah is a term used for celebration, as in another Psalm quoted in our makhzor: tik’u bakhodesh shofar, bakeseh, l’yom hageynu, “sound the Teki’ah at the new moon, in its hiddenness, for the day of celebration”
It is interesting to note that this verse is not talking about something we can see and celebrate, such as a full moon, but rather the celebration of something which is hidden – a moon mostly lost in darkness because it is yet new. We can’t see it yet, but it is there. Jewish mysticism teaches that “there is an outcry within the heart that the lips cannot speak….this is the meaning of the verse ‘sound the shofar on the new moon, in the hiddenness of our celebration’.” The Teki’ah calls us to celebrate something new, something hidden that cannot yet be fully seen – the answer we do not yet have, the happiness we have not yet seen, the justice we have not yet known.
There is a source cited in search of the earliest antecedent for the term woke. In 1940 the Atlantic Monthly ran an interview about a mineworkers strike in which an African American United Mine Workers official said to a reporter, “Let me tell you buddy. Waking up is a damn sight harder than going to sleep, but we’ll stay woke up longer.”
At this time of renewal for the world and ourselves, it might well be said that for Jews to stay woke is to be newly open to the horror, as well as the beauty, of this world – to hear the terrible grief in the shevarim, and the teru’ah of responsive hope, and the teki’ah of celebrating that which can yet be. On Rosh HaShanah the Shofar urges us to see that the way to atonement is not through forgetting, nor turning away from pain and discomfort. There’s a reason why most Jewish legends are in the form of quests, and difficult ones at that: justice and wholeness do not come easily to us. Yet these quests all have miraculous moments, when it seems as if all the forces of good support our efforts, if only we make them.
There’s a final Shofar sound that we will hear during these days of Awe only twice, once on Rosh HaShanah and once to end Yom Kippur: the Teki’ah Gedolah, the great Teki’ah. * It is said that, at the End of Days, this sound will announce the end of homelessness in the world: “a Teki’ah gedolah shall be sounded, and they shall come that were lost in Assyria, and those who were dispersed in Egypt, and they shall all come home to Jerusalem, and give thanks.”
On this Rosh HaShanah let the Shofar call you to remember the joyful sound of being able to respect the reality of both sadness and hope, and to respect their rightful places in your life’s beliefs and practices. Let the Shofar’s call awaken you to rededication to the vision of a world in which everyone is home, everyone is safe, and everyone is free to seek the birth and flowering of the holy potential of each of our lives.
It will take a lot of wakefulness to get there from here. There are a lot of walls to bring down, and many tears yet to dry.
The Shofar calls to us: wake up. Get woke, act woke, stay woke.
Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu, may you be written for a good year.
 Leviticus 23.23-24
 BT Rosh HaShanah 27a, among others
 BT Sanhedrin 98a
 Exodus 19.19
 Pirke d’Rabi Eliezer 41
 Exodus 19.19
 Pirke d’Rabi Eliezer 32, cited in Aviva Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire, 124
 Zornberg, ibid.
 Midrash Aggadah Bereshit 23.17
 Joshua 6.20
 Psalm 89.16
 Yalkut Tehillim 89.16
 David Brooks, How Cool Works in America Today”, New York Times, July 25, 2017 //www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/opinion/how-cool-works-in-america-today.html?ref=opinion&_r=0
 S.Y. Agnon Days of Awe (NY 1948) 80-81.
 Psalm 81.4
 Sefat Emet: The Language of Truth, ed. Arthur Green, 345
 Redding, J. Saunders (March 1943). “A Negro Speaks for His People”. The Atlantic Monthly. 171, p. 59
 Isaiah 27.13
This week’s parashah is called Hayye Sarah, “Life of Sarah”. The name is derived from the first verse of the parashah:
וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה. “Sarah’s life was 127 years; these were the years of Sarah’s life.” (Gen. 23.1)
This, however, is the beginning of what we would call Sarah’s epitath. In the next verse we are told of her death. In the parashat hashavua called by her name, Sarah does not appear as a living, acting person. She is, however, a powerful memory which shapes the ensuing acts of her husband and son. Sarah is mourned in this parashah, and in this third year of the Triennial Cycle, Abraham’s most trusted servant has gone back to the home country to find the proper wife for their son, Isaac. It sounds like a typical male-centered text, and the story of finding Rebekah is told with, sure enough, permission being granted by the head of the family in order for her to go and marry Isaac.
Modern Jews often struggle with the gifts of our people’s long memory. Among our inheritances is the gendered Torah text, which skews quite clearly male, both in identifying the Divine and in describing the cultural, social and religious practices of the humanity linked with that vision.
I am not saying “cultural, social and religious awareness”, only “practices”. Please note that we have no idea of the extent to which the Torah clearly describes the actual reality of our most ancient ancestors. The Torah transmits the formative narrative of our people, but it does so through the eyes and ears of those who passed the stories on faithfully from generation to generation. The Torah itself hints at this, by using terminology that expresses awareness that the story happened in earlier times, or is in some other way not fully told.
As a female Rabbi I am sometimes asked whether the Torah isn’t just an outdated misogynistic artifact that we must overcome in order for women and men – and all the genders in between the poles – to be treated as equally valuable, equally necessary, equally filled with the Divine. The answer I often offer comes from my teacher, Dr. Byron Sherwin, who once pointed out to me, many years ago, that rather than be angry at what I knew from the text, it might be advisable to learn more about the text.
That may have been a gentle way to point out to me that I didn’t completely know what I was judging, and he was right. He was also right to challenge me with the following: “Feminists don’t have to find arguments outside the sacred texts in order to rebut them; the texts themselves are diverse enough that you can find whatever you need within them.”
One of our greatest challenges is becoming aware of the assumptions, and baggage, that we bring to Torah. Is there some part of us that wants to stay angry at this central sacred symbol? Do we prefer to stay away from it and the associations we carry? In other words, do you come to Torah only to pick a fight and then walk away satisfied that there is nothing relevant here?
Here’s a case in point. When you look carefully at the story of Rebekah’s engagement to Isaac, you will see that the head of the household which gives permission for her to go is actually female. You can see it in the Hebrew grammar of the text. It seems as if perhaps someone telling the story later, or perhaps the scribe who first wrote it down, must have assumed that the story was meant in a patriarchal context, and so some words were changed. But they weren’t changed thoroughly enough, and you can see the fingerprints of the change all over the story. And then there’s the fact that Rebekah is asked if she agrees to go. She is not sold, or sent away against her will.
And when Rebekah arrives, it is a signal event for the family:
וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק, אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ. “And Isaac was comforted after his mother[’s death].” (Gen. 24.67)
Whatever role Sarah played in this more patriarchal culture than the one she and Abraham came from, she is clearly so central a presence that nothing will be right until there is once again a woman in her place. Attack it as you might, this is not a misogynistic story.
There’s much more just like this in the investigation of this endless book. You’re invited to dive in any time. What you find may dismay and infuriate you at times, but you will also find uplifting courage and kindness – and best of all, you will be challenged to grow.
May Torah always beckon you toward, and support you in becoming, your highest spiritual self.
How are Jews meant to be in the world? The answer suggested by Jewish ethics is that with every step and with every word, we are to seek the presence of G-d. That does not mean that we are to treat the world as a game of hide-and-seek, but rather that we are to consider the impact of every word and act. Will this thing that I am about to say, that I am burning to say, bring the Presence more fully into being? Will this act that I plan to undertake bring more wholeness into my life and that of my family, my friends, my companions in community?
This week we are given a clear message about the intersection of ethical behavior and the Presence of G-d, as our ancestors struggled to understand it.
We have arrived, this week, at the parashat hashavua called VaYera, “[G-d] appeared”. In this first verse and throughout this long parashah, G-d appears several times to different people, in different guises.
First, to Abraham in the guise of three travelers (or maybe only one of them, the text is obscure).
18.1: “God appeared to him by the scrub oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day”
Second, to Sarah in the guise of an accuser, “outing” her private laughter:
18.15 “Sarah denied it, saying ‘I didn’t laugh’, because she was afraid. But G-d said, ‘you did too laugh’.”
Third, to Abraham in the guise of a king taking counsel with a trusted advisor:
18.17: “Shall I hide from Abraham that which I am doing?”
Fourth, to Avimelekh, king of Gerar, who adds Sarah to his harem after Abraham says that she is his sister (long story):
20.3: “You are going to die, because you have taken a woman who is another man’s wife.”
Fifth, to Abraham, as a friend counsels a man having trouble at home:
21.12: “In all that Sarah tells you, do as she says.”
Sixth, to Hagar as a savior:
21.19: “G-d opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.”
Seventh, and finally, as – well, we don’t really know for sure:
22.1: “After all these things, G-d tested Abraham.”
These appearances all have in common an invitation to consider the meaning and ethical impact of one’s acts. The first is the classic story of Jewish hospitality. The second and fourth have to do with honesty, and the third with refraining from hypocrisy. The fifth touches on a Jewish category called shalom bayit, “keeping peace at home”. In the sixth, Hagar is challenged not to give up as long as life remains.
The seventh appearance of G-d in this parashah introduces the story of the Akedah, the “binding” and near sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s son and heir. For millennia, Jewish commentators, teachers and scholars have all tried to explain this incident and make it comprehensible. How could G-d command Abraham to “go to the land of Moriah, and take your son, your only one, whom you love, and offer him up as a burnt offering to Me on one of the mountains that I will show you there.” (Gen. 22.2) As has been said by many long before now, this makes no sense. It is also horrifying, of course.
One of the more compelling answers to this question is the one which notes that G-d “tested” Abraham. Pointing out that G-d did not allow the sacrifice to be completed, it has been suggested that the answer is quite simple: Abraham failed the test. The test was knowing when the voice that you are sure is G-d’s is not.
If the idea of “hearing G-d’s voice” is really just another way to say “I feel absolutely certain”, then the true test is knowing when that truth of which you are already certain is no longer true.
Each of the appearances in this parashah ask the protagonist to make a difficult ethical choice. Contrary to what we might assume, the appearance is not a reward for doing the right thing, the appearance is in the quandary itself.
G-d is present in our difficulties as the strength and vision that allows us to find our way through them. The Divine Presence is not, according to this particular Torah insight, the property of the one who makes the right choice. It is with all of us who realize that before us lies a struggle to discern the ethical path. It is in the seeing, not in someone’s temporary and partial definition of success. It is clearly NOT the property of one who says s/he speaks in the name of G-d, or the secular god of ethics, and then speaks a hurtful, cold, word, or does a cruel act. It is no accident that G-d never again appears to Abraham after this incident.
May the sense of a divine supportive Presence be with you as you do your best to discern the ethical and moral choices of your life, and choose your acts in response.