ON ROSH HASHANAH

Here’s a sermon I put together back in the day for Rosh HaShanah:

Yehuda Amichai, contemplating the same issues of suffering, sound, and sympathetic human experience that bring urgency to the shofar, once wrote:

“The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making
a circle with no end and no God.”

During Musaf of Rosh HaShanah, we stop and shift gears for a portion of the service which expounds three themes: Malchuyot (God rules), Zichronot (God remembers), and Shofarot (God redeems). Each theme, after the recitation of related texts, is accentuated by nine blasts of the shofar. This morning, I want to share a few thoughts, from a Reconstructionist perspective, about how these three themes inform and grow from our conception of God and our work in repairing the world.

In Malchuyot, we affirm the sovereignty of God. We declare that God rules, and therefore, that God’s law rules. If we follow Mordechai Kaplan’s formulation of God as “The power that makes for…” then here we celebrate God as the Power-That-Makes-For-Justice. Indeed, human societies across the globe, despite obvious disincentives, have developed and nurtured a concept of moral justice, a sense of obligation and imperative to take action irrespective of, or directly opposed to personal or communal self-interest. I see God both as the source of that miracle and as that miracle itself. We often disagree about what constitutes justice. But that’s another issue.

In Zichronot, we invoke God’s remembrance. Here God is That-Which-Hears-the-Tree-That-Falls-In-the-Forest. More important is the implicit and explicit corollary: that God cares, and God acts, be it from above or from within, in the most physical sense or the most abstract. Hence, everything matters, and everything counts: Every act, every pain, every life. God’s memory gives God’s justice some muscle and some meaning.

In Shofarot, we celebrate God’s redemption. Specifically, we recognize God in sound. Here again Judaism enshrines the voice and the word – be they human, divine, or both – as the instruments of social change. Having declared that God is Just, and that God is Knowing, we affirm God as The-Power-That-Makes-For-Change. Let there be light.

Altogether, it’s a nice package. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which we are daily forced to call into question each of the above suppositions. Where is God’s justice? God’s memory? God’s redemption? Is God unjust? Does God forget? Is God silent? I have no good answer to these questions, and I doubt I ever will. But I’m learning to ask other questions as well. The more I see God not only as an entity, but also as a force, a verb, or a process, the more burden and the more questions fall on me and on us. So there are even more questions.

I believe, as many of us do, that there are actions which are objectively right, and actions which are objectively wrong. That doesn’t mean that we can always tell which are which. But let’s say we know – what are we doing about it? If Malchuyot makes God the Power-That-Makes-For-Justice, that means that God is the Power-That-Makes-Justice-Possible. But that power must be actualized. The extent to which justice is absent in the world is both the extent to which God has not brought justice and the extent to which humanity has left that potential dormant.

Ditto for God’s memory. Or make it even simpler. Rather than awareness of the past, we can stay for the moment just with awareness of the present. We live in an age where this is easier than ever – we can turn on the TV and find out on a minute-to-minute basis what’s going on on the other side of the globe. But like God, we are judged not by how much we know but by how much we do. If we know and don’t do, we’re probably better off claiming we didn’t know at all – the implications aren’t quite as bad. Torah, our collective Jewish memory, tells us that God remembered God’s covenant with the Israelites when they were enslaved in Egypt. There are a lot of people out there waiting to be remembered. There are a lot of covenants either never kept or never made.

The Shofarot service, in which the congregation or members of it call out names of shofar-blasts, and the Ba’al Tekiah responds with the desired sound, brings home a point that for me is central to Jewish theology: Religion is a dialogue. A cursory glance at the world we live in suggests that there must have been a breakdown somewhere in that process. But I’m not yet sure what that process is. Maybe it’s we that have been given the giant Shofar of redemption, and are even being hinted what to play – but we can’t hear the signals. We’ve forgotten which is a Tekiah and which is a Shevarim. We’re afraid to make a loud noise. We find comfort in mumbling. Or maybe God has the Shofar, and all we need to do is call out, at the top of our lungs, the words which generations have preserved: Tekiah. Shevarim. Teruah. Maybe the answer is both. But clearly something’s out of sync. We’re not on the right frequency. The resonations we should be hearing, in the crashing of waves and the falling of dew, we’re not picking up. We’ve missed our cue. Or we hear our cue, as loudly as ever, but we forget our next line.

To truly hear and to truly speak are one and the same. Either is incomplete without the other. If we hear the Shofar – a divine mating signal of sorts – and don’t act, we didn’t hear it. If we act, if we speak, without listening, then our words are empty. When we are described in Rosh HaShanah liturgy as a people “who hear the sound of the Shofar,” we are commanded to be a people who gets it in the most profound sense. When we remember the communal experience of the shofar at Sinai, it is through a Torah text that describes us not only as hearing, but as seeing the sound of the shofar. The processes of malchuyot, zichronot, and shofarot each require that we see, hear, feel, even taste that profoundly natural and unnatural sound. We are commanded to blow the shofar and to call out its blasts. Jewish tradition teaches that speech can be murder. What we’ve learned by now is that silence can be murder too.

Michael Walzer concludes his book Exodus and Revolution with three lessons of the Exodus: first, wherever you are, it is probably Egypt; second, there is a better, promised land somewhere out there; and finally, the only way to get there is by marching. It was Abraham Joshua Heschel who described his participation in the March on Washington as “davening with my feet.”

The Talmud debates whether a two-headed child is one or two people. The answer: pour boiling water onto one head, and see whether the other one screams. A Polish peasant who lived adjacent to a death camp was quoted as saying, “When I cut my finger, I feel it. When you cut your finger, you feel it.” That, in a nutshell, is the problem. Not only do we not scream – we don’t even register the pain.

That is, for me, the universally evocative, subversively revolutionary message of the shofar: We must listen, and we must speak. And whether listening or speaking, we must do so with all our heart, and with all our might. We must yell, and we must scream. We must make a beautifully, hauntingly broken sound. And we must do so with all the intensity of the group of Kabbalists who once planned to stand, one on the other’s shoulders, and reach up into the heavens and violently pull the Mashiach down from the sky and onto earth. Only thus, someday, can it be said that God rules, God remembers, and God redeems.

Adoshem, Source of Peace, who makes one all the broken pieces of our world, Adoshem who chose the children of man as partners in the work of creation and redemption – in this broken time, give all of us, all the children of man, all the inhabitants of the earth, the ability to seek, to pursue, to search for, and to make peace in every minute, in every moment, and in every breath, and in all of our actions in the image of G-d.

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