Call of the Shofar, 5768
Call of the Shofar, 5768
While the words of the liturgy serve to remind us of themes that are part of our consciousness, the sound of the shofar opens different layers of meaning. When we say the words, “We have sinned,” we remember those acts which prompt our regret, we remember the people we have hurt, the paths we should have taken, the anger we carry with us that causes us to act in ways which border on violence, the fears that don’t allow us to be who we know we need to be.
But the cry of the shofar enters the non-verbal reaches of our souls and demands a reawakening. It calls us to reencounter what we long ago repressed, long ago forgot about. It has the power to turn our attention to those parts of ourselves that have been silenced. While we live our lives routinely – our routines after all are the way we can order the business that needs to get done in a day – the shofar breaks through our every day patterns and calls us to think anew about who we are and where we are going. It can bring to the foreground questions about ourselves that we have avoided, that we have silenced, for too long.
Certainly the sense of self with which we emerge from the High Holidays ought to be transformed by the experience of the liturgy and the ritual of the day, but even more, the words we speak and the sounds we hear ought to move us to listen for more than our own voice, listen beyond even our deepest inner voice. After all, we pray amidst community.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Book of Psalms is the expression of the personal, “I.” Psalms contain very particular individual fears, moments of joy, times of yearning and of regret.
Yet as Jewish liturgy developed, although it borrowed a great deal from the Book of Psalms, in one respect it did not take Psalms as its model for prayer. There is very little of the personal “I” in Jewish prayer. Rather there is great emphasis on a collective “we.” This is especially prominent in the confessional which we recite on Yom Kippur. Certainly at that moment, when we achieve the greatest intensity of personal prayer, of regret, of teshuvah, we would expect the full expression of a first person liturgy, yet each phrase of the confession is formed by the collective “we.” “We have sinned,” “We have betrayed.” And though we might find resonance in some of the items enumerated and remember our own misdeeds, other sins have not the remotest connection to our own wrongful acts yet we take responsibility for all the varied transgressions committed in the society in which we live.
It is as if the liturgy itself was teaching us something: Responsibility is not merely personal but societal. We might wish to live within our own four walls, go to work, raise a family, try to be ethical in our personal dealings, but we cannot shut our ears and eyes to what is happening roundabout us, what values are reflected and embodied in the society in which we live.
Most of us live in protected environments. On a daily basis we need not confront the wrongs committed in our name. We are distracted by our own needs and the demands and responsibilities of our lives and the few precious people within our circle of care and we don’t want also to take on the burden of that which is distant. So we become complicit in silence. Not because we are evil, rather because we are human. On Yom Kippur we consecrate time – to listen, to see, to become truly responsible.
One of the central moments of the High Holiday liturgy is the recitation of the martyrology, and traditionally central to that liturgy is the narrative of the Ten Martyrs, the ten rabbis who were tortured and died when the Romans mercilessly suppressed the Bar Kochba revolution in 165 CE. The Roman historian Dio Cassius wrote of the Jewish rebellion in the land of Israel:
“Nine hundred and eight-five of their most famous villages were razed to the ground. Five hundred and eighty thousand men were slain in the various raids and battles, and the number of those that perished from famine, disease and fire was past finding out. Thus, nearly the whole of Judea was made desolate.”
As punishment for their participation in the revolt, many of the rabbinic leadership were martyred. The Talmud tells a remarkable legendary tale in connection with this martyrdom:
When Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Simeon were already on their way to be martyred, Rabbi Simeon said to his colleague, ”Master, I lose heart, for I do not know what is it is I am giving up my life for.” Rabbi Ishmael replied to Rabbi Simeon, ”In your entire life, did not someone come to you for judgment and did you not put him off until you could finish your drink? Or tie your shoes? Or until you put on your clothes? And did not the Torah say, ‘You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry to me, and my anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans’? (Exodus 22:22-23) What difference is there between a major or minor mistreatment?” And to this, the latter replied, “I am consoled my teacher.” (Mechiltah of Rabbi Ishmael, ch. 18, ed. Horowitz-Rabin, p. 313)
The theological move of the Talmud here is extraordinary, seizing a moment of extremis to identify and uplift a moral claim so subtle it would be easy to overlook. The rabbis take responsibility for the briefest lapse in their judicial care – perhaps the judge was more concerned about his own comfort or about how he looked than about the needs of the defendants who have come to court to make their case. Is my tea getting cold? Am I wearing the right clothes? What impression do I make? The needs of the people whose time in court is precious were not at the forefront of the consideration of the judge.
We should notice as well that this scene which is connected to our Yom Kippur liturgy is of courts and judgments. Are defendants getting the hearing they deserve? Are we paying attention to those in need of a judicial system that is responsive to their plea, to their case? Note that the story is not about misjudgment, though we can presume that a judge who is so self-absorbed might well not pay attention to the subtlety of the arguments of the defendants and in fact render a bad judgment, but the story is about justice withheld, about a judicial process that is not focused on the needs of those who come to court without other resort to power.
Two thousand years later the Talmudic text speaks to us in myriad ways that are startlingly powerful and alive. We find all too many contemporary applications of how the “widow and orphan” are brutalized by our justice system – “widow and orphan” meant both literally but also figuratively as being the weakest, the most objectly powerless members of society. Who then are some of the “widows and orphans” caught in our legal machinery?
We live at a moment when people are being held without redress to the courts. Congress has enacted a law which would allow the President to declare any foreign national an ‘enemy combatant’ and be detained without the right of habeas corpus. This new law exempts CIA officials from being prosecuted for violation of the Geneva conventions and our own laws of what constitutes decent human treatment of detainees. It is startling to learn, as has been the case, that the families of terrorists have been held hostage, that we have detained even the wives and children of our enemies. We hand over prisoners to governments who are known to torture these people. We are participants in a society that is turning its back on fundamental principles of justice.
These prisoners are held offshore at Guantanamo or in secret prisons or handed over to friendly foreign governments in an attempt to insure that their voices will not be heard, that what is being done in our name will be done without our really knowing of it, for if we heard their cry, if we truly understood what is being done to them, then we would protest. What allows the situation to continue is the silence. Secret prisons insure that we do not even know their names of those who are being detained, where they are held, what is being done to them. The courts are to be closed off to their appeals.
But one of the echoes we are to hear in the call of the shofar is the cry of those who would be silenced. We are reminded on these days that we have a responsibility beyond ourselves. For in enlarging our sense of self by saying ‘we,’ by including within our cry the cry of those whose crying is hardly heard, our raised voices become voices of redemption. In the traditional haftorah read on the second day of Rosh Hashonnah, the prophet says, “A voice cries out in the wilderness, prepare a way for God…” A voice cries out, a voice sounded in the wilderness; do we hear it, where we live, in the land of plenty?
The liturgy calls us to hear the cry of a societal ‘we’ and the shofar calls us to sound a voice for that which would be silenced.