Hear the Shofar’s Call

Rosh Hashanah 5778

A young man traveled to the city for the first time. Suddenly, he heard the deafening cry of shofar blasts. “What’s that noise?” he shouted to a passerby. “When there is a fire,” she replied, “we blow the shofar to put it out.”

The man returned to his village, excited to share his amazing discovery. The village elders decided that from now on, whenever there was a fire, they would blow the shofar to put it out. A month later, when a fire erupted, the elders began blowing their shofarot. But the fire got worse. Before long, half the village was gone.

When the villager returned to the big city he asked the people “Why didn’t the fire in my village go out when we blew the shofar?”

“Do you really think that the bells and horns put out the blaze?” they replied. “They only alert the people that there is a fire. It is up to every one of us to extinguish it.”


In a perfect world, there would be no fire. We would not need the shofar’s blast or the communal response it inspires. In a perfect world, people don’t hate one another because of their religion, or their race, their sexual orientation or the color of their skin. But this is no perfect world.

In our world, the fires of hatred are spreading. According to the Anti-Defamation League, ‘there were over 900 incidents targeting Jews or Jewish institutions between November and March, alone,[1] from desecrated cemeteries[2] to bomb threats,[3] to incidents on college campuses,[4]  to rocks hurled through sanctuary windows.[5] Just a few weeks ago, Syosset schools were vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti. [6] Weeks before that, white supremacists walked through the streets of Charlottesville[7] screaming “Jews will not replace us” and the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil.” And that’s just some of the incidents against Jews.

So how do we respond to a world that holds so much hate?

When I have a question of this magnitude, I turn to Jewish tradition. I found some guidance in this morning’s Shofar service.

Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teruah, the Day of sounding the Shofar, whose piercing tones sound an alarm, express our fears, and compel us to respond timely with a resounding call for justice. Just as the villagers needed to put out their fire, so too do we need to extinguish the raging fires of contempt.

We hear four distinct shofar blasts, with their own lengths and tones. Just as there is a difference between a police car, a fire engine, and an ambulance siren, each call of the shofar elicits a different response.

  • We begin with Tekiah, the sound of certainty.

Every day for the past month, I’ve blown the shofar in preparation for the new year. For years I thought that it was important to practice the blasts so that on Rosh Hashanah they would be as clear as possible. I was amazed to learn that’s not the intention at all. Rather, we blow the shofar each day so that people can hear it.[8] It sounds so simple, but think about it for a minute. There is no mitzvah for blowing the shofar; the only mitzvah is lishmoa kol shofar– to hear the shofar’s voice.

Our first blast is long enough to get our attention and to refocus us. When I sounded the shofar at a temple meeting, attendees remarked that the shofar’s call changed the tenor of the meeting. Instead of being concerned about the individual items we came to discuss, the shofar’s blast reminded us why we were there in the first place. That is the power of the shofar.

Today, the tekiah blast calls us to see the hatred in our world, and to respond to it with a voice of moral clarity.

That is why over 100 reform rabbis are speaking this Rosh Hashanah about hatred and bigotry in all its forms. We declare in unison that “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 leaders of all stripes to rigorously uphold the values brilliantly articulated in the founding documents of our country…that all people are created equal.”

With our tekiah we declare that Anti-Semitism, racism, and bigotry are affronts to our nation and our religion. It is our sacred mission to speak out against them.

  • Shevarim, our second blast, expresses our deepest fears

There is a story about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidic Judaism. Every year he held a competition to see who would blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. In order to do so, you had to demonstrate that not only could you blow the shofar, but you had a deep knowledge of kavanot—secret prayers that were said just before blowing the shofar to ensure they had the proper effect in the supernal realms. People practiced these complex kavanot for month after month. One man so desperately wanted to be the shofar blower that he practiced them for years.

The day had come. It was time for auditions. But as this one man approached the Baal Shem Tov, his mind went blank. He could not remember one of the kavanot he had worked so diligently to perfect. He stood before the Baal Shem Tov in silence. When he realized how egregiously he had failed his test, his heart broke in two, and he began to weep, loudly sobbing and shaking.

“All right. You’re hired.” the Baal Shem Tov said.

The man stopped crying. He didn’t understand. He had failed the test!

Baal Shem explained, in a parable: In the palace of the King, there are many secret chambers and there are secret keys for each chamber, but one key unlocks them all. The key that opens every chamber and brings us directly to the presence of the King is the broken heart. As it says in Psalms “God is close to the brokenhearted.”[9]

Shevarim is the cry of the brokenhearted. Its three distinct wails represent the shattered reality of our world.

Something crumbled inside us when we watched the televised images of Charlottesville’s beautiful streets filled with hate-spewing marchers. The wound reopened with each bomb threat, each vandalism, each hate-filled tweet and internet meme, and each peaceful rally that turned violent.

We refuse to accept or become inured to some warped version of “normal,” of racist and anti-Semitic acts. We refuse to grow numb to the brokenness.

We know that in our brokenness lay the inspiration for creating a better world. In the depth of our darkness, we find light. In the depth of our anguish, we find hope.

The Torah teaches that when we were enslaved in Egypt, “the more [we] were oppressed, the more we increased and expanded.”[10] In the face of hatred, against all odds, we responded with renewed strength.[11] That is what it means to be a Jew. We do not give up, especially in the face of hatred. We do not cower in fear. Rather we audaciously dream and work for a better world.

We know what its like to sit at a table with people from all walks of life, from a place of love and respect. And we know the alternative. We must do everything we can to stop the fires of hatred from consuming the village. It cannot be done by words alone.

The Shevarim is not the ending. It the beginning of a call to hope. It stirs us to not only acknowledge—but also to respond to the needs of our troubled world.

  • Teruah: The sound of urgency

The 9 short, disjointed notes of the truah call serve an alarm clock arousing us from our spiritual slumber.[12]

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 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 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.

As hate crimes continue to expand[13], and perpetrators feel more emboldened to voice racial epithets, the shofar reminds us that the time to act is now.

On Purim we read the story of Esther, who hid her Jewish identity as she became queen in Achashveros’ palace. When they learn about Haman’s plot to kill the Jews, Mordecai urges Esther to out herself as a Jew, and speak out against Haman’s evil decree. Esther is frightened to speak out. It is safer to remain the quiet queen within the palace walls. She rationalized her inaction with the belief that hers isn’t the voice that needs to be heard. Until her uncle challenges her.

Mordecai says u’mi yodea im l’eit cazot higa’at lamalchut. “Perhaps you have attained this royal position precisely for this moment of crisis.” In these words, Mordecai implores her to consider that perhaps “her life has meaning precisely because it is lived against the backdrop of ominous political events.”[14] Perhaps she gained power precisely so that she could speak out at this moment.

As a Jewish community, we have been fortunate to succeed in America. We are business owners and doctors and lawyers, and professors and leaders in all walks of life. Perhaps God has brought us to this place so that we could speak out.

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Hillel teaches In ein ani li mi li? U’sheani la’atzmi mah ani? V’im lo achshav, eimatai? “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am not for others, what am I? If not now when?” [15]

We must stand up for ourselves. We must stand up for our brothers and sisters. And the time is now.

  • Tekiah Gedolah: The Eternal call of Justice

The final shofar blast is Tekiah Gedolah. It is a single, unbroken note held as long as possible, utilizing every ounce of breath within the shofar blower’s lungs.

After acknowledging the brokenness of our world, expressing our fears and understanding the urgency of our response, this is the call of action. But what does action look like?

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, we 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.

This means speaking out against bigotry, hatred, and oppression of all minorities, every time we have the chance. This means forging relationships with people within the community. Over a 400 people in attendance when the Mid-Island JCC held a rally against hatred last month. On October 1st, we are invited to a luncheon about interfaith work at the Interfaith Institute of the Islamic Center of LI. There will be more opportunities to come.

Responding to hatred of this magnitude can be exhausting. Our tekiah gedola is so long piercing that it can almost drive us to a place of discomfort. But Rabbi Tarfon famously reminds us “It is not up to you to complete the task, but you are not free to absolve yourself of it either.”[16]

Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teruah, the Day of sounding the Shofar, whose piercing tones sound an alarm, express our fears, and compel us to respond timely with a resounding call for justice. “There are so many fires raging and destroying our world,” writes Rabbi Mark Soloway “…we cannot leave all the work of putting them out to others”[17] Just as the villagers needed to put out their fire, so too do we need to extinguish the raging fires of contempt.

We now rise to hear the Shofar’s call. What comes after that is up to us.


[1] https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/us-anti-semitic-incidents-spike-86-percent-so-far-in-2017

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/02/21/the-disturbing-history-of-vandalizing-jewish-cemeteries/?utm_term=.ee220d3bf043, http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/real-time/Jewish-cemetery-vandalism-Philadelphia-Mount-Carmel-complete-coverage.html, http://www.haaretz.com/us-news/1.774995, https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/07/27/historic-jewish-cemetery-melrose-vandalized-potential-hate-crime/dI7oTpn9m0guSn0yrYlPXK/story.html

[3] http://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/Mid-Island-J-Plainview-JCC-Parents-Concerned-Bomb-Threats-Long-Island-415016943.html

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/04/24/the-hotbed-of-anti-semitism-isnt-a-foreign-country-but-u-s-college-campuses-report-says/?utm_term=.dca4f590280e; http://nypost.com/2017/04/24/us-college-campuses-are-hotbed-of-anti-semitism/

[5] http://www.jta.org/2017/01/09/news-opinion/united-states/rocks-smash-stained-glass-windows-of-philly-synagogue-for-2nd-time

[6] https://patch.com/new-york/syosset/anti-semitic-graffiti-found-syosset-high-school

[7] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/nazis-racism-charlottesville/536928/

[8] Pirkei DeRebbe Eliezer 45, and Rabeinu Asher Ben Yechiel on tractate Rosh Hashanah teach that we should sound the shofar each day so that when Rosh Hashanah arrives, we have internalized its blasts and we are ready to repent.

[9] Or Yesharim

[10] Exodus 1:12

[11] See the the lecture by Dr. Yaffa Weisman in the HUC Commons, https://collegecommons.huc.edu/bully_pulpit/charlottesville_huc/.

[12] Malbim on Yoel 2:1

[13] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/hate-crime-rise-2016-united-states-trump_us_59becac8e4b086432b07fed8

[14] See the lecture by Rabbi Michael Marmur in the HUC commons, https://collegecommons.huc.edu/bully_pulpit/charlottesville_huc/.

[15] Pirkei Avot 2:5

[16] Pirkei Avot 1:15-16

[17] Making prayer real

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