Rosh Hashanah Reflections
Seeing green in the shofar and its call to action
Is green the theme of the shofar this Rosh Hashanah season? In a year of sustainability and carbon footprints, high gas and hybrids, the shofar is the simplest, most eco-friendly method of reaching the Jewish community with a vital message.
|The shofar is the great proclaimer, announcing in a low-energy way some high-energy concepts. Elias Punch/Creative Commons|
The shofar, if you pause to think about it, is a rhapsody in green. Lightweight and easily transportable, it sports no moving parts — the shofar blower, or ba’al tekiah’s, own mouth becomes the mouthpiece. Yet it’s dependable enough to deliver the complex musical message required to begin a new Jewish year.
A totally natural product, its availability is a byproduct of an already ongoing ancient enterprise — sheepherding.
Powered by one human, and empowered by a congregation, the shofar requires no batteries, power cord, or transformer. When we hear it, we are the ones who become transformed.
An instrument conceived thousands of years ago, in by today’s standards a near noise-free environment, the shofar still has the power to hold our attention. In urban and suburban settings, it competes against pagers, jet noise, sirens, and car alarms, holding its own without mike, amp, or speakers. Yet sans headphones or ear buds, the shofar delivers a sound like no other, penetrating our kishkas and our consciousness.
It’s the great proclaimer, announcing in a low-energy way some high-energy concepts.
In Israel, the shofar’s call also was used to introduce the Torah concept of the jubilee year: Historically, on Yom Kippur, the shofar announced that the land was allowed to lay fallow while also proclaiming “liberty throughout the land” and the release of all servants.
The jubilee in Hebrew, “yovel,” is derived from the Hebrew word for ram’s horn — “yobel.” Yovel and the related concepts of shmitta, a Shabbat of rest and rejuvenation for the land every seven years, are land-use concepts practiced today through crop rotation and organic farming.
Each year we are commanded to hear the sounds of the shofar — we cannot celebrate Rosh HaShanah without hearing them. But what is it that we are supposed to hear?
The shofar, held high for us to hear and see that day, presents an under-heard and overlooked message: Jews, now and in the future, will always need to have a relationship with the natural world, with the world of animals and their environment.
When issues of treatment of livestock to be used for kosher slaughter come to light, the sound of the shofar can remind us that the horn that announces the times of our lives comes from something that also was alive — an animal that must be sustained with compassion, with humane treatment, fed even before we feed ourselves.
We cannot beg the question of our treatment of animals by using an artificial shofar. Substitutes are not kosher — plastic and metal are not allowed. Also, shofars do not last forever. They crack, break, and develop holes, rendering them ritually unusable.
The replacements, like all shofars, can be fashioned only from the horn of a ram, antelope, gazelle, or goat. A world where the environment is so polluted — where there is no clean water, no toxin-free feed, no land available — will be a world that will not hear the blast of the shofar. On that day, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Teruah, the day of the blast, will be our “silent spring.”
In a midrashic moment we can imagine a Jewish traveler, a Rip ben Winkle who after a bit too much kiddush wine sleeps for 200 years and awakens in Elul, the month preceding Rosh HaShanah, only to find that the shofars are all made of carbon fiber — perfectly pitched with lustrous sheen — and practically play themselves. To what kind of world has our traveler awakened?
Like our traveler, at some point, we, too, must awaken, or be awakened by the shofar’s call. According to the Mishneh Torah, the shofar says, “Wake up from your sleep. You are asleep. Get up from your slumber.”
This year as you stand to hear the blasts, wake to a green meaning in the tones:
Tekiah, the long blast: the wake-up call. Understand it to announce the stewardship we have been given over the earth and the responsibilities thereof.
Shevarim, three short blasts: a warning that change is coming. The crack, crack, cracking of polar ice due to global warming.
Teruah, nine quick notes like ticks of the clock: reminding us that when it comes to the environment, the day is short and the task is great.
Saadia Gaon gave us 10 things we should hear in the shofar’s call. He tells us “that the sound of the shofar is reminiscent of the exhortations of the prophets whose voices rang out like a shofar in calling the people to do justice….”
This Rosh HaShanah, we can be the prophets of change, shaping — in short bursts and long beautiful curves and spirals — our actions and intentions to green and repair our world.
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Rosh HaShanah reflections
We are approaching the start of a new year, during which America will elect a new leader. As we use this time to reflect on our lives and how we lead them, I feel it would also be most appropriate to reflect on religion in general — and Judaism in particular — and how we lead our lives as Jews in this great American nation.Guest Column
Last month, I had the privilege of addressing a session of the Democratic National Convention, entitled “Faith in Action.” Along with three clergypersons of other faith-traditions, I was asked to deliver a keynote address. Mine was entitled “Our Sacred Responsibility to Our Neighbor.”
By including such a session in the program, the convention planners were clearly affirming a role for religion in the American political arena. Many disagree about the legitimacy of that role from a constitutional perspective, but others disagree because of a historic misconception about the nature of mature religion, which needs to be rectified.
Under this misconception, religion is seen as an “opiate” for the masses or as an “illusion” for the naïve. It is seen as absolutist, rigid, infantile, and simplistic. This is not the religion I know; this is not core Judaism.
Let me clarify: At its very core, Judaism calls for lifelong study, for an engagement with traditional texts and their application to the complex and changing realities of life. Far from being simplistic, rigid, or naïve, Judaism enlivens the critical function. It struggles mightily with subtlety and conflict. It combines firm commitment with pragmatic flexibility. It dignifies mature reflection and embraces complexity.
When we contemplate the role of faith-traditions in a democratic society, it is of such a subtle complex creativity and mature religion of which we speak. The voice of such an institution is essential for a polity that wishes to engage, freshly and effectively, the ethical challenges with which our times confront us.
The faith-tradition for which I speak is proud to endorse scientific research, including stem cell research, while not compromising the value of the beginnings of human life.
The faith-tradition for which I speak is neither pro-life nor pro-choice, but recognizes that abortion, while generally prohibited, is sometimes permitted, and sometimes mandated.
The faith-tradition for which I speak values the individual, and his autonomy, but recognizes that the needs of the collective sometimes require the suspension of individual rights.
The faith-tradition for which I speak believes in the truth of its message and in the uniqueness of its adherents. But it also respects other people of faith and people of no faith as being created in the image of God.
Judaism has taught its daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, of the vital importance of peace. But it also knows of the importance of a just war and the need to struggle actively against evil.
Because of our painful and often tragic history, we appreciate, perhaps more than any other minority, the freedom afforded us by this great nation, and especially of the principle of separation of church and state. At the same time we are convinced that there are undeniably legitimate ways for the government to assist parents who choose to educate their children in parochial schools, so that these children will share the benefits of a general education with all other American children, while also gaining access to the treasures of their faith-traditions.
Thus, we believe in our conception of a proper way of life, at the same time as we embrace the benefit of a pluralistic and open society.
In short, we do not believe that faith is necessarily primitive, monolithic, or blind to the ambiguity and internal contradictions of our era. We believe that faith can be a model for struggling with complexity and nuance in a creative, relevant, intelligent, and efficacious manner. And we therefore assert that there is a place, nay a necessity, for religion in a democratic society as it struggles mightily to retain morality and decency in the face of the formidable, but not insuperable, challenges of the 21st century.
We enter into the Jewish new year encouraged that both political parties have now opened themselves to the resources of religious thought. As Jews, we are committed to contributing to the advancement of this great nation by drawing from the wellsprings of our timeless faith.
Ketivah va-chatimah tova. A happy and peaceful new year to all.