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Rabbi Biatch's Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon

09/08/2021 12:45:27 PM

Sep8

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch 

The Shofar Calls Us to Serve

Ah, the sounds of the Shofar! 

Those clarion calls that direct us toward repentance and forgiveness! 

The discordant music that could remind us of the discordant moments in our lives, and that could then compel us to harmonize our lives with others. 

That persistent sound whose message could be reproof for misbehavior. 

And the signal whose message it is to make positive changes in the world and in ourselves. These, and more, we find in the voice of a simple ram’s horn described in the Torah. 

The shofar has played the tune of Jewish survival down through the centuries. And the lore of our people assigns one further message in the sound of the Shofar: that one shofar sounding to mark the arrival of the messianic age. 

Traditional Judaism understands two biblical prophecies which, when read together, prepare us for that future transformation of the world: 

The prophet Malachi proclaims that the prophet Elijah will return to earth, preceding the advent of the messianic age. As someone who performed miracles in his day and whose stories have engendered faith in days since, his messianic role will be to bring about familial reconciliation, an important step toward the world’s ultimate salvation.1 

Then the prophet Zecharia reminds us that every human being – in days to come – will help to re-make the world just as it was at the time of Eden. Each of us will have a role to play to repair the world. 

Zecharia also makes it clear that the sound of the shofar will precede it all: the arrival of Elijah, the universal work to transform the world, and the ultimate peacemaking that will be the defining feature of that world to come.2 

It’s important to clarify that liberal traditions, such as the Reform movement, believe neither in a supernatural being’s involvement in, nor a sequence of events that herald the arrival of, the messianic age. For us, each person will engage in the repair of the world, a process that will organically bring about a time of universal peace and acceptance. 

But we nonetheless can be inspired by the stories of Elijah, the one prophet who never died a natural death, and who has been spotted throughout our 2,000-year-old diaspora helping people in need. He sets the example, and leads us toward the world’s salvation. 

I have sometimes wondered, what with the millions of shofar sounds that our earthly congregations usually produce on these holidays, whether Elijah would ever get confused and think that they signal the beginning of the messianic era. And I thought about how Elijah would react each year, at this time, to those calls. 

[SH’VARIM and T’RUAH Shofar Calls] 

ELIJAH IN THE HOUSE: 

How many times have I heard that sound! How often it has come to my ears! Thank you for declaring this New Year. 

Despite your rabbi’s fears, I know the difference between the usual beautiful sounds of the Days of Awe and that special shofar blast of the future. I know that it isn’t the moment for the messianic age to arrive … not just yet. And to be honest, you humans still have a lot of work to do … but you are making progress. 

I am here today because something else has come to mind, and since I have a Jewish congregation listening this morning, I must give expression to those thoughts. 

I, Elijah, the son of Tishbi of Gil’ad, am approaching my twenty-nine hundred and fiftieth yahrtzeit, though there are those who have asserted that I never really died, that I ascended alive to the heavens in that fiery chariot3. But I am glad that my descendants are keeping … and preserving … and promoting their faith. It does an old man’s heart good to know that his offspring maintain their family’s traditions. 

I am moved to speak to you on this occasion by the wonderful sounds of the shofar that you have just offered. For me, they contain memories, emotions, and heavenly sensations. Oh, if only you could have heard the shofar sounds as I have heard them, lo, these many years: 

The shofar calls that reverberated at the time of our people’s exodus from Egypt … The thunder, lightning, and shofar sounds that emanated from Sinai at the giving of the Ten Commandments … The sound of the shofar as it joyfully proclaimed the coronation of Israelite kings and queen in Jerusalem. 

And the shofar sounds throughout the generations at times of tragedy, as cries of warning and sadness: 

  • during the Crusades and their years of anti-Jewish violence and destruction 

  • during centuries of the Inquisition, and other persecutions and disabilities 

  • and during the Holocaust, as its fiery hunger consumed six million of you. 

Do not misunderstand me. The sounds of the shofar have pleased me. But they have sometimes been intermixed with painful sounds: nuclear explosions, terrorist actions, continuing cries of persecuted peoples: all signs of humanity’s inability to truly get along with one another. 

For example, let me see if I can catch an echo of that sound for you, so you can appreciate what I have heard in recent days, what summons me to speak to you, and what should cause each of you to pause and consider your predicament on earth: 

[January 6 Insurrection]

You may recognize these sounds: the actualities of rioting, of human hatred, deceit, and devastation. Your propensity for audacious ways of attacking one another saddens us in the celestial community. There was so much noise this year that we peered over the edge of the heavens, and considered setting aside our Prime Directive and intervening to save you. 

It was plain to us: in Washington, Minneapolis, in Kabul, Paris, the Xinjiang region of China, Palestine, Israel, even in Madison; and many others: a deluge of human detestation and destruction. 

And I also cannot help but note that, twenty years ago this coming Shabbat morning, there was a physical manifestation of this hatred that many of you remember: billowing plumes of ash and concrete dust, a storm of such magnitude and chaos that it rivaled one of your nuclear explosions. It enveloped New York, Washington, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. 

We knew about the twisted and malevolent motivations of the perpetrators of terrorism. They were completely wrong, of course, and the Islamic sages and prophets with whom I share the heavenly house of study were distraught that a handful of their disciples had acted in such a way in the name of God. 

We asked, “Where was the shame? Where was their humility? Where was humanity on that day?” And we all wondered, “Where did any of us go wrong? Can’t we do a better job of things? Why does such evil intention and deed still thrive on the Earth?” 

We know well that intentions have not changed for some who hate full time. Destruction is on the mind of many, wanting to replicate the fires of persecution and aggression that are characteristic of some people in your world. You know well about the scourge of antisemitism, as well as every other persecuted group around. 

Something has got to give! 

Twenty years ago this week, we peered into that growing, consuming, conflagration of debris, and we saw something strange there. That malevolent cloud rolled down the streets of New York City, coating everything with a toxic, gray layer of dust and ash, coating the bodies and poisoning the lungs of those who inhaled it. 

In one very special sense, however, that gray cloud was holy, for it contained the essence of the humanity obliterated by it. Everyone who was touched by that cloud’s tendrils inhaled the souls and the spirits of the beautiful deceased. And for us, those souls will never lose their potential, and their sacrifice will be remembered, and elevated, and maintained in our memory. 

The people who wandered the streets, the ones covered with soot: the women and men; White, Black, Asian, Latinx, Middle Eastern; straight and gay, cisgendered and trans, younger and older; all those who were swallowed up by that cloud: with their patina of gray soot: the visage they presented sort of reminded us all of the beginnings of your world, many, many eons ago, when sentient beings began to emerge from the holy and fertile earth. 

Yes, I heard the Torah you offered a little while ago; I know you’re familiar with the Jewish Creation myth. Let me add a detail or two that are not in the book. 

At a very early moment in the history of your world, all creatures resembled one another. They were formless masses of organic matter. And only later, when God had the opportunity to form and teach and guide humanity; when God began to distinguish creatures by rearranging some DNA here and there; when God led humanity to study and grow; when the potential for establishing your “humanity” was greatest: 

Only then did the Creator instill in humanity variegations and differences in human character. And it was those differences between people which God called “very good” in the book of Genesis. It was – and is – those differences between people that you should be celebrating… 

… because the same thing could be said with those humans who emerged from the dust-cloud on September 11: they resembled the generation of pre-creation: gray, formless, oblivious masses, huddling in the doorways, fearing their new world, and hoping for salvation. We knew that each one was different from one another, yet each one bore the imprint of the Holy One. And each one is sacred, with sacred potential for goodness and integrity. 

Twenty years ago, when God saw those survivors with their grimy appearance, the Divine One remembered the human creatures from the first generations of Earth eons ago. God remembered the hope we all had for humanity. But realizing the terrorist action that brought about the devastation of that day, God was then heard to cry out, “I gave free will to humanity; I was hoping they would act to improve the world. Where did I – where did they – go wrong. Should we, once again, reconsider our pledge to restore Eden for them?” 

God was despondent. Creation’s blueprint did not anticipate selfishness, or brutishness, or a desire for dominance for power. Goodness knows you have known tyrants or would-be tyrants in your world. Some might even exist in your day. None of that was in God’s plan, and what we and God perceive today frightens us, and, frankly, makes your future quite dismal. 

But God then read the words of the late professor Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote about the presence of evil AND goodness within the human family: 

“Good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one. The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people … every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the ‘ordinary’ efforts of a vast majority.  We have a duty, almost a holy responsibility, to record and honor the victorious weight of these innumerable little kindnesses, when an unprecedented act of evil so threatens to distort our perception of ordinary human behavior.”4 

So, we must ask ourselves this question every day as we rise to face the challenges of life: 

How will our actions affect the world? 

Will we allow inertia and apathy to flourish, and permit centrifugal force to pull us away from a common striving … or will we pull people together and help one another bring forth goodness into the world? 

When we hear the sound of the shofar – the vibrant or muddled, the short or the long, the weak or the strong, the ram’s horn, or that of the ibex – when we hear those sounds, will they be simply the background noise of everyday life, or will they break through and call us clearly to serve one another? 

In the New Year just beginning, will we disregard those in trouble, those who have difficulties in communicating with each other, those in a different state of life from us … or will we seek to help reconcile one person to another regardless of the differences between them, regardless of the barriers that exist between people? 

When we consider our tasks for the new year, how will each of us renew our plans for bringing goodness to the world? How will each human being activate their potential for restoring the Garden of Eden to our world? 

These are our challenges, for the choices are up to each of us. If we only pause and think, we can imagine what the Holy One of Blessing would like us to do. 

I, Elijah, the son of Tishbi of Gil’ad, know that the potential for progress is alive and well here. Want to know how I know? Let me share with you one further sound that I have heard this year, a sound that brings joy to my heart, and a feeling of hope to me and my colleagues: 

[V'ahavta]

This the sound of your future. When your children continue to study, to learn, to chant, to celebrate their heritage, then I know their future is secure, and that you are moving toward the true fulfillment of their destiny. I, Elijah, have seen the future, and I believe you can do it. The point is, you need to believe you can do it. 

My, look at the time. I need to be on my way now. I’m very glad you summoned me with the shofar, even though it wasn’t yet time for messianic things to start. It was great to catch up and pour out our hearts to one another. 

Oh, and please remember: Come Passover in the Spring, dry wine, please. 

And until then, may you all have a sweet, prosperous, successful, healthy, and peaceful New Year. 

Footnotes:
[1] Malachi 3:24
[2] Zecharia 9:14
[3] II Kings 2:11
[4] Stephan Jay Gould, cited in “Rambam’s Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give” by Julie Salomon, Workman Publishing Company, 2003.
 
September 19, 2021 13 Tishrei 5782