The Music of the Horn, Part 2

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Thursday, September 10, 2015 /26 Elul 5775

This Friday night, Ilene Safyan and I have selected melodies to our traditional Shabbat liturgy that we hope will be in keeping with our national observance of 9/11. We are dedicating it as a musical tone poem commemorating the thousands of victims of 9/11. I hope you will be able to join us.

To be a Jew is an opportunity to share in the history of brilliant and sensitive individuals. It is to witness how their wisdom can reverberate across the millennia, providing us insight that remains relevant despite flowing out of a very different culture. One such great and important past sage is the Egyptian rabbi, Rav Sa’adia Gaon (942-882 CE). He was a philosopher, a legalist and a linguist, who first synthesized Jewish theology with Greek philosophy. His example underlines how we Jews have always and proudly incorporated and embraced secular learning, even while preserving our own traditions. His famous siddur, his prayer book, is one of the oldest and most important documents we have that attests to how venerable our prayer book is.

Among the many writings of his which we still possess is a list of ten reasons we sound the shofar. I offer it to you, filtered through my own, admittedly more modern understanding. If you wish, you could bring a copy with you to high holidays. I hope it can be a spur for our individual and collective acts of introspection.

Ten Reasons we sound the shofar:

  1. It reminds us that Rosh Hashanah is considered the day on which God began creating the universe; in our religion’s imagination, this big bang moment was heralded by angels trumpeting the birth of creation in a band swell of shofars.
    How do you plan to express your gifts of creativity this year?
  2.  We sound it as an alarm, a reminder that during the ten days of repentance we are invited and called to embrace the path of teshuvah, of self-correction and realignment.
    No one should claim that they were not notified that now is the moment to get serious about how we are living.
  3.  It recalls the shofar blasts that rang out at Mt. Sinai, and the commitment our ancestors made and that we make to sanctify our days through mitzvot, through elevated action.
    How do we create kedushah, holiness in our lives?
  4.  It reminds us of the words of Ezekiel (33:4)–that in every generation, prophetic voices demand we respond to injustice, and that in some deep way, a refusal to speak truth to power makes us also responsible.
    What are you being called to do? How and for whom are you mandated to be an advocate?
  5.  The shofar blast, as an instrument of war, reminds us of past enemies and the destruction of the Temple of old, that building which once served as our central address where all could gather. It serves, therefore, as a request for unity in our day. As Jews in the middle, we ought to lead the charge in building a bridge of love and acceptance for all Jews.
    How will you reach out this year to build connections between those who think, act, dress or look different than you? How will you be a dugma,a living example of acceptance?
  6.  The horn of the ram, according to legend, is the one present in the story of the binding of Isaac. While we struggle with that story, the shofar reminds us that we too are called to make sacrifices for ultimate and enduring values.
    What small pleasure might you give up for the sake of a larger concern?
  7.  There is a way that the shofar’s blast is meant to instill a touch of dread and awe in us–a reminder, in other words, that there is a bigger picture than our own concerns and desires.
    How will we limit our own desires so that we can grow aware of others and our connections to them?
  8.  The shofar announces Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgement. We all know that we constantly judge others and are judged by them. What we choose as our measurement standard for ourselves, however, is the noblest and most telling use of our judging impulse.
    Does our age still believe in the potential of human grandeur and dignity? Will we shepherd ourselves along those paths? Will we worry about our own souls and our shortcomings before we critique others?
  9.  The shofar blast will herald an ingathering of all the lost and scattered to the land of Israel.
    How do we sensitize ourselves to those who are lost and scattered in our community? How do we help gather them in and provide for them?
  10. While we don’t often discuss resurrection or the afterlife, both are normative concepts in historical Judaism. In this line of religious vision, the shofar will blast forth as the dead are brought back to life.
    What sort of legacy do you want to endure after you? What sort of gifts and endowments do you want to extend to Neveh Shalom and other organizations as an ongoing statement of your love and commitments?

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah,

Rav D

Some Reflections on the Weekly Parashah
From Torah Sparks, a publication of the Conservative Movement

Parashat Nitzavim
September 12, 2015 – 28 Elul 5775

Annual (Deuteronomy 29:1-30:20): Etz Hayim p. 1165; Hertz p. 878
Triennial (Deuteronomy 29:1-30:20): Etz Hayim p. 1165; Hertz p. 878
Haftarah (Isaiah 61:10-63:9): Etz Hayim, p. 1180; Hertz p. 883

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum

Every Israelite gathers to hear Moses’s closing words. They are told that they have an equal share in God’s covenant with their ancestors before them. They also are warned once again about the punishments they will endure if they worship idols. Still, God will reward those who repent. God reminds the Israelites that the laws are not remote, theoretical concepts, but ideas that are attainable for all.

Theme #1: Piece of My Heart

Then the Lord your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6)

The same God that hardens enemies’ hearts will open Israelite hearts in order to bless the people.

What did the Holy One, blessed be He, speak to Moses? That if they would repent while in any of the kingdoms where they might be, the Holy One, blessed be He, would gather them together; as it says … “and the Lord your God will circumcise your heart.” — Numbers Rabbah

Some people find this reference [in the second paragraph of the Grace After Meals] to circumcision (the covenant which God has “sealed in our flesh”) exclusionary. Therefore, some substitute “in our hearts” for “in our flesh.” — from the Mizmor Shir Birkon

In prayer, which the rabbis call “the service of the heart,” tradition places as much emphasis on one’s intention, “kavvanat ha-lev,” the directing of the heart, as it does on the recitation of the words. This idea is one of the central beliefs of Hasidism. — Ellen Frankel and Betsy Platkin Teutsch, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols

Questions for Discussion:

Numbers Rabbah holds that even if we are outside of Israel, if we take our Jewish heritage seriously, we will gravitate toward each other even in a foreign land, thereby placing us in a position of strength. What are some examples of Diaspora Jewish communities accomplishing great things when many people work together? Now that Jews are integrated in the general societies of many nations, how must communal organizations shift to focus on today’s challenges?

The Mizmor Shir Birkon explains that the reference to circumcision in the Grace After Meals is considered by some as inclusive to males but not females, as only Jewish males are circumcised, so there is a custom to borrow a phrase from today’s Torah portion. To what extent do we have a responsibility to create gender-inclusive language in Jewish prayers? Should we be cautious about changing prayers that have existed in the same form for hundreds of years? Or do modern sensibilities outweigh our affection for tradition in these cases?

Frankel and Teutsch tell us that the ancient expression for mental concentration involved references to the heart, not the mind. Today, we typically refer to the brain as the seat of rational thought and the heart as the seat of emotions. Does the ancient emphasis on the heart make more sense? Is there some benefit to considering the heart in a metaphorical sense, not just as an organ that pumps blood to the rest of our bodies?

Theme #2: Locally Produced

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” (Deuteronomy 30:11-12)

This famous statement has empowered many Jewish scholars to add their insights to our understanding of Torah.

When we are told that the Torah is not in the heavens, we are to understand that it is not found among the astrologers. — Deuteronomy Rabbah

“It is not in heaven”. Moses said to them, “Do not say, ‘Another Moses will arise and bring us another Torah from heaven,’ for I say to you, ‘It is not in heaven’ — no part of it has remained in heaven.” — Deuteronomy Rabbah

Rabbi Yohanan said: The words “It is not in heaven”. Samuel said, “Torah is not be found among those who are arrogant.” “Neither is it beyond the sea” — it will not be found among merchant princes or petty traders. — Eruvin 55a

Questions for Discussion:

Deuteronomy Rabbah seems to touch upon the strands of our tradition that relies on mystical interpretations. Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, the text speaks out against mysticism in numerous ways. Does mysticism have a place among the 70 faces of the Torah? Are the Kabbalah and the Zohar good sources for understanding Torah in modern times, or should they be relegated to the time and society in which they originated?

Deuteronomy Rabbah also teaches that the Torah was given in whole to Moses and that there is no point in waiting for additional insights. This statement seems to fly in the face of what many in the Conservative movement call “continuous revelation,” the concept that, in every generation, we learn more about what God wants from us and find new ways to understand Torah. Can these two views be harmonized? How? Is it important to think of the Torah as a living document, one that stands for different ideas as society progresses?

Eruvin takes a different view of what “heaven” and “sea” mean in this context, saying that heaven stands for those who egotistically reach for the heavens (but never get there), and beyond the sea refers to untrustworthy characters from foreign places. But is it possible to learn important lessons from less-than-savory people? Can a difficult person still be an effective teacher? Or, can we learn from them by specifically not following their examples?