September 5, 2002
Rosh Hashana 5763
Last Rosh Hashana began with the most terrible noise. Terror, trauma, tragedy and evil triumphant filled the air. In addition, Israel and Jews worldwide were subjected to the vilest outburst of anti-Semitism since the 1940s.
After experiencing such violent explosions, where can we find a glimmer of hope for the year ahead?
Perhaps an answer can be found in the laws for sounding the shofar, the primary symbol of the New Year festival.
The Talmud in Rosh Hashana 27b states: "If one places a shofar within a shofar and blows, if the inner one is heard, he fulfills the mitzvah, but if the outer one [is heard], he does not."
How should we understand this law? Is it simply a legal concept, or does it hold a moral lesson as well?
In today's climate, besieged by the voices of chaos, war and hatred, transmitted to us by a biased media, it is difficult to imagine that there can even be a soft inner voice of morality, honesty and justice.
The current chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a survivor from Buchenwald, was 8 when the camp was liberated. He maintains friendships with many survivors. One, a very wealthy man, is also the thinnest man the rabbi had ever seen.
On one occasion, his friend invited the rabbi to a delicious dinner, but the friend barely ate. He only nibbled at the food. Worrying that his friend might be ill, the rabbi finally asked why he wasn't eating. The man replied, "Every time I sit down to a beautiful meal, I hear a voice in my head. It is my 12-year-old daughter who died of starvation in Auschwitz. She comes to me and says three words in Yiddish: "Father, please, bread." In Auschwitz I couldn't give her that bread, and now when I want to eat, I hear the sound of her voice and I can't eat."
We all hear voices. One comes from the harsh, cruel outside world. It is strong and powerful; it blasts our ears; it seems to conquer us. But then we hear a second voice, a quiet voice, an inner voice, urging us to have courage, to support our people, to stand by Israel, to obliterate terror.
The Talmud, in discussing the shofar, also makes another profound and telling observation. It states the principle, "That two voices cannot be heard simultaneously." But then the Talmud includes an exception: "If it is beloved and dear, one concentrates and hears."
We are constantly subjected to two voices that compete for our attention. Which sounds shall we hear -- the loud clamor of the evil-doers, the terrorists and their supporters? Or the still, small voice of the heroes -- the firefighters in the twin towers, the rescue workers at a suicide bombing, the pain-filled voices of those slaughtered at Auschwitz and those massacred at a Passover seder in Netanya?
At first you might think that the loud voice will win, and the soft voice will definitely lose. The loud voice seems so powerful; it seems to conquer all. But if the soft voice is the voice of God, if it is beloved, it will be heard and ultimately will be victorious.
Simon Wiesenthal relates that when he was imprisoned in concentration camp, he once saw a fellow inmate risk his life to smuggle a siddur into the camp. At first, Wiesenthal admired this man. But then, the next day, to his horror, he saw that man rent out the siddur in exchange for pieces of bread.
Wiesenthal recounts, "I was angry with this Jew. How could he take a holy siddur and use it to take a person's last piece of bread?" From that moment on, he vowed never to pray again.
After the liberation, he explained his lack of faith to Rabbi Eliezer Silver, the famous U.S. Army chaplain, who had come to comfort survivors. In response, Silver asked, "Why do you look at the Jew who rented out his siddur? Why don't you look at the dozens who gave up their bread in order to use a siddur? That's faith! That's the true power of the siddur."
Wiesenthal concluded, "When he said that, I walked together with him to pray."
Which voice are we going to hear? The laws of the shofar are there to guide us, to tell us if we listen to the inner voice of our conscience, we will find the right path for the coming year.