September 12, 2012
High Holy Days: In the rabbis’ words
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by Rabbi Elazar Muskin
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 evildoers, 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 a 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 that if we listen to the inner voice of our conscience, we will find the right path for the coming year.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin serves as rabbi at Young Israel of Century City, a Modern Orthodox congregation. This is excerpted from the Jewish Journal’s Torah Portion column, Sept. 5, 2002.
Introduction to jewels of Elul VIII
by Rabbi David Wolpe
Our sages tell us that the first time Adam saw the sun go down, he was terrified. He had seen day, but had never experienced the night. God took pity on him and gave him two stones to rub together in order to create fire. The name of one stone was afelah, darkness, and the other maveth, death. As the spark emerged, Adam said, “Blessed be the Creator of light.” Out of darkness and death, the first human being realized that we can create light.
On the High Holy Days, we think back over the difficulties and even the tragedies that have befallen us in the past year. We have lost people we love, done things we regret, been hurt and saddened by life. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur arrive to remind us that our task in this world is to strike a spark, to carry light in the shadows.
“We work in the dark — do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task,” wrote the great novelist Henry James. We all work in darkness, unknowing, uncertain; but if we do what we can, our passion can ignite each other’s souls. Light does not erase difficulty or doubt or even death. But it allows us to seek blessing: Blessed be God, who grants us memory and gives us light.
Rabbi David Wolpe is senior rabbi at Sinai Temple, a Conservative congregation. This is excerpted from the introduction to this year’s Jewels of Elul series, an online series created by Craig Taubman.
Toward an ethic of imagination: The case for creativity
by Rabbi Sharon Brous
Do you know why we blast the shofar 100 times on Rosh Hashanah? The Song of Deborah is considered by scholars to be one of the oldest Biblical texts. Deborah was prophet and judge of Israel, and her song tells the story of Sisera, the Canaanite commander who ruthlessly oppressed Israel for 20 years. When Israel rises up to challenge Sisera in battle, he flees, taking refuge in the tent of a woman named Yael. Yael feeds him warm milk, sooths his spirit and puts him to sleep. But as he rests, she takes hold of a tent peg and, with a workman’s mallet, drives it through his head, piercing and shattering his temple.
From the Song of Deborah: “He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet … dead.”
After years of oppression, Israel is avenged by a powerful woman, putting herself at great personal risk in the pursuit of justice.
But the story does not end there. The Song of Deborah continues:
“Out of the window she peered, the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?’ ”
In the moment of triumphant victory over a vicious oppressor, Israel’s ruler imagines the enemy’s mother, staring out the window, waiting for her son to return from battle, fearing that she would never see him again. This comes to show that Deborah was a leader and a warrior, but she was also a human being. Tradition teaches that Sisera’s mother cried out in despair 100 times that night, thus the 100 blasts of the shofar.
Rav Soloveitchik offers that this comes to teach us that “as we awaken from spiritual complacency, we must witness our own illusions being relentlessly shattered,” just as Sisera’s mother’s illusions of her son’s safe return were shattered that day.
But I would suggest another approach. On Rosh Hashanah, the shofar calls us to see the common humanity in all people. These blasts come to remind us that Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Arab, Sri Lankan, Pakistani and Korean, Democrat, Republican — we are all God’s children. And even our enemies have mothers who weep for them.
Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founding rabbi of IKAR, a progressive, egalitarian community. This is excerpted from one of Rabbi Brous’ 2011 High Holy Days sermons.