The blasts of the shofar, which we’ll hear in just a few minutes, are a key element of the Rosh Hashanah service. To hear the sound of the shofar — lishmo’a kol shofar — is the central commandment of this holiday.
It’s worthwhile to reflect for a moment about just why we listen to the shofar blasts. One way of answering the question, “Why,” is with that time-honored response, “because God says so.” The Torah’s account of the festival calendar calls the first day of the month of Tishrei a yom teruah, a “day for blowing the horn.” If the Torah tells us so, perhaps that ought to be enough. it was certainly enough for a certain Rabbi Isaac whose words are remembered in the pages of the Talmud (BT RH 16a): “Why do we blow? God said, ‘Blow!’”
Or maybe it’s not enough. Some of you will remember that just shy of three weeks ago, Rabbi Bellush’s mentor and friend, Rabbi Sissy Coran, was our guest and teacher at Rabbi Bellush’s service of installation. In her remarks, she told how lucky were were to be getting in Rabbi Bellush a teacher who would not offer mere “because it says so” answers to our questions, but who would help us to explore the deeper meanings of why we do what we do. Rabbi Coran was right, both about the inadequacy of “because I said so” as an answer for today’s Jews, and about Rabbi Bellush’s gifts as a teacher. I thought about her observation as I prepared for this service, as I found myself learning from words written centuries ago by another Rabbi who wasn’t entirely content with “because it says so” as a reason for performing this particular commandment.
That Rabbi was Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides, the great twelfth-century sage who seems to make an appearance in my divrei torah each holiday season. The passage is found in his “Laws of Repentance.” There (Hil. Teshuvah 3:4), he writes: “It’s true that we blow the shofar because the Torah tells us to do so. But the fact that ‘it says so’ is no reason to stop searching for deeper meanings, for the remez, the allusions present within the act.” He then goes on to describe the sound of the shofar as a wake-up call, and a call to conscience. His words have become a part of our prayerbook, and they’re right before you on page 139. Let’s read the passage aloud together (even though they’re not italicized!):
Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep! Rouse yourselves, you slumberers, out of your slumber! Examine your deeds, and turn to God in repentance. Remember your Creator, you who are caught up in the daily round, losing sight of eternal truth; you who are wasting your years in vain pursuits that neither profit nor save. Look closely at yourselves; improve your ways and deeds. Abandon your evil ways, your unworthy schemes, every one of you.
We call these days Y’mei Teshuvah, the “Days of Repentance,” and there’s no doubt that repenting is a big part of what they’re about. Rabbi Bellush taught us beautifully last night about teshuvah, which is essentially the creation of new pathways in our own hearts and minds as we shed our old stories and embrace new possibilities. What I’d like to do this morning is to build upon her words in light of a teaching from the contemporary Israeli rabbi, Haim Sabato. (I must say, parenthetically, that the process of crafting this sermon in dialogue with Rabbi Bellush has been sheer delight, as she and I have sharpened our respective messages by sharing their development with one another. Thank you, chaverah!).
Sabato points out that there are other kinds of shofar blasts mentioned in the Torah, which don’t seem to have anything to do with calling people to account for their actions. As an example, he cites this verse, from the prophet Isaiah: “It will come to pass on that day that a great shofar will be sounded. The lost souls of Assyrian captivity will come home, and the exiles from Egypt too. They will all bow low to God at God’s holy mountain in Jerusalem (Is 27:13). This sort of blast is not first and foremost about teshuvah, but rather about ge’ulah…that is, it’s not about Repentance, but about Redemption. Sabato also reminds us that when the Rabbis composed the weekday prayers, they placed the prayer for “repentance” and the one for “redemption” in sequence. Three times a day, six days a week, many Jews pray first for repentance, and then immediately for redemption. And so Sabato asks a reasonable question: what is the connection between these two important ideas, teshuvah and ge’ulah?
Here is his answer. He writes…
Both “repentance” and “redemption” imply a return to a former state of being. With regard to repentance, consider for example the verse from Lamentations (5:21): “Cause us to repent, O God, and we shall repent; restore our days as of old.” In other words, make us pure and whole once again.
And in the case of redemption, consider the Torah’s procedure for “redeeming” homes, fields, or slaves. In each case, the definition of “redemption” is: “restoring affairs to their prior state.” Homes and fields return to their original owners after the redemption of the Jubilee year; the slave becomes free, as is natural, and returns to his family. Even the “blood redemption” contemplated by the Torah, in which a family is obligated to extract the ultimate price from one who kills their kin, is grounded in the deep and strong desire to make things as they were (though this is, of course, not possible). There is the Redemption of the Jewish People, which really means the return of the exiled people to their land, and their former status. And there is the Redemption of the Land: the Land of Israel’s restoration as a place which flowers and feeds. Finally, there is the redemption of the world, which means, essentially, that everything will return to a pure, pristine state of being, uncorrupted by all of the mistakes we’ve made over all the generations…
Teshuvah, too, like Redemption, is the restoration of our natural state, a state of purity and love of God. Teshuvah restores us, renews us, revives us. It makes us as we once were, innocent and whole.
And so it is that the blast of the shofar, whether it be a blast of teshuvah or a blast of ge’ulah, is a call to renewal and return. This is why we use a simple ram’s horn, an instrument unadorned with mouthpieces, valves, and the like. The sound must be natural, simple, primal. The medium is the message.
Thus far, Sabato is interested in what unites teshuvah and ge’ulah. Both of them are ultimately about return and renewal to that which once was, but is at least temporarily no more.
Reading him, I am reminded of the very helpful definition of “redemption” offered by Rabbi Larry Kushner (The Book of Words): “the process of exchanging something for what it is really worth.” Kushner illustrates this by reminding his readers of the “S&H Green Stamp ‘Redemption’ Center,” of his own childhood, where stickers were redeemed for toasters. Today’s children live in a world without S&H, but the lesson lives on at the iTunes Store. My Afikomen gifts at recent congregational seders have been in the form of iTunes gift codes for songs. And as much as I love giving our Afikomen finders good Passover music, I think I love even more that those kids get to take a series of letters and numbers, type them into a box, and then click a button that says, simply, “Redeem.” And the code becomes what it really was all along: a song.
Back to Sabato, who now explores the essential difference between repentance and redemption. Again, I’ll paraphrase his words:
Where Repentance is about changing oneself, Redemption is effected by others. Relatives redeem the slave. A person redeems a field, or a home. God redeems the Jewish People. A person need not play any role in his own redemption, other than to wait expectantly for it. This is not the case with regard to repentance, which is essentially self-initiated. It is up to the penitent to effect the change, mend his ways, change her way of thinking. Therefore, the sort of redemption that flows from our teshuvah is of a higher order than the sort that comes about through good fortune or divine favor.
As Sabato has it, teshuvah is a superior starting point for redemptive work, since it gets the self involved. The sort of redemption he has in mind is not miraculous, sea-splitting, bear-you-on-eagle’s-wings stuff; it’s the long, hard work of transforming that which is into that which can and should be. It starts with a good look at oneself, a moment of teshuvah; it finds its fulfillment in the outward reach, in caring for others.
The famed Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Mussar Movement in Judaism, was known to say, “Spiritual life is superior to physical life. But the physical life of another is an obligation of my spiritual life.” Elsewhere, he said it slightly differently, and more memorably: “A good Jew doesn’t worry about his neighbor’s soul and his own stomach; he worries about his own soul and his neighbor’s stomach.”
To get this deep connection between teshuvah and ge’ulah is to know that one’s own spiritual work is inextricably bound up with the collective obligation to establish justice. Teshuvah precedes geulah. Repairing the self is a prerequisite for repairing the world.
I believe that this is so because, at the very deepest level, “self” and “other,” “me” and “everything,” is quite simply a false distinction. It’s a useful falsehood, no doubt. Without it, we’d have no way of navigating in the world, distinguishing friend from foe, safety from danger, family from stranger. But those distinctions, useful as they are, ultimately melt away in the presence of God, the One who is both the Point of our Return and the Power that Makes for Redemption.
UC San Diego neuroscientist VS Ramachandran describes a particular type of brain activity carried out by what are called “mirror neurons.” These neurons fire not when we do something…but when we see someone else do something. In a fascinating TED talk (ask me later, or just go to the TMS website where you’ll find a helpful link) he explores the fact these neurons are the key to our ability to experience empathy the other, to experience the world through their eyes. He asks a provocative question: Why, then, do we not actually feel the physical pain of another when we see their bodies hurting? The answer has to do with the pain receptors that reside in our skin, which have veto power over the neurons in our brains, allowing us to empathize without actually feeling the pain. But take away those receptors — as is the case, for example, if someone has lost a limb to an accident, or even in experimental conditions with a local anesthetic — and a person can in fact feel actual, physical pain when they see someone else hurting in the same place on the body! The skin is no longer able to describe for the mind a distinction between “me” and “other,” and so the pain of the other is quite literally felt by me!
Ramachandran jokes with his audience that he calls these neurons “Ghandi Neurons.” He goes on, and is worthy quoting at some length:
All that’s separating you from him, from the other person, is your skin. Remove the skin, you experience that person’s touch in your mind. You’ve dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings…there is no real independent self, aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world, inspecting other people. You are in fact, connected not just via Facebook, and Internet, you’re actually quite literally connected by your neurons. And there is a whole chains of neurons around this room, talking to each other. And there is no real distinctiveness of your consciousness from somebody else’s consciousness.
The Persian poet Sa’adi was not a neuroscientist, but he hit upon the very same truth. At roughly the same time that Maimonides was writing the Laws of Repentance in Cairo, he was in Shiraz, giving the world this insight:
Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and one soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you’ve no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain!
To work on our own teshuvah in isolation from our neighbors’ ge’ulah is not only wrong, it’s absurd, impossible. A Jew ought to know that the worldy needs of the other — a neighbor, a stranger, and in the most expansive way, even an enemy — are rightly his or her spiritual concern. Our journey Home goes through our neighbor’s stomach, as it were…a thought that I’ll leave for Rabbi Bellush to expand upon next Saturday. It goes through many, many uncomfortable places. Our journey home takes us through soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and orphanages. Our journey home takes us through nursing homes, hospital rooms, and houses of mourning. Our journey home takes us, if not in fact then at least in thought and prayer, to prisons, to battlefields and to refugee camps. To the extent that we wish to be redeemed of our own broken pasts and made new and whole, we need to show up for those around us who are hurting. “Redemption is effected by others.” Who will redeem the other, if not you?
With all my heart, I hope that you’re not here this morning just because someone said so. I hope you are here to discover new meaning, to walk new paths, I hope you’re here with open hearts, open wide to the possibilities of teshuvah and geulah, repentance and redemption.