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Rosh Hashanah 5779 - Silence is Golden? A reflection on Shofar and the True Meaning of Teruah

09/12/2018 03:57:15 PM


Maharat Ruth Friedman

On one of the first days of my 9th grade biology class, our teacher walked around the room as he began the lesson. He was fairly casual so most of us didn’t think much of it until he paused for a moment and slammed the textbook he was holding closed right next to one of the girls in the class. As you can imagine, we all jumped at the noise, particularly that poor girl. Our teacher then explained that he did it to demonstrate the effects that outside stimuli can have on our nervous system - in this case, a loud unexpected noise catching our attention, making us jump, and heightening our awareness. He was clearly right on this, because I remember it very clearly 19 years later.

This story has been on my mind this year as I’ve been spending time studying the role that the shofar plays in our tradition, and on Rosh Hashanah. The sound of the shofar is loud, and startling. Even though we know the sound is coming, it still triggers an instant rise in our cortisol levels (stress hormone) and induces the “fight or flight” instinct. Listening to it has the same effect as the loud slam of a textbook. Our bodies are designed to react to a loud blast by immediately increasing awareness, stress, and even fear. That is why the Rambam sees the sound of the shofar as designed to wake us up and shake us out of our routine.

Though this sounds a bit harsh, one could argue this is actually the original role that shofar plays in the Torah. The first (and primary) place that shofar has in the Torah is Har Sinai, at matan Torah, which we read in the shofarot section of musaf. The shofar appears three times. On the morning of the 3rd day, the day that the Israelites received the Torah, we are told that there was thunder and lightning and heavy cloud covering the mountain. And וקול שופר חזק מאד  - the sound of the shofar was very loud. In response, ויחרד כל העם - the whole nation trembled. A little while later, the sound of the shofar gets louder. And then right before Moshe goes down the mountain to transmit the ten commandments, we are told that the people saw the thunder and flames and the sound of the shofar and the mountain in smoke and what did they do? They staggered, and stood far back. Their reaction - trembling, hesitation, perhaps fear - is the exact reaction that neuropsychologists would expect them to have to the shofar. It is an alarming sound designed to produce those very reactions.

Our sages understood this as well, when in the gemara in Shabbos they imagine the moment of matan torah as one in which God the mountain over the people like a barrel and said “accept the Torah today. If not, this will be your grave.” According to them, matan Torah, in which the shofar plays a central role, was primarily a moment of fear and coercion. We call it matan Torah, the giving of the Torah, because it was given to us, but we didn’t really receive it voluntarily until much later, at the time of Purim.

So what does that mean for us as we gather here today to hear the shofar? Are we only supposed to feel fear? I could end my dvar Torah here by concluding that yes, science supports the role that the shofar plays in the Torah, and so we should all feel tremendous awe and anxiety when listening to the shofar and remember that we must do teshuva because God demands it of us. However, I don’t think that this would actually inspire anyone here to change. As studies increasingly show, fear is not a particularly good tactic to use when trying to inspire someone to change. It’s pretty effective when it’s used to DISCOURAGE some behaviors, but it is not the best to INSPIRE good behavior.

And so in order to infuse Rosh Hashanah, and the shofar, with greater meaning and help inspire us, I want to look not at the role of the shofar, but at the role of the word תרועה. Even though if you would ask just about any Jew in the world what Rosh Hashanah means to them they would say shofar, in truth the shofar is not actually part of the biblical commandment of Rosh Hashanah. In the two places in the Torah that Rosh Hashanah is mentioned, it is described with the word תרועה - which we may recognize as being the set of 9 blasts that are blown many times.

What is תרועה?

The word means to be loud, to raise up in noise. It has two roles in the Tanach. The first is the way that we use it today - a series of blasts issued by a horn to draw people’s attention. We see this in the beginning of BaMidbar, when the Torah tells us that when it was time for the camp to travel in the desert, they would sound blasts to communicate different things. Tekiah meant that the camp should assemble, and truah meant that they should start moving. It served a functional purpose to telling people what to do and where to go. That is the meaning that our sages use when defining our practice on Rosh Hashanah, and hence we blow the shofar.

But teruah also has another meaning. In other places, it refers not to the sound of the shofar, but by the actions of people who are LISTENING to the shofar. In the 6th chapter of the Book of Joshua, the Israelites are preparing to capture the city of Yericho. They march around the walls of the city while the Kohanim blow the shofar - the word for that is תקיעה. And then, on the 7th day when it is time for the walls of the city to collapse and for the Israelites to enter the city, the kohanim blow the shofar, and the people cry out a תרועה - a big shout together. Here, תרועה refers not to the sound made by the shofar, but by a collective shout made by the people to accompany the sound of the shofar. We see the same meaning in Psalm 47, which we will recite seven times before we sound the shofar a few minutes from now. It says עלה אלקים בתרועה, ה’ בקול שופר. The JPS translates this as God ascends midst acclamation, the Lord to the blasts of the horn. Just like in Yehoshua, this acclamation, this תרועה, seems to be a human expression that complements the sound of the shofar.

Fascinatingly, this is how the Karaites, the sect of Jews who believe only in the holiness of the Tanach and reject rabbinic Judaism, translate the word תרועה, as it relates to Rosh Hashanah. If you go to a Karaite synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, you will not find a shofar. Rather, they translate יום תרועה as a day of shouting in prayer. They begin the ten days of repentance not with blasts of the shofar, but with a physical shouting of God’s name in prayer. We can only imagine what shul would look like if we gathered here today not with the goal of minimizing noise, but to all let loose and shout. It would be the opposite of what we are used to!

I say this not to encourage us to start shouting during davening - I am the last person who would do that! But the moment I learned this I knew this had to be the topic of my drasha today. Because the difference between תרועה meaning shofar blasts and תרועה meaning human shouting is huge to me. They’ve basically become the opposites. When we stand still, and silent, we are the receivers of the shofar sound. It alerts our stress levels and shocks us just the way the Rambam said it should, but that doesn’t translate into an obvious action. We continue to stand here, and it is our individual responsibility to act on that action now internally, or at a later time. As a community we gather together to trigger the reaction, but we don’t actually on it.

The reason I found the comparison of these two meanings of תרועה intriguing is that we live in a world so far removed from the second meaning of תרועה - shouting. We live in a society that does not value emotional expression. We see emotions not as something to be expressed, but something to be controlled. If someone is on the street shouting, you assume that something is wrong with them. If someone cries, especially a leader, we decide that they are weak. If someone is too angry, they need to control themselves. People are considered strong when they are able to control their emotions. This is particularly true of women, as we saw this past weekend with Serena Williams. We value someone who is able to act logically and not let their emotions “get in the way.” Some argue that this traces back to Descartes’ “mind-body dualism” notion, in which he argues that the mind and body are two completely separate entities. We place primacy on the mind over the body, and therefore revere the ability to use the mind to control, and suppress, the body. And so, you are strong if you are able to use your mind to control your body’s expression of your emotions.

It is not surprising that this approach can be enormously damaging. Psychologists tells us that there are three ways that we process emotion - the cognitive, physical, and impulse. Our brain processes feelings, which can lead to physical changes, and then lead to a physical impulse. If something makes me angry then my brain knows I’m angry, my blood pressure speeds up, and my impulse tells me to gesticulate or whatever it is. All 3 are needed to fully express a feeling. And so if we only tolerate the first two, and suppress the third, we are not fully processing our emotions. If we don’t let our feelings out, we don’t let them go. Intriguingly, a google search on this topic led me to discover a therapy center that focuses on encouraging patients not to sit and talk, but to emote, and therefore release everything that one has suppressed over their lifetime as a ways of achieving healing.

Most of you have known me for 5 years, and so you know that I am the list person who should be speaking about this. I am terrible at letting my emotions out, especially in public. As some of you saw last night, spontaneous dance circles aren’t really my thing. And I definitely do not cry in public. But as I realized at my sister’s wedding in June, which took place outside in a beautiful chuppah with Shlomo Katz playing the music as a couple who is so in love joyously celebrates their marriage, and all my family and friends are crying while I just stand there -  that perhaps I should not just accept this as a part of who I am, but dig deeper into why this is and try to do something about it.

The details of that process definitely are not for now, but I wanted to speak about this today because I would guess that I am not the only person in this room who feels this way. I know that there are many of us out there, lurking, who have internalized a lot of the social expectations around us and work hard to suppress the physical expression of our emotions in order to avoid vulnerability. And I’ll bet that on the whole, we are probably envious of those who are able to express their feelings and process them better. I know I certainly am.

Teshuva is ultimately a process of introspection, with the goal of self improvement. We can’t really improve if we aren’t able to process our feelings. So we gather here today as a community to stand still and silent and fulfill our obligation of listening to the shofar. But in order to fully do teshuva, we need to remember the second meaning of תרועה - the one that invites us not to stand still and silent and listen, but the one that encourages us to leave our comfort zone and shout. To not just listen to the sound, but produce our own as well.

And so this Rosh Hashanah I invite us to remember BOTH meanings of תרועה, and have the courage to break down the barriers that we’ve been trained to put up around our emotions, and to engage with the parts of ourselves that we’ve suppressed.  Because while hearing the shofar fulfills our halachic obligation of תרועה on Rosh Hashanah, it is not the sum of תרועה. As we see with the Israelites surrounding Yericho, and the Jews in Psalm 47 shouting for God, the sound of the shofar only initiates a process. It is our job to complete it. Shana tova.

Wed, January 23 2019 17 Shevat 5779