My God, the life which you gave me ]was? Is?] pure.
A newborn baby has a pure life. It has not done anything wrong. It is innocent. It has an innocent cry. When it feels discomfort, it cries. Its caretakers have a few tactics for dealing with the baby’s needs: it might need to suckle; it might need to be cleaned; it might need to cuddle, to snuggle; it might not be warm enough, or it might be too warm.
The newborn baby might not even know what need makes it feel discomfort. It cannot express exactly what it needs. It has no words. I don’t know if it knows exactly what it needs; yet its needs are genuine, existential. Its life depends on meeting those needs. If no caretaker addresses those needs, it will die.
The caretakers run through the repertoire of needs, and usually the baby will stop crying.
So the baby’s cry, without words, without specifying anything, is pure, genuine; I might even say, holy.
After we have run though our repertoire of tactics, if the baby still cries, we explain that it has colic, as if that word explains anything.
The life that I was given was pure. It is not pure now. I have scratched it in a few places, dinged it. Now it has some worn places, some corroded places, some corrupted places. When I express what I need or want in words, sometimes I ask for what I should not have, what I should not want.
The broken sound of the shofar, the quavering sound of the shofar, makes this day יום תרועה , the day of the broken, quavering sound (Numbers 29:1). The shofar has no words. It does not ask for any specific thing. The cry resembles the newborn baby’s cry.
In the course of Rosh Hashanah, we have plenty of words. Our prayer book has too many words. We at this congregation skip some of them, thank God. Wise people put those words in the prayer book, so most of those words probably guide us to ask for what we honestly need. We also add our own words, some of which come from the undamaged parts of our life, from what we really need; some of which come from the corroded parts, the corrupted parts.
The shofar has no words. It only speaks for what we really need. It speaks what we cannot put into words.
The sages of the Talmud offer another, surprising, model for the quavering cry of the shofar. Yavin, Canaanite King of Hazor, has been oppressing his Hebrew subjects for years. His general, Sisera, heads to battle to subdue the rebellious Hebrews, but he gets badly defeated. As he flees the battlefield, he is killed. Devorah, the prophet and judge of Israel, composes a song celebrating her victory against the forces of Sisera. At the end of the song, she imagines the mother of Sisera distraught that her son’s chariot has not yet retuned from the battlefield, worried, sobbing (Judges 5:28).
I think she has words for why she is worried, but her cry has no words . . . it is just יבבה )yevavah(, whimpering (The word occurs nowhere else in the Bible, but in Aramaic, and later Hebrew, it means whimpering. Targum Onkelos uses this word to translate the Hebrew word תרועה in Numbers 29:1 into Aramaic). The rabbis of the Talmud explain that the sound of the Shofar should quaver like the whimpering of the mother of Sisera (Rosh Hashanah 33b).
She has a real, genuine reason to cry: she is a mother, fearful that her son has died. Her cry comes from a pure place.
The wisest of her ladies in waiting try to assuage her fears, reassuring her that the men are probably delayed because they are busy collecting more prizes, dyed embroidered fabrics and young women. They use a demeaning, disparaging, ugly word for women.
In the rules of ancient warfare, a victorious soldier killed his defeated enemy men, and took his prizes from the women and the valuable property.
You and I do not understand what dyed, embroidered fabrics mean, because we live in the age of machine-made clothing. We think cloth is inexpensive. In the ancient world every scrap of cloth took hours, probably hundreds of hours of work.
My wife once received as a present an entire shearing of a single sheep. It smelled like a sheep. It took hours to wash it well enough so that she could stand to spend time with it. Then it had to be combed. Then, using a primitive tool called a drop spindle, she painstakingly turned it into thread; then plaited the thread into yarn; then died the yarn; then wove the yarn into fabric. It took months of work, day after day, for her to make herself a jacket out of that wool. That was the only way to have a garment in the ancient world.
No, wait, there was another way. You could find the person who had the garment, kill anyone around her, maybe kill her too, or take her into slavery, and then you could take the garment.
Deborah imagines the wise ladies-in waiting reassuring Sisera’s mother that she need not worry about her son. He is probably dragging home some slave girls, and some beautiful, unimaginably expensive clothing. Probably he will share some of that with his beloved mother. The ladies-in-waiting assuage her pure dread with the most crass alternatives: wealth and the power to oppress helpless people.
In our own experience, that is how people often deal with the fear of death: Life, we pretend, has meaning because we have wealth, and power over other people. How much of our limited time do we spend amassing more wealth, and developing more power over others?
We might not be wise enough to recognize when our prayers come from our crass desires for wealth, and for power. That’s why we need the sound of the shofar, without any words. We need the sound of the shofar that comes from our purest part. It expresses what we really need.
Eliezer Finkelman Rosh Hashanah 5780 September 30, 2019.