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    Rosh Hashanah: The biblical importance of the shofar

    September 21st, 2022

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 21 September, 2022.

    The COVID years have been especially difficult during the High Holy Days. In many parts of the world, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur have seen synagogues locked and their congregants under lockdown, feeling depressed, bereft and uncertain. Where normally the synagogues are chock-full on these days, and services are rich in song and prayer, COVID has made a mockery of the holiest days of the calendar.

    No crowds gathered, indeed no congregations at all – at least no official ones. No choirs officiated, only occasional budding cantors trying to sing the traditional tunes at home or out in the garden with only the trees and plants listening. No blowing of the shofar with its eerie sounds and piercing calls to repentance. Poor shofar! Back in its drawer, no smile on its face, no loving handling, just silence, just dreams of what used to be.

    The shofar is normally the great dramatic moment of the New Year service. It also marks the end of Yom Kippur, with its affirming shout, “Hear O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” If the shofar goes well and the right sounds are emitted, there is a hum of approval. If something goes awry, the congregation shakes their heads and mutters something about Satan Mekatreg, the spirit of mischief, getting into the instrument.

    The shofar is one of a range of Biblical instruments listed in the final chapter (number 150) of the Book of Psalms. It is a trumpet, but not in the usual sense of the word. It is not a contrived instrument but merely a hollowed-out ram’s horn. It is not from a cow, as that would remind us of the sin of the Golden Calf.

    There are popular tales about a Ba’al Teki’ah (a shofar blower), who appears before a court of law. He tells the magistrate he is a shofar blower. The magistrate asks what a shofar is. The hapless litigant says, “A trumpet, Your Honor!” The magistrate says, “A trumpet, eh?” “No, Your Honor,” replies the litigant, “It’s a shofar, not a trumpet!”

    Even though the shofar blower has set notes to sound, music is not its main feature: it’s the message that matters. Nor is the art so easy to master. As an apprentice rabbi in London, I discovered the truth of the Talmudic saying as a shofar blower virtuoso at the Bayswater Synagogue.

    Blowing the shofar was a well-known, multi-purpose call in Biblical times. Rabbi Saadia Gaon identified 10 occasions when the shofar was used. It announced the Creation, the Revelation on Mount Sinai and the exhortations of the prophets. It proclaimed a military advance and it called for a military retreat. It marked calendar occasions, such as the commencement of a new month, and announced the word of God. One day, it will proclaim the messianic redemption.

    The shofar is commanded in the Torah (Numbers 29:1). It has two chief, seemingly contradictory, purposes, as a call to war (Numbers 10:1-10) and as a proclamation of freedom (Leviticus 25:9). Translated into personal, spiritual terms, the first purpose sees the individual struggling with themselves, battling an inner enemy, feeling guilt for the year’s wrongdoing; the second purpose sees the human soul, cleansed of its transgressions, committing to a new regimen that is full of positive possibilities.

    Maimonides says, “Although the blowing of the shofar is a command of the Torah, it has further meaning: ‘Awake, you slumberers, from your sleep and rouse yourselves from your lethargy. Search your deeds and return in repentance. Remember your Creator, you who forget truth in the vanities of the moment, who go astray after vain illusions that neither profit nor save. Look to your souls, mend your ways and actions, leave your evil path and unworthy purpose, seek the way of the Lord.”

    The Zohar sees Divine-human reciprocity in the shofar. It says, “When human beings repent of their sins, they blow the shofar on earth. Its sound ascends on high and awakens the heavenly shofar, and so mercy is aroused and the judgment of doom is removed.”

    Sermons on these days tend to focus on the things we have done wrong, but that was hardly the appropriate thought at a time when the enemy was not internal and not ourselves but an external pestilence that polluted every part of the globe. What COVID did to the human heart and soul, the individual, the family, and the social mood and make-up was nothing less than horrific. We could hardly lay the finger of blame on ourselves that year. Nor could the darshanim (professional or qualified expounders of Scripture) rebuke us too robustly.

    We were not lacking our faults our failings and our failures, but that couldn’t be the right theme for that year. The war inside our conscience certainly needed attention but not at this moment. The preachers gave notice: once COVID was over, they’d be back on the anti-transgression track but not yet. What was more relevant that year was not the first but the second aspect of the shofar: not the call to war but the cry of peace.

    The shofar is back on-duty once COVID is more or less gone. Indeed, the retreat of the COVID enemy fitted into the Biblical notion of starting a battle with the shofar blast and using the same shofar to mark the retreat from battle.

    The major task that awaited us in the absence of the shofar was to promise to work on our values and virtues. This year, God will tell us how we are doing; this year, the agenda is to get a start on the peace, justice, truth and love that we need to pursue.


    “But he has the last cry”: The Jewish New Year, when humanity contends with God

    September 20th, 2022

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 20 September, 2022.

    The Jewish New Year, the onset of which is governed by a lunar calendar and falls this year on 26 and 27 September, is a solemn festival of remembrance, prayer, penitence, and faith. It is as different from 1 January as any date could be. There is no carnival spirit. There are no beach barbecues. The day’s observances are not devoted to drinking, but thinking.

    The thinking, however, is not academic or philosophical. It illustrates the contention of Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said of the constitution of the United States that it is “not a document but a living organism”. These words are true of the Rosh HaShanah experience, too. It is not so much an intellectual but an existential moment, arousing reflection about the nature of being human, being alive, being Jewish.

    A provocative highlight is the synagogue scriptural readings of the biblical story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) — undoubtedly one of the central stories of world literature and religion. Its fifteen short verses of unparalleled artistry show that the patriarch Abraham would go anywhere and do anything for the sake of God.

    Christians say it denotes that God’s “son” gave his life for the sake of humanity. For Muslims, it depicts Ishmael, prepared to be martyred.

    Some Jews see Isaac as the historical Jew, offered on the altar of God and His Torah. Not that the text itself says there was a sacrifice. There was a test, not a murder: a willingness for martyrdom, not martyrdom itself. Isaac, though not unscathed, survived; Abraham too survived, though subdued and changed.

    The Hebrew sages suggest that God addressed Abraham with the words, “Please stand by Me in this trial so no one will say your earlier trials had no substance.” This refers to the legend that there were ten trials of Abraham.

    Why, we wonder, was the patriarch constantly tested? The rabbis said that as a potter tests not his worst but his best work, so God tests the righteous but not the wicked. The wicked need no test; what makes them wicked is that — like poor quality pottery — they are full of holes, defective and unreliable.

    It seems likely that God had no intention to kill Isaac. Maybe Abraham and Isaac sensed that God would push them hard but not require a death, since the Torah forbids child sacrifice. It is said that the ram offered in Isaac’s place existed from the time of Creation, evidence that no sacrifice was envisaged.

    In a sense this speaks about the Holocaust too. There were six million Holocaust martyrs, but the Jewish people as an entity survived. Bruised and battered, Jews lost huge numbers — but the people as a whole somehow survived. Like Isaac, the Jewish people was shaken; like Isaac, they lived to tell the tale.

    Some criticise Abraham for going along blindly with God’s command. But could he have said “No”? Surprisingly, he could. Though Jews acclaim and revere God, they have a tradition of contention with Him.

    I once addressed a conference of Australian naval chaplains where one of the padres bared his soul with the words, “We are taught that God is always right. But it’s hard for us to always let God win the argument and, as in the Book of Job, to have the last word. What do you Jews say when they are upset with God?” A fair question.

    I replied, “It is said of Abraham that he is the Friend of God. God is our friend, and good friends (even as great as God and as small as human beings) can disagree with each other. Jews love God intensely, but they are not afraid to confront Him!”

    The history of confrontation goes back as far as Abraham himself. It began when Abraham said to God, “Does the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” (Genesis 18:25). It continued when Moses asked, “Why do You deal evilly with this people?” (Exodus 5:22). In the Talmud the question arises, “Is this religion, and is this its reward?”

    In the Jewish tradition, Rosh HaShanah is the annual day of judgment when God looks at His Creation and judges it. But the judging goes both ways. God judges man, man judges God — and God doesn’t always get off so lightly. What Jews find hard to take is the grim suspicion that God permits suffering, and history’s attempts at theodicy and rationalisation leave us unsatisfied. When we say that God intended to push Abraham and his son hard but not put them to death, it is reassuring but it still seems to ignore human suffering. Did God really need to test us so hard?

    It’s a question that keeps on keeping on. In his novel “The Town Beyond the Wall”, Elie Wiesel depicts Pedro the humanist as saying, “The dialogue — or duel — between man and his God doesn’t end in nothingness. Man may not have the last word, but he has the last cry.”


    Whenever I feel afraid – Rosh HaShanah

    September 18th, 2022

    Julie Andrews made it into a famous song – the notion that whenever I feel afraid I make out that I don’t fear the future.

    In “The Sound of Music”, Julie’s response to fear was to hold her head erect and whistle a happy tune so that no-one would suspect she was afraid…

    In my case, there hasn’t ever been a Rosh HaShanah when I didn’t feel afraid and uncertain about what to do. You probably always felt as afraid as I did.

    This Rosh HaShanah is no exception. How can we not feel afraid when health crises have not been overcome, the war in Eastern Europe shows no signs of abating, the cost of living is skyrocketing and inflation is rampant, the climate is zigzagging, crime is surging, racist attitudes abound, Israel is menaced, and the earth alternates between fire and flood?

    When the air is anguished, and the clouds are dark, when we feel it is Un’tanneh Tokef all over again? When we wonder who will live, and who will die? Who will be born into the world, and who will not reach old age? When even the sheep are distressed, even the ministering angels are ill at ease, and God probably shakes His head in anxiety about the state of His creation.

    What did Julie Andrews do when things were not going well? She pretended. She put on a show. She wanted people to get the impression that all was well. She whistled a happy tune.

    How wonderful, but how unrealistic. Surely it is better to face facts. The Midrash (Pir’kei d’Rabbi Eliezer 31) suggests how. It says the world’s problems need the shofar. The ram which Abraham found in the thicket and sacrificed in place of Isaac yielded two ram’s-horn shofarot.

    One shofar was for the here and now, resounding at Mount Sinai to arouse hearts to the Torah. The second horn is for the future, resounding to announce the day of redemption.

    We blow the first shofar to know how to build a moral society, seeing in the other person the face of a brother or sister and looking after each other and dealing with the world’s problems one by one in a constructive way.

    We blow the second shofar to say that human redemption will come through faith, and not fear; hope, and not hatred; forgiveness, and not folly; practical effort, and not pretence.…


    What did God really want? – Rosh HaShanah

    September 18th, 2022

    The binding of Isaac, by Adi Holzer

    Look at the story of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, which we solemnly read on the second day of Rosh HaShanah. It is not merely a narrative but a dialogue with a number of speakers.

    God speaks and tells Abraham to take his son Isaac as an offering. Isaac himself apparently does not hear the command, but realises there is to be a sacrifice and asks about an animal for the offering. Abraham says God will provide the animal, hinting that Isaac will be that animal. An angel speaks and tells Abraham to leave Isaac unscathed.

    We know that the first speaker is God but I think we can also say that the voice of the angel is also the voice of God, since angels are God’s agents. If so, then God is saying two things: “Offer up Isaac” and “Don’t offer up Isaac”. Which is the real voice of God? Probably both. How perplexing!

    There is a Midrash which quotes the view of Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat who said, “Though Isaac did not die, the Torah regards him as though he had died.” Other sages said that Isaac died but was revived, though Ibn Ezra disputes this notion.

    Rabbi Shlomo Riskin suggests that something in Isaac did die: “Perhaps Isaac was so traumatised by the Akedah that a specific aspect of him did die. After all, he became the most ethereal and passive of the patriarchs”.

    If Rabbi Riskin is right, what God wanted was psychological: a part of Isaac’s personality had to be sacrificed, but not his entire being.


    All stand please! – Nitzavim

    September 18th, 2022

    Many people watch courtroom dramas on TV. What happens when the judge enters and takes his seat? Everybody stands.

    Maybe they derived this usage from Jewish procedure which in turn comes from this week’s sidra, which begins with Israel standing before God who scrutinises them all and decides their fate.

    It’s a pre-Rosh HaShanah scenario. The posture of the people depends on the agenda.

    Psalm 1 speaks of three postures – walking, standing and sitting. Blessed, says the psalmist, is the person who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, stands not in the path of sinners, and sits not in the seat of the scornful.

    What occasion is right for walking? When you have a goal and are making progress towards it. If the wicked give gratuitous advice about where to go and how to get there, you need the wisdom to assess whether the wicked are right.

    What occasion is appropriate for standing? When you see things happening around you and you need time to think and take a stand, irrespective of the sinners who want you to deflect you.

    What occasion is appropriate for sitting? When you need your mind to concentrate on a subject, taking everything seriously and not being influenced by people who can only criticise or pour scorn.