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Noise
Rosh HaShanah 2 5770/2009
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline

Yesterday, I acknowledged that I had a very difficult time writing sermons this year. It wasn't that I didn't know what to say. In fact, I summed it up in one paragraph, and this is it:

In the prayer un'taneh tokef we are presented with two conflicting images juxtaposed: uvashofar gadol yitaka, v'kol d'mama daka yishama, "The great shofar will be sounded, and the still small voice will be heard." The essence of these High Holy Days is whether we have used these very opportunities as we should to make a great noise and to be very quiet. Yesterday was Shabbat in addition to Rosh HaShanah, and I explored being quiet. Today I want to explore making noise.

That's it. You have time to get home before kickoff and make your own noise. You have heard the essence of what I want to say. Make noise, be quiet. Be quiet, make noise. From the time we were babies there have been times to make noise and times to be quiet, and if you know the difference between them, you can live a successful life.

But if you want to hang around, I will offer you a few thoughts on what kind of noise to make. Because you know that there is noise, and then there is noise. There is the noise the garbage truck makes outside your window at 6:15 in the morning, and there is the noise the front door makes when a person you love returns after a long absence. There is the noise the telephone makes at 2:00 in the afternoon, and there is the noise the telephone makes at 2:00 in the morning. There is the noise an orchestra makes as it is tuning up, and there is the noise those very same musicians with those very same instruments make five minutes later when the baton drops.

Look, I am a rabbi, and so I try to find God wherever I can. Whether the noise is the roar of air traffic over Gravelly Point, or the genius of the Mendelssohn octet, or exuberance of the 60-some children who fill our preschool, or the angelic resonance of our Hazzan's voice, I listen for what the author of Psalm 93 described: The rivers may rise and rage, the waters may pound and pulsate, the floods may swirl and storm, yet above the resounding crash of the sea and its mighty breakers...there is God.

The very phrase that prompts me to address this topic today shofar gadol, the great shofar -- occurs in the preaching of the Prophet Isaiah. Isaiah set the standard for prophetic vision. Other prophets had other styles; some of them reached greater peaks of rhetoric and inspiration. But it was Isaiah who drew out from the words of Torah and the traditions of Israel the most consistent understanding of God as the source of justice. Isaiah challenged the kings of Judah and the kings of the other nations with a vision of faith in and fidelity to God. Isaiah challenged the people of Judah and the people of other nations with a demand for social justice, both as a personal standard and as a societal goal. Isaiah challenged believers and non-believers alike to examine their faith with integrity. He was a deeply committed to the covenant with God in all its aspects.

In fact, Isaiah was so definitively the paradigm of the prophet that the pronouncements and insights of others were later collected and included in the Biblical Book of Isaiah. The first 39 chapters of the Book of Isaiah are attributed to the original prophet. The rest of the book is the product of two or more individuals who followed the model of this powerful visionary.

Our Isaiah invokes the sound of the great shofar at the conclusion of a long apocalyptic vision in which he foresees calamity for the nations of the world. Their arrogance in challenging God and their corruption in treating other human beings is described in withering language. The Jewish people, though not innocent of these transgressions, are nevertheless depicted as the victims of a world filled with injustice. But God has seen their suffering, says Isaiah, and will redeem them both outside and within their land. "The great shofar will be sounded," he says, "and those who strayed who are in the land Assyria and those who were expelled who are in the land of Egypt shall come and worship on the holy mountain in Jerusalem."

Michael Fishbane, who wrote the haftarah commentary in our chumash, calls this the New Exodus. The lost, the oppressed, the disenfranchised will come home and be welcomed into God's presence.

But the shofar? What is the deal with the shofar? Nowhere in the story of the Exodus do we hear a sounding of a "great shofar!"

The sound of the shofar waxing and waning occurs instead at the moment of revelation at Sinai, seven weeks later by traditional calculation. The sound of the first great shofar that heralds our return to the land occurs instead as the Ten Commandments are revealed, a year by divine plan and 40 years by practical circumstances before the lost, the oppressed, the disenfranchised Israelites arrive at the Promised Land to worship God at the holy mountain. Why does Isaiah invoke the sound of the great shofar in his New Exodus?

Let me ask you a question I hope would be worthy of Isaiah were he standing in front of us today. How do we know God in this woeful world of ours? Where is the God of Isaiah, that Source of morality, that Architect of justice, that Wellspring of ethics? How is a Jew drawn close to the covenant in a society that competes using the unfair advantage of materialism and pleasure and self indulgence?

You have arrived here today to hear the answer. Those of you who frequent this synagogue and those of you here for the first time in a year, those of you whose every action oozes with the details of Jewish observance and those of you who rely on the occasional yearnings of your Jewish heart, you have come to hear the answer. It is the shout of the shofar that awakens within you a consciousness of God in the world. In that moment of anticipation before the notes are called, in that collective breath that is held before the ba'al tekia blows with skill, we are ready to be stirred, to have our consciousness and our conscience awakened.

That was Sinai. That was the passage from mere liberation to mission. The great shofar waxing and waning kindled within us the need to shout for a moral standard, to cry out for justice in our world, to make noise in the demand for ethical living. The noise that was heard even above the clamor of God's appearance to the Jewish people, arguably the most significant religious experience in history, was the call to do God's work, the call to be in partnership with God. We are not to be passive recipients of experience. We are to make history.

Think for a moment about what the sound of the shofar, the sound of the modern trumpet, bugle or coronet brings to mind. It makes you take notice. It makes you alert. It makes you recognize the importance of the moment to come.

The tekia, the long blast. The brass band playing the Star Spangled Banner or Hail to the Chief. The trumpet flourish that opens the Olympic Games. The bugle sounding reveille or the call to charge. We have long recognized, inside and outside of Jewish civilization, that the power of the shofar and its brass descendants is to awaken us from our apathy and demand attention and engagement.

It is that sound that announces the presence of God. We will, in a few moments, read ten verses from the Bible depicting God's appearance along with the sound of the shofar, the shofarot verses. They remind us that at Sinai, at the start of the year, in distress and in celebration, when the noise of the shofar is made we are conscious of the presence of God.

And when God is present, we should sound the shofar. That is what the Psalmist says, after all (98:6): bachatzotzrot v'kol shofar hari'u lifnei hamelekh H'; sound the trumpet and the shofar before the Sovereign God.

Listen, we don't walk around carrying a shofar to summon God's presence when we feel like it, and we don't give a blast when we feel God's presence. I remember thinking the better of taking a shofar to the ceremony on the White House lawn sixteen years ago when Yitzchak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed an agreement; even if I got a pistol-shaped object past security, raising it and calling attention to myself might not have had the desired effect.

What is the noise, what is the sound we are to make to bring God's presence closer and to bring us closer to God? At least part of it is the cry for justice. When we raise our voices above the din of bickering and name-calling that has infected public discourse and demand a focus on what is just and good, we are sounding the great shofar.

And at least part of it is the cry for compassion. When the bugler plays taps, when the jazzman blows the blues, it can break your heart. When we raise our voices to call attention to those in need of help, the poor, the oppressed and our family and neighbors in distress, we are sounding the great shofar.

Sometimes I think we are afraid to raise our voices like the sound of the shofar. It doesn't mean we are afraid to raise our voices but there is a difference between a scream and a shout. We live in difficult times. A lot of the presumptions we have made about the way things should be are no longer valid. It is hard very hard to think about the suffering of others if we are consumed with suffering of our own. In fact, it is hard to think about the suffering of others when we are just worried that our own suffering may be right around the corner. And, my friends, it is even more the case if we have become accustomed to a level of security and prosperity that seems threatened by the antagonism of violent enemies and the greed and the corruption of those with whom we have entrusted our security and prosperity.

And we have more reasons to be afraid our voices. The culture of our society has put a premium on the personal attack, on the introduction of irrelevant detail, on the win-at-any-cost climate of political life. I won't list examples they are constantly in our headlines. But who would be willing to expose himself or herself to public ridicule, to distracting accusations, to name-calling and to disparagement in pursuit of justice and compassion, especially if the choice is to accept the injury or to validate the bad behavior?

The liturgy of the day offers us an answer. Uvashofar gadol yitaka, the great shofar shall be sounded. The Jew, the faithful Jew must be willing to raise a shout above the cacophony and insist that we transcend our selfish squabbles and acknowledge the presence and mandate of God.

And how do we do that? I can feel you tense when I say those words. You think that I am going to recommend policy positions. Relax. Make up your own mind about health care reform. Reflect in your own heart about immigration policy. Apply your own values to the most effective approach to economic recovery. If you want my opinions on those matters, see me later. Right now I want you to focus on what the Jew, the faithful Jew brings to the conversation. Right now, I want you to consider not the details, not the battle plans, but the context.

The call of the shofar is a call for justice. Justice is not always expedient, and it is rarely simple. Is it just for a free people in its own land to determine its own destiny? Is it just for a free people in its own land to make its own history? Is it just for a free people in its own land to protect itself against hostile neighbors? Yes, yes, yes, you answer. But what if that destiny includes bullying its way into an empire? What if that history means imposing its religious view on non-believers? What if those neighbors are hostile because they merely exist, and protection means extermination?

Now justice is not so self-evident. And what is just from inside a society's biases may not bear the scrutiny of the rest of a just humanity. In practical terms, the call for justice we raise above the hysteria and hyperbole must be clear: it is unacceptable for Iran to be a nuclear power; the goal must be prevention. And when people want to yell and scream about one-sided reports and various excesses of one government or another, the very complicated considerations come down to a clarion call that must rise above the fray: it is unacceptable for Iran to be a nuclear power; the goal must be prevention. I can tell you that those statements are consistent with current United States policy if you can believe Ambassador Dennis Ross and that the government of Israel concurs if you can believe Ambassador Michael Oren. Sound the great shofar of your own.

And the call of the shofar is a call for compassion. Compassion is not always obvious, and it is rarely inexpensive. When you go home for lunch today, take a look at the food on your plate. I am hoping it is kosher, but even if it is not, you know that the number of hands that were put to work so that you could fill your plate is almost endless. From the farmer who planted a seed or awoke early to feed the livestock, to the workers who transform them into a harvest, to the drivers who bring them for packaging, to the corporations that get them to market, to the cashiers who exchange them for your payment every one of them looks forward to sitting down with their loved ones at special moments and on ordinary days, in comfortable surroundings and with peace of mind and looking at the food on their plates. Each of us, in our own way, should thank God for that privilege, but once God is in the equation, we have to consider our role as God's partners. What is our comfort worth, as individuals and as a community?

I spoke to you last year about Hekh'sher Tzedek, Conservative Judaism's initiative to certify the ethics of kosher food production. I am please to tell you that the guidelines have been developed and that the process is in place. In a few months, products with "the magen tzedek," the "justice shield" will begin to appear in the market. I will keep you posted. It is a great accomplishment for our Movement, but we are not exempted as individuals because of this surrogate effort. The shofar must unlock your wellspring of compassion and cause you to raise your voice for ethical business practices and treatment of workers.

It is what we do as Jews. It is what validates our partnership in covenant with God. It is what brings us closer God and closer to our purpose as a particular flavor of the human family.

Is it effective? The Book of Joshua tells us that the power of the shofar can bring down the walls of a great city without a single weapon. Is it the right thing to do? One of the verses we read in the shofarot reminds us aleh elohim b'tru'ah, H' b'kol shofar, which the midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 29:3) understands: God the Judge arises to the throne of judgment, but when we sound the shofar, God the Compassionate moves to the throne of compassion. If the sound of the shofar can shatter the walls of the city, if it can move God between justice and compassion, then your own heart does not stand a chance if you only hear its call.

There are two other sets of verses in the Amidah, those verses that depict remembrance, and those that recall God's sovereignty. Yesterday, we talked about the zikhronot verses. But for just a few minutes now I want to place the malkhuyot verses in a little context.

As it said yesterday, of all the ideas in our prayers, the hardest idea of all is one of the most common -- God as King. America was founded not just by throwing off the yoke of human sovereignty, but by denying its very existence.

What is the replacement symbol for absolute power, with the ability to be beneficent or malicious? Dictators are presumed to be evil. Presidents and prime ministers are deposed by elections or unpopular decisions. No other word -- captain, manager, director, general, commander -- conveys the virtually limitless power that kings and queens wielded for thousands of years of human history. Caesar is a salad, Kaiser is a piece of bread and Czar gets appointed for less than four years by the President.

What can replace in our minds this notion of limitless authority to command and discharge? Like most of our notions of the spiritual, we have to look within. What aspect of a sovereign God exists within our heart, within our soul, within our might to enable us to connect with the Holy One of Blessed Name? What mirror can we hold to the sovereign self that will reflect back to us less of the self and more of the Sovereign?

My friend Rabbi Irwin Kula helped me think about this question. He said, "Jack, don't be so hung up on the word. What is it about the idea of `king' that spoke to our ancestors and that speaks to us? Deconstruct the notion of king, and you can reconstruct it again."

So I thought about it a lot, and, as I said yesterday, it completely derailed my ability to write the sermon I set out to write. But I came up with the three things we look for in a king, even those of us, like you and me, who no longer want a king of any kind. Yesterday I shared two of them. One of them is authority. We want authority. We want someone with the capacity to make decisions large and small and the credibility to enforce them.

Think about whom that is in your life. For part of your life, it is a parent. For some part of your day it is a teacher, a boss, a supervisor. In some circumstances it is a doctor, a judge, a ranking officer or a coach. But in the end, the truth is clear, and clearer today in a world without kings than it ever was before.

The authority is you. The free will we have been given is another gift from God. Every decision in our lives is an exercise of free will. We have the choice every day, every moment to do the right and the good or to do the self-serving. They are not always mutually exclusive, but they are not by any stretch of the imagination always the same. The only question is, are we accepting our conscious responsibility for it?

There must be a direction in which we can turn to see the evidence of our success or failure. And, indeed, that direction is outward. When we raise our voices with the call of the shofar for justice and compassion, we know that the gifts we have been given are being put to good us, to the use they were intend to be put. In our engagement of this world around us, in our mandate to make this world a better place of which God is role model and inspiration are the keys to our understanding.

If the second thing we look for in a king is someone who preserves and represents our legacy, then the third thing is security. The king represents the protection, the promotion and the persistence of our most cherished values.

A thousand years ago, when kings were common and the imagery of the prayer book resonated in a tangible way, a poet composed a liturgical song that anticipated this circumstance. Un'taneh tokef holds the key to discovering the bridge between authority and security, between kingship and the call to justice and compassion, between malkhuyot and shofarot. The poet plucked two words from the passionate prophet Isaiah shofar gadol, the great shofar and added one piece of advice: sound it. Raise a mighty shout for justice. Call out clearly for compassion. Make some sacred noise.

Is there more to it than that? Of course. I said it in the beginning, when you had the chance to escape. Make noise, be quiet. Be quiet, make noise. From the time we were babies there have been times to make noise and times to be quiet, and if you know the difference between them, you can live a successful life. I wish you a very successful life.


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