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The following was my sermon for the second day of Rosh Hashanah.  As referenced in the bottom, it was based on a couple of my older pieces, as well as a friend’s sermon from a few years ago.

The Silence of the Shofar[1] – Rosh Hashanah 5773 day 2

In the midst of the High Holiday liturgy, Jews around the world recite a prayer that describes the imagery of all of humanity passing before G-d in judgment. In describing Judgment Day, the prayer states; “The great shofar is sounded, and a silent, still voice is heard.”

The blowing of the shofar, the act of crying out to G-d through the use of an animal’s horn, is described as a wake-up call. We are to arise and open our eyes to be more conscious of the world and of ourselves.

The sound of a shofar is the primal cry of all humanity, mimicking the different cries experienced during loss. Yet, we are simultaneously tasked, as the stanza indicates, to also hear the silent, still voice.

What is this silence, and how does hearing the silence between the sounds of crying enhance our growth as human beings?

Life today is very noisy. We are constantly inundated with the wonder of instant communication and technology. While there is tremendous value in having everything at our fingertips, we have lost the ability to hear the silence.

In “Ethics of Our Fathers,” a work of ethical and moral statements of the rabbis of old, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught: “All my days I grew up around sages. I found that there is nothing better for the body than silence; explanation is not the essential feature, rather action; and all who speak too much will come to sin” (Chapter 1:17).

One explanation offered reads this piece as a unified, single subject. One should limit what one says about material, this-worldly subjects. Additionally, one should not be so cavalier as to think speaking about spiritual matters is a simple task as well. One should be just as careful about discussing spiritual matters because words become meaningless and fleeting when there is nothing concretizing one’s thought. Finally, if one does speak more and doesn’t perform, one will bring about negative judgment towards everyone. In other words, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel is describing a contemplative quiet; a person needs to learn the value of choosing the appropriate moments to speak.

Silence also has another function, specifically for this time of year, the aseret yemei teshuvah.  R. Nachman of Breslov explains that to truly repent, one must listen and remain silent.[2]  This is represented by the bracha on teqiat shofar, lishmoa’ kol shofar, on hearing the sound of the shofar.  The mitzvah of Shofar is to listen.  But what are we listening to?  What is the sound of the shofar?

We are listening to a seemingly paradoxical sound.  In the world of Tanach, the shofar communicated pomp and circumstance, its sound conveyed national energy. Its sounds would accompany the most meaningful, most sweeping public moments – the blasts of the shofar would accompany the coronation of the King, the army marching proudly into battle, the declaration of the Jubilee year. Yet Hazal, in their interpretations, hear the sound of weeping in the shofar as well – the cries of an abandoned child in distress, rachel mevakha al baneha and the cries of a mother waiting for her son to return home from war, eim Sisera, from whom we learn the tradition of  the 100 blasts we sound. There is no paradox, no contradiction between these two experiences. The teqiyot, the triumphant, unbroken sounds, represent us at our most complete and whole, the triumphant, the happy. The shevarim and teruot, the broken blasts, represent those moments when we are broken, when all we can do is cry. Taken together, the sounds of the shofar represent the extremes of the human experience – from the proudest moments to the meekest, from the communal to the solitary. The moments when we feel like saying, as Rabbi Soloveitchik did in his famous essay, Lonely Man of Faith:

I am lonely.  Let me emphasize, however, that          by stating “I am lonely” I do not intend to convey to you the impression that I am alone.  I, thank G-d, do enjoy the love and friendship of many.  I meet people, talk, preach, argue, reason: I am surrounded by comrades and acquaintances.  And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me       constantly.  I am lonely because at times I feel rejected  and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my most   intimate friends, and the words of the Psalmist, “My father and my mother have forsaken me” ring quite often in my ears like the plaintive cooing of the turtledove.[3]


The shofar gives voice to those moments that are expressed by pure emotion, the moments when we have so much say, but have no words.

After each blast of the shofar, there is a moment of silence. Unetaneh Tokef describes the experience of the revelation of the Shechina on Rosh Hashanah. We chant “uvashofar gadol yitaqah, v’qol dememah daqqa yishamah – and the great shofar is sounded, and a silent, still voice is heard.” After each blast of the shofar, after expressing our most personal prayers and innermost thoughts, if we listened carefully, we could hear that silent, still voice – we could hear God whispering back. We encounter God through the transcendent moments in our lives, at the happiest times and at the saddest times, when we are alone in our thoughts and prayers, when there are no words, because nothing more needs to be said.[4]

The still, small voice of Rosh Hashanah is about hearing the echoes of life. Whether we laugh or cry, those sounds are the overt expression of our emotions. The challenge is to hear those same sounds when we are afraid of being expressive. When sitting in synagogue, reading the different pieces of liturgy, are we hearing our thoughts as well? Do we understand the words we are reading and what they say about life? Have we given ourselves time to be internally reflective? Do we hear the cries of the others around us? Or are we scared of the inner voice, so we do all we can to drown it out?

As we reflect on the sounds we are about to hear, I would like to take this opportunity to wish that this be a year we hear the quiet between the tears, the silence between the laughter, and allow that silence to be a guide for a sweet and meaningful new year.

[1] The following drasha is based on my words from the Sheloshim talk I gave for my brother in Law, Baruch Frankel, MD A”H, as well as my article from Sept. 13, 2012, “A silent, still voice: reflections on the Jewish New Year” found at http://www.mycentraljersey.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2012309120068 and https://achaplainsjourney.wordpress.com/2012/09/13/a-silent-still-voice-reflections-on-the-jewish-new-year/.

[2] Liqqutei Moharan Qamma, Torah, Ot Beit

[3] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Lonely Man of Faith.” P. 3

[4] The preceding two paragraphs were based on the Rosh Hashanah sermon (5770) delivered by Rabbi Avraham Bronstein at the Hamptons Synagogue, Westhampton Beach, NY. (with changes)