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Shofar Calls Remind Us to be Present, Remember

We remember, and in turn we ask God to remember us with compassion and mercy

By JUDITH HALEVY
 
Rosh Hashana is known as Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance. To remember, we must be fully present. We laugh about our senior moments, those moments when we stand hopelessly in front of the open refrigerator door trying to remember why we entered the room. My favorite story of the year is about Ethel and Sylvia, out for a day of shopping. They are in Sylvia’s car, and Ethel appreciates the ride. Therefore, she says nothing when Sylvia zooms through a red light. Then another red light. After Sylvia runs the third red light, Ethel can’t stand it any more. “Sylvia,” she says, “You ought to be more careful. You’ve now gone through three red lights.” Sylvia looks at her, absolutely amazed. “You mean” she says, “I’m driving?”
 
Rabbi Judith HaLevy, Rabbinic Leadeship Initiative, Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, IsraelWe all need to stay present as we drive our lives down this bumpy road of life. We can only hope, as they say, “God is our co-pilot." The three sections of the shofar service – Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot – summon us to be present, and to pay attention to God’s presence from earliest creation until this moment.
 
We remember, and in turn we ask God to remember US with compassion and mercy. Zochrenu l’chaim, we pray. Remember us to life. Yom Hazikaron is the Day of Memory. We will spend the next 10 days remembering our own deeds and transgressions, until the final blast of the shofar on Yom Kippur shakes the heavens with our plea. May we all be inscribed for another year in the Book of Life.
 
On Rosh Hashana the sound of the shofar reverberates around the world, as Jews begin each shofar service with the shofar blasts of “Malchuyot.” Wake Up; Be Present! Adonai Melech, adonai malach, Adonai Yimloch l’olam va’ed. The Majestic God of Creation rules in the past, present and future, we declare. For every Jew, this is Rosh Hashana, the day of remembrance.
 
Over the last 10 years, however, an amazing metamorphosis has taken place. Slowly, organically, even among the most secular populations of Israel, a new High Holidays have emerged alongside the Torah-mandated holidays that have sustained Jews for millennia. Just as there are really two markings of the New Year in the Torah, one at the start of Nissan, the first of months declared as the Jews left Egypt, and our own first day of Tishrei, Rosh Hashana, so there are now two holidays called Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance, in Israel.
 
On both days, it is a penetrating sound that calls people to stop! Pay attention! Israel’s Yom Hazikaron, or Memorial Day, has become a sacred time, when thousands gather at Har Herzl, the national cemetery, to honor those who have died in the defense of the Jewish state. A siren blast sounds, and all come to quiet attention. Those present bow their heads as if listening to the sound of the shofar. This is not a memorial day of barbeques and furniture sales, but a day of deep, sincere reflection. Har Herzl, with its windswept pine trees overlooking the city of Jerusalem, is holy ground. This is a Day of Remembrance.
 
The inclination for spiritual reverence, the need to acknowledge that we are not in control of life and death, is essential to the human psyche. No matter how secular, all Israel stops to honor those who have given their lives. The TV is the great shul, as people spend the day at home watching interviews with the families of those who have lost loved ones. No one is forgotten. Every soldier counts. It is holy time, no less holy than the time that we spend at Rosh Hashana attuned to the sound of the shofar with absolute attention.
 
I experienced this absolute attention this summer on the day that the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were returned to Israel in a prisoner exchange. Regev and Goldwasser, you will remember, had been kidnapped two years ago, leading to the start of the second Lebanese war. The entire nation grew silent, glued to the television, as they watched the procession wend its way down from Lebanon, carrying the bodies home.
 
Outside of Israel, it seemed difficult to understand how the country had exchanged so many prisoners, and dangerous ones at that, for two bodies, but in Israel, it made sense . A promise had been made to remember all soldiers, and to bring them home by whatever means possible. The prisoner exchange was really about promises and memory. And as we remember, we want God to remember. Does God the Creator, the God of the first section of the shofar service, Malchuyot, really hear our plea? Does God really “remember us for life”? Does the God of History intervene in our lives?
 
The God of Malchuyot may be distant, but the God the second section of the shofar service, called Zichronot (remembrances) is the God of Noah, a God who listens and cares.  
And so, with love, did you remember Noah,
Even as you brought the Flood upon the world  
This is the God who sustains us throughout the generations, the God that we hope will remember our deeds with mercy and loving-kindness. It is the God of Noah that we turn to when we face loss and despair. Intellectually, we may only conceive of a God who is a Prime Mover, a detached creator of this glorious universe, but when “tzuris” shows up, this is the God of Noah that we pray to with great fervor.
 
‘And God remembered Noah and every living thing….” The covenant of Remembrance, of Zichronot, is with all the living, and to be reminded of God’s enduring mercy, one need only look to the rainbow in the sky. It is a universal promise to all humankind.
But then, there’s the special section for “family and friends.” God promises to pay special attention to Abraham and his descendants, and when they languish in slavery in Egypt, God remembers.  
And God heard Israel’s cry of pain, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.   
God extends his mighty arm, and takes the Jews out of Egypt. He leads them to Sinai, where the Holy Shofar sounds with a blast that echoes throughout all eternity. Here, God forges an indelible bargain with the Jewish people: shamor v’zachor – obey and remember my commandments, I will be your God, and the God of all your descendants. God becomes the God of history, and we become His people, attached by a kind of umbilical cord to our history, our culture and our civilization over centuries.
 
Memory (Zichronot) is the theme of Rosh Hashana, our Day of Remembrance. In the words of the great rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel , Judaism does not command us to believe, it commands us to remember. We sound the shofar in the middle section of the service, named Zichronot, to remember God’s love for us in the past, and to ask that we too be remembered with mercy. Recollection is a holy act; we sanctify the present by remembering the past.
 
No wonder the founders of the state of Israel began their declaration of Israel’s existence with a recitation of Israel’s connection to Jewish history. The opening words of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel proclaim:   
“Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. …Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland.”   
Judaism commands us to remember. There is to be no establishment of the State of Israel without a continuous link to Jewish history.
 
Sixty years have passed. The “Zionist project” as it is now called in Israel, has taken on a memory of its own. The establishment of the State of Israel has added a chapter to the long legacy of Jewish history, and only now is it beginning to memorialize its own sacred story. No matter how secular, or even anti-religious Israel’s founders might have been, there is an inherent need for Zichronot, to remember, and to frame our lives in a spiritual context.  Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are celebrated in Israel much as in the rest of world, but the twin new “holidays” of the late spring bring a special sense of reverence to Israelis who may never enter a synagogue or recite a prayer. The entire country is present. Remember.
 
Yom Hashoah, the day of Holocaust Remembrance, Israel’s other “new” holy day, comes one week before Yom Hazikaron. It, too, is inextricably bound to the Zichronot theme of Rosh Hashana: Does God remember us? What happens when God’s face appears to be hidden? Or, to restate the overarching question of twentieth century Jewish history: Where was God in the Holocaust?
 
For many, the establishment of the state of Israel is an answer to that question. While the early Zionists had labored for almost 100 years to establish a state for a “New Jew,” free of European historical stereotypes, it took the shock of the Holocaust to force the world into accepting the establishment of the State of Israel as a reality.
 
In the years immediately following the Holocaust, Jews did not know how to memorialize the 6 million who perished. There were only half-hearted attempts at a memorial day, both in the Diaspora and in Israel. It takes time to deal with a shock of this magnitude, and to place it within the scope of Jewish history. Our wounds were too raw.
 
Not only that, but Israel in the early 1950s and 1960s had a mixed reaction to the cataclysmic event. Israelis did not wish to look back on the weakened, vulnerable Jews who went to the gas chambers. This was to be a time of the invincible new Jew, crowned as the hero of the Six Day War. Better not to look back. Survivors kept their stories to themselves, greeting their children’s questions with silence.
 
Haim Gouri, an Israeli poet of the 1960s, captures the legacy of the Holocaust for Israel in a poem that places the story clearly within the context of Jewish memory:  
The ram came last
And Abraham did not know
It was the answer to the boy’s question,
The boy, the first issue of his vigor in the twilight of his life.
 
 He lifted his hoary head.
When he saw it was no dream, and the angel stood there-
The knife slipped from his hand.
 
The boy unbound
 saw his father’s back.
 
Isaac, we’re told, was not offered up in sacrifice.
He lived long,
Enjoyed his life, until the light of his eyes grew dim.
 
But, he bequeathed that hour to his progeny.
They are born with a knife in their hearts.   
Born with a knife in their hearts, the next generation of survivors could not forget. By the 1980s, Israel had been humbled, and after the Yom Kippur War, it was clear that Israel needed the help of the Diaspora. And where were World Jewry and Israeli Jewry to meet on common ground? In Auschwitz.
 
Today, 25 percent of all Israeli students go to Poland, and all high-ranking Israeli army officers visit Auschwitz. As my teacher Rabbi Donniel Hartman points out, Israel has now adopted the Diaspora’s reasoning for the foundation of the State of Israel – not to create a “New Jew,” but to provide a haven for all Jews from anti-Semitism. Never again, scream the fighter planes as they fly in formation over Auschwitz, never again will we be at the mercy of others, as long as the State of Israel exists to defend the Jews from anti-Semitism.
 
And so, eight days before Yom Hazikaron in Israel, another holy day of memory is observed, Yom Hashoah. As the siren sounds simultaneously all over the country, people step out of their cars and stand by the side of the road to remember the 6 million who perished. It is as if a holy shofar has been sounded to pierce the hearts of all who are living. The sound cuts across religious barriers; no one dares to ignore the siren’s sound at this utmost moment of sanctity. Shevarim! (broken-broken-broken) We have been broken in order to heal. We have begun to place the events of the twentieth century in the memory bank of the Jewish people.
 
Is this enough, Donniel Hartman asks? Is Israel to be a country whose holy moments are dedicated the dead? Is Israel’s self definition only to be a haven from the endless scourge of anti-Semitism? If is Israel is not dedicated to the creation of a new Jew, what is the reason for Israel’s existence? What is to be Israel’s relationship to the Diaspora? To Jewish Memory, Zichronot?
 
We are a people united by memory and history. Israel and the Diaspora – one people, different memories. Ben-Gurion may have envisaged a time when the majority of Jews would live in Israel, but this has not proven to be so. Diaspora Jewry, Jews outside of Israel, have continued to develop and grow, despite the challenges of assimilation. As a liberal, female American rabbi, I am given far more opportunities to develop my Jewish spirituality here in America than I would as a rabbi in current-day Israel. These very services, which I believe are grounded in tradition, yet open and accessible to all, would be difficult to find in Israel today.
 
It is the sound of the shofar that links all Jews; the Jews of Malibu and the Jews of New York, of Argentina, of Uzbekistan and Bukhara, of Paris and New Zealand and  the Jews of Israel. We cry out in wordless communication as the sounds of the section called Shofarot complete the final round of the shofar service. Shofarot is dedicated to communication, between us and God, between the Diaspora and Israel, between Jews and all humanity. We sound the shofar to invoke not only God’s Kingship, and God’s memory, but to the open possibilities of the future, even if we do not yet know the words that the future will bring. The bridge that floats between us is carried on this sound. Together, we take a step forward into the unknown. We rise, all of us, to hear the sound of the shofar, and enter the New Year that waits before us.
 
Judith HaLevy is rabbi of Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, Malibu, California, and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute . This essay is adapted from a sermon on Rosh Hashana and was inspired by lectures and writings of Donniel Hartman

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