This is a reflection I was asked by Rabbi Marc Belgrad to make to the congregation of B’Chavana, on Rosh Hashanah 5773 (September 17, 2012). I think it still accurately reflects the challenges I have sometimes with liturgy and the formality of traditional Jewish prayer-language. But also how I can find it meaningful when I take the time to engage with the words and ideas. Unfortunately, this kind of engagement, for me, happens best outside of shul. Note to self, right?
Intro: The prayers of the Holy Days are always hard for me. I know the service and this liturgy are meant to move us through certain spiritual steps, to feel ourselves in relationship with God and to motivate us to do the work that will inscribe us in the Book of Life. These prayers are the poetry of our ancestors and universal to every Jew in the world, this day: That’s powerful stuff. But they are still hard for me. I lapse into “auto-mumble.” I pageflip. I have little silent arguments with myself about their relevance. So it may be the high school teacher’s instinct that led Rabbi to ask me, the daydreaming kid staring out the window, to make a personal reflection on the Shofar Service this morning. As I studied and put my thoughts together, I found new context for Malchuyot, Zichronot, Shofarot – the three sections of this service. As it turns out, taking time to reflect personally on the words does, in fact, make them more meaningful!
Malchuyot. Sovereignty. During these holiest of days, our liturgy is especially replete with imagery of God as sovereign: King, Ruler, Reigning, Be-throned and Majestic.
But I… am not one who has ever been comfortable with, or comforted by, images of God as King. Paternalism! something inside wants to shout. Autocracy! Oppression! I look for the ramparts; I ready my words, my weapons; unconsciously, I sit up taller and draw a fuller breath to make myself big for battle.
And yet…these are Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. Malchuyot calls us to acknowledge God with Awe. Awe does not make us big, but rather: small. Small and at a loss for words. Small and breathless. Small and weak at the knees. Small and dazed with wonder.
I may not bow before Kings, but I have bowed to the sovereignty of moments, moments when I have known how very small I am. Holding the newborn baby or the hand of a dying man; a lightning storm over the Lake; certain art and certain trees; there are times when I have been awe-struck at the power of life before me – so much bigger than me.
Malchuyot, then, I am awe-struck by the majesty of this moment. I climb down from my ramparts; I drop my words, my weapons; I breathe out and I open my eyes and my heart to Awe, to the Sovereignty of God.
Zichronot. Remembrance. During these holiest of days, God remembers the work of creation; God remembers the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; God remembers leading our ancestors from Egypt and renewing the covenant at Sinai. The machzor calls me to remember these things, too. Indeed, the rabbis say that all of Judaism does not command me to believe, but commands me to remember.
But I… don’t recall any of these miracles. I am quite sure I wasn’t there. I’m not even sure how much I trust others’ memories of these times – there are so many stories, and the imagery is beautiful but the mythology so large. How can I remember what I did not share?
And yet…memory separates humans from animals. We use it to carry information from one time and place to another; but it also carries feelings. Without memory, relationships are simple, shallow, transactional. With it, we build deep emotional meaning into the world around us. There can be no “past” without memory – logically, there can also be no “future.” Zichronot calls us to acknowledge our never-ending relationship with God.
I may not recall the miracles, but I can remember the relationship. I’ve seen creation; I’ve known the blessings of promises kept; I’ve felt deliverance from many Egypts in my life. I know that I keep my part of the covenant when I share such miracles with others in God’s world.
Zichronot, then, I honour and share and remember the miracles. I honour and share and Remember that which makes the miracles possible: Our Relationship with God.
Shofarot. Revelation. During these holiest of days, we are reminded to celebrate the revelation of God in our lives: God was revealed to us at Sinai through the giving of Torah, and God will be revealed again at the end of days. Revelation, then, is at once a thing of the past and of the future. One midrash holds that the shofar blown at Sinai was one horn of the ram sacrificed by Abraham when God spared his son Isaac, and that ram’s other horn will be blown at the coming of the Meshiach.
But I… don’t know what to think about the end of time. I am troubled by the story of Abraham and Isaac. The sound of shofar is awkward to my ears: harsh, primitive, barbaric. Its foreignness unsettles me. I find it difficult to celebrate what I do not understand.
And yet…we are commanded to hear the shofar call. Not to blow it, but to hear it. So often, in my life, I come up against a sound or sight or experience that is unsettling or weird. It’s frightening to face the foreigner and it’s hard to hear his humanity, when I don’t understand. Revelation takes work: not just for the Revealer, but for the Receiver of the message. To receive, we must make ourselves small, and open. We must honour the relationship. We must trust ourselves to hear God in all the places and practices and voices that seem strange to us.
I may not understand Revelation, but I can celebrate connection. I can welcome the Stranger to my table and my Sukkah. I can hear the weird, lonely blast of the shofar and listen for the human breath that fills that horn. I can hold another’s hand and imagine us together in the wilderness, listening together for God’s voice.
Shofarot, then, I celebrate human connections and the all-times, all-places presence of God in my life. Even when I do not understand, the shofar blast wakes me from my unconscious ways and calls me to Hear God’s blessings.