The Memory of the Shofar – Rosh Hashanah 5781, second day

Rosh Hashanah has a number of names in the Torah.  Strangely, “Rosh Hashanah” is not one of them.

The association of this holiday with the new year does not occur anywhere in the Tanakh.  The Torah places this holiday at the beginning of the seventh month of the year.

What are this day’s names?

In the maftir Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah, from the Book of Numbers, today is described as Yom TeruahTeruah means “blasting,” as in the sound made by a shofar. So today is a “Day of Blasting.”

In the Book of Leviticus, a slightly different name is used, Zikhron Teruah, a “Remembrance of Blasting.”

No other significant practices or symbolism are attached to this holiday in the Torah, which means that Remembrances and Shofar blasts are the two central concepts of the day.

By the time of the Mishnah, almost two thousand years ago, Rosh Hashanah had become a two day holiday celebrating God’s creation of the world

The Rabbis articulated one other central mitzvah for Rosh Hashanah. In the Musaf service, which we will begin in a few minutes, we recite a series of ten verses on each of three themes.

The Talmudic Sage Rabah summarizes them succinctly:

The Holy Blessed One said: Recite before Me on Rosh HaShana Malkhuyot, Kingship, Zikhronot – Remembrances, and Shofarot – Ram’s Horns. Kingship, so that you will crown Me as King over you; Remembrances, so that your remembrance will rise before Me for good. And with what? With the shofar.

Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 34b

As Rabbah describes it, these three themes are closely intertwined. They tell a kind of story.  The sound of the Shofar carries the remembrance of us, Israel, to God, our King.

On this New Year’s Day, when we individually and collectively stand in judgment, the heavenward journey of the Shofar sound evokes God’s mercy.

We usually think of ourselves as the intended audience for the Shofar, but Rabah suggests that we sound the Shofar in order to get God’s attention.  “Hey! Remember us?!”

The Shofar blasts are wordless outpourings of prayer. It is the worship of pure feeling. The three notes that we sound are said to express different, even contradictory emotions. The Tekiah is an unbroken note that represents wholeness and healing. The Shevarim, three disconnected sounds, symbolizes our sighing over our brokenness. Teruah, the nine staccato bursts, is the uncontrolled sound of wailing.

Yesterday, Shabbat, we did not sound the Shofar.

The Rabbis determined that whenever Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat, the mitzvah of blowing the Shofar would be suspended everywhere outside the Jerusalem Temple. Surprising, given that blowing the shofar is the only thing that the Torah tells us to do!

How can we have a Day of Blasting without any actual Blasting? In the absence of a physical Shofar on Shabbat, we still convey the essence of both the Shofar and Zikaron by every reference to it that occurs in the Mahzor, even though we are not blowing it.

The Talmud creatively suggests that the Torah even provides a hint. The phrase Zikhron Teruah in Leviticus, “a remembrance of blasting,” refers to Shabbat Rosh Hashanah. In this circumstance, without a shofar blast, the Zikhron Teruah, the memory of the blast, is enough

The Kiddush for Rosh Hashanah evening includes the words: Yom Teruah – “a Day of Blasting.” On Shabbat, we add an extra word. Instead of just Yom Teruah, we say Yom Zikhron Teruah, “A Day of Remembrance of Blasting.”

The memory of the Shofar is enough to carry our prayers to God.

Today is Sunday.  Since hearing the Shofar is the core mitzvah of the holiday, it was a priority to find a way to fulfill it.  After many back and forth conversations with the County—Thank you to our very own County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg—we figured out a way to hold four consecutive Shofar services in the parking lot this afternoon. We will not be forced to rely on the memory of the Shofar.

But there are many aspects of the holiday that we have had to rely upon as a Zikaron.

Back in June, when we began thinking about how to approach the High Holidays, we started with a foundational question. What are the essential experiences that we look forward to during the High Holidays? If we are not able to have those exact experiences, what can we do to capture the feelings that they evoke?

What do you look forward to during the High Holidays? What, if you did not get to experience it, would make the holidays feel incomplete?

Then, we began to consider creative ways, workarounds, that would enable us to have a Zikaron of those experiences and emotions.

First and foremost, people look forward to hearing the Shofar.  Such a simple sound.  The Shofar is truly one of the most primitive instruments – just a step up from banging two rocks together. And yet its clarion call penetrates our hearts and wakes us up.

For me, seeing everyone in the synagogue is one of the best parts of the holiday. I think about the crowds that fill our sanctuary during two particular moments: the Shofar service on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and Neilah at the end of Yom Kippur.  At those two times, we reach standing-room-only numbers (which is ok, because those are moments in the service when we are supposed to be standing). I love seeing the children crowd up on the bimah to surround the Shofar blower. And I love observing individuals and families come up for a final personal moment in front of the open ark.

Instead, this year, I am standing here on the bimah in an empty sanctuary.  You are sitting in your homes in front of a monitor. But, we see each other’s faces. Lots of faces. Thank God for Gallery mode. We will hear the Shofar in the Sinai parking lot later today and see each other in person, while remaining in our cars. And everyone will have a chance to spend some time in front of this ark between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  We have the Zikaron, the memory, of what it is like under normal circumstances.

Seeing the ark and the Torah scrolls draped in their special white garments is another powerful image for us. That is why I am set up here in the sanctuary.

Of course, hearing once-a-year prayers sung to beautiful melodies is special to many of us. And after twelve years, Cantor Motti’s voice has become part of the core experience. His pre-Rosh Hashanah concert this past week was especially moving because we knew he was not going to be able to be with us for services. 

I really look forward to the annual walk to the Los Gatos Creek for Tashlikh on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. We will have to do Tashlikh on our own this year, but the High Holiday Home Kit includes a special Do-It-Yourself Tashlikh service.

Some of our memories center on family meals and gastronomic gatherings with friends. Yesterday, we had a special Seder Rosh Hashanah at which we had a chance to eat together and (sort of) share the special foods of the day.

Almost every element of our Rosh Hashanah celebrations are different this year, but they are meaningful. Perhaps even more meaningful, given the circumstances.

Our tradition has always been practical. We have always found creative ways to preserve the essence of our traditions and our faith. That is what we have done this year for the High Holidays.

It is what we have had to do in so many aspects of our lives: find ways to continue living with meaning despite the limitations imposed on us.

It has demanded a lot of creativity and a whole lot of patience and we have risen to the challenge in so many ways.

Like the silent Shofar on Shabbat, we find a way to create a Zikaron, a memory, and the memory can be enough.

Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Techateimu.  May we be written and sealed for a good year.

Until the day when we can once again be together in person, may we be blessed with creativity and patience to live with meaning.

The Locus of Control – Rosh Hashanah 5781, First Day

The Sinai Men’s Club has an annual poker tournament.  I play a few times a year on top of that.  There is an important rule upon which my participation is conditioned.  No praying allowed.

So I go by “Josh” around the table… until there is a particularly big hand.  At that moment, I embrace my clerical role and become… Rabbi Berkenwald.

In 2009, the economist Ingo Fiedler crunched the data of 55,000 poker players, comprising several million hands, from an online gambling site.  He was trying to determine whether, and to what extent, skill plays a role in poker.

One question he asked was: What percentage of the winning hands do you think were the best hands? In poker, the winning hand and the best hand are not necessarily the same thing.  To win, you have to stay in the game.  That is to say, not fold.

90 percent?

75 percent?

50 percent?

12 percent.  In only twelve percent of pots was the hand that wins the best hand at the table.

In a recently published book called The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win, Psychologist Maria Konikova set out to teach herself to play poker, No Limit Texas Hold-‘Em, and enter the the world of professional gambling.  She chose poker because, more than any other game, it is most similar to the world as we experience it.

In Texas Hold ‘Em, I get two cards. There is absolutely nothing I can do to change any of the cards on the table.  Furthermore, I have limited information. I know what I am holding, and I can see what is face up on the table. The rest is a mystery.

All I can do is fold, call, or raise.

Whether I am Josh or Rabbi Berkenwald, whether I pray or curse, I have zero ability to change the cards. What do I think, God is going to reaarange the deck for me?

All of those elements that I cannot control and do not know are external to me. One reason that poker is such a difficult game to be good at is because we get these things confused.

In helping to describe her experience, Konikova uses a psychological concept called the “Locus of Control,” first developed in the 1950’s by Julian Rotter. In each of our individual experiences as human beings, where does control over events seem to reside? There are two possibilities: internal or external.

Internal means that I determine what happens.  External means that something other than me controls my fate. Each of us tends to have either an internal or an external locus of control in a majority of cirumstances.

Internals tend to be optimistic about their abilities to determine their future. If I get a good grade, or a promotion at work, it is because of the effort I put in. As a result, those with an internal locus of control are more confident in their abilities to change their situation, and are therefore more willing to act and take risks.

Externals tend to attribute failure or success to outside factors like luck, fate, circumstances, or the prejudice of others. They tend to take a more passive approach to difficult circumstances because they are less confident of their abilities to affect change, and are therefore less likely to act. They also experience more stress and higher rates of depression.

5780 has been a year in which we have been made painfully aware of how out of control we are.

That I am delivering this D’var Torah in front of a camera while you experience it on a screen epitomizes what we have experienced in every dimension of our lives.

We entered this pandemic with so little knowledge of how to protect ourselves and each other.  Two hundred thousand people in this country alone have died, including the loved ones of members of our community.  Many of us have been unable to be present with sick or dying loved ones.

We have been physically isolated from one another, which takes such a high mental toll. Anxiety levels are high, raising risks of psychological illness and suicide.

With a shrinking economy, dedicated workers have lost jobs. Record numbers of people are relying on food banks.

Our country has erupted in civil unrest over the still-unresolved racism in our society. And we have felt helpless in the face of police violence, rioting, and a general feeling of social unrest.

Whatever our personal politics, we have felt exasperated at the seeming lack of understanding compassion, and common sense demonstrated by our opponents.

And for the last month, we have faced fires and dangerously unhealthy smoke that prevented us from even going outside.

So much is out of our control!

…or at least it feels that way. Arguably, we are no more or less in control than ever. We have always been subject to the laws of nature. Biology, physics, chemistry, human nature – none of these has changed. The universe continues to behave exactly as it always has since the beginning of time. Our perspective has caused the locus of control to shift towards the external.

The awesome, terrifying prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, captures this sense of powerlessness. After reading a list of our actions over the past year from the Book of Remembrance, God assembles us like sheep before a shepherd. As we pass by, God counts us and determines our fate for the year to come.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed:

How many will pass on, and how many will be born;

who will live and who will die…

who by fire and who by water…

who by hunger and who by thirst;

who by earthquake and who by plague…

who will be impoverished and who will be enriched…

But the book, with its sentence, is closed to us.  We did not know, one year ago, that plague and fire had been written down. Nor could we have. We do not know what is written for next year.

If we read closely, we see that there is no explicit connection between our deeds, the judgment, and the sentence. While there may be a spiritual ledger of our actions, our destiny in the upcoming year is independent. The locus of control in the prayer is entirely external. Our actions do not determine our destiny.

But wait. There is an asterisk. When we finish listing the possible fates that await us, we shout out our response:

Uteshuvah utefilah utzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezeirah.

“Repentance, Prayer, and Charity turn aside the severity of the decree.” 

I cannot change fate, but I can make a difference in how it impacts myself and others. The deck has been shuffled and the cards dealt, but I can still control how I play them.

While we are living through a time in which we feel that we have very little control, our history should offer some comfort. This is surely not the first time we have faced such challenges.

In countless ways, human beings are better suited to coping than ever before. Researchers around the world are racing to develop vaccines in what will be, if expectations are met, record time.

Just 10 to 15 years ago, we did not have the technological capacity to shift school, work, and even religion online.

Medicine, science, and history have taught us so much about how to keep each other safe. Health care workers on the front lines, along with public health experts, have quickly learned and adapted to better care for those who have become sick.

Human beings are resilient, and the the Jewish people especially so. We have experienced so much external adversity, faced persecution beyond our control. We are still here because we have never given up on our ability to have an impact on our destiny.

Our Jewish tradition has always emphasized free will, that we are not supposed to be the objects of history, but rather its subjects. And, that we have a role to play in the world’s redemption.

Teshuvah, Tefilah, Tzedakah – Repentance, Prayer, and Charity. None of these will make the virus go away. They will not bring about a cure, nor hasten its development.

But they do offer answers to how we can control our fate.

Teshuvah – Repentance. I can always be better. I can work on my flaws and correct my mistakes. How I behaved yesterday does not have to determine how I will behave tomorrow. This is a lifetime project, but it is one that puts me in control of how I experience that life – whatever unexpected things may befall me.

Tefilah – Worship. This is deeply personal. Reaching out, spiritually, to that which is beyond us. God, the Divine, the universe, however you conceive It. Jewish worship combines elements of gratitude, self-reflection, petition, and penitence. It is how we develop a rich inner life and offers a way to be more centered. 

Tzedakah – It means charity. It means righteousness. And it means justice. Fundamentally, tzedakah is about taking care of each other. I have responsibilities to my fellow human beings – those who are part of my community and beyond. Especially at times of great crisis such as we are experiencing, I have the ability to effect not only my own experience, but that of others.

Right now, there are so many who are far worse off than I am. I would suggest that taking care of others’ needs leaves us feeling more empowered, more in control even, than taking care of ourselves.

While it may feel that we have no control, there is so much that we can do avert the severity of the decree.

God willing, we have all been written for life, health, success, prosperity, and love for the coming year.

But whatever the decree—whether the dealer has dealt us Pocket Aces or a 2 and 7 of mismatched suits—let us dedicate ourselves to affecting change in our own lives, the lives of others, and even the fate of the entire world. 

Shanah Tovah Umetukah. May we all be sealed for a good and sweet new year.