Hear ye! Hear ye!

The High Holidays and the art of listening.

September 28, 2008 16:04
Hear ye! Hear ye!

shofar 88. (photo credit: )


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The holidays of the Jewish year are fascinating. Not only when looked at individually, but also when examined in comparison to one another. The hagim comprise a spectrum of colors, and each one, has a particular color attached to it. Yom Kippur, naturally, is white, representing purity and a clean slate waiting to be written upon. Succot is green, as we are surrounded by vegetation both outdoors in our succa, and when we hold the lulav and etrog, the branches and citron that make up the Four Species. Rosh Hashana's color is gold, the color of choice of kings, as we celebrate the royalty and majesty of the King of Kings, whose blessing we seek for the coming year. Each holy day also relates to one of our senses, or to one of our limbs or organs. Passover, Pessah, is connected to the mouth. Peh-sah literally means "the mouth tells," as we elaborate upon the story of the Exodus via the reading of the Haggada. The mighty efforts of Moshe and the many miracles of the Egyptian experience foil the evil designs of Paro, whose own name - if you re-arrange the letters - spells out peh-ra" or "bad mouth," emphasizing Pharoah's campaign of demonizing, or "bad-mouthing" the Jews. In addition to using our mouth to speak on Passover, we also use it to taste; the unique diet of the holiday, especially the matza and maror (bitter herbs), leaves an indelible Passover taste in our mouths. Growing up in the days when Pessah's menu was extremely limited, before one could duplicate virtually every hametz food - from ice cream to pizza to chocolate souffle, one could literally taste Pessah when the religious holiday came around. Shavuot relates to the sense of seeing. The Torah was given amidst a dramatic visual backdrop, where all of God's wonders were revealed to us in a stunning revelation. "And all the nation saw the thunder and lightning." How do you see thunder? The nation saw the deepest inner workings of nature because they had been elevated to an almost angelic state. And so, on Shavuot, we use our eyes to study throughout the night. Succot (Tabernacles) celebrates the sense of touch. We use our hands to build the succa, coming into physical contact with the earth. We hold the Four Species, and we beat the willows on Hoshana Raba at the end of the week. BUT WHAT of the High Holy Days? I suggest that they center around the idea of listening. No other time of the year is so sensitive to sound as the Days of Awe: The sound of prayer, all day long. The sound of greeting one another, asking forgiveness from a neighbor or friend, wishing all we meet a "Shana tova," a good year. The poignant and powerful poems and songs which fill our liturgy; the Slihot penitential prayers chanted deep into the night or at the break of dawn. The time of year when cantors and choirs reign supreme. This theme of listening is most clearly represented by the sounding of the shofar. For 40 days, from the first of Elul until that dramatic last moment of Ne'ila, the prayers that conclude the Yom Kippur service, the shofar provides the soundtrack, or at least the backdrop of the High Holy Days. The number 40 is significant: 40 years in the desert; 40 days on Mt. Sinai, 40 days of the flood, etc. Forty represents the unit of time during which amazing transformations can be made, the incubation period when humanity can be changed, collectively or individually. These 40 days are meant to change us into a new creation, a new, improved model of our former self. Indeed, the very word "shofar" is linked to the Hebrew word, lehishtaper - to improve oneself. And what is the key? Listening. We are meant to hear those shofar blasts, and detect and discern the message which each note contains. The sounds of contrition and humility; the sounds of the broken heart. But also the sounds of majesty, trumpeting the glory of the King as He approaches. These sounds create a symphony with a dual message. They remind us of the smallness of mortal man, mocking our arrogance and reminding us just how dependent we are on God for each and every second of our existence. Yet at the same time, they overwhelm us with a deep pride and confidence in who and what we are - and can be: A nation of destiny, cherished by our Creator and safeguarded by His mighty hand throughout history. In the sounds of the shofar, with lyrics provided by the mahzor (holiday prayer book), we can perceive our whole history, from Creation through the Exodus and the giving of the Torah, to our return to Israel and our eventual redemption, when on that awesome day the Great Shofar will be sounded for the whole world to hear. The sounds of the shofar, like all music, have a mystical, mysterious power that can penetrate to the deepest parts of our souls. Song and sound can unlock all the gates of memory and feeling; they can soothe and strengthen at the same time. Is there anyone who has not been moved by some song, some speech, some sound to the point of both tears and unbridled jubilation? Sound touches something deep inside. When the fledgling State of Israel sought to reclaim lost Jewish children after the Holocaust, it sent emissaries into the Polish orphanages, where they assembled the youngsters and blew the shofar. Then they asked who had ever heard that sound, and took home those children who nodded their heads or raised their hands. No one forgets the unique voice of the shofar. The blessing we recite on sounding the Shofar is quite fascinating. We bless God for commanding us, lishmoa kol shofar, to listen to the sounds of the shofar. Not to blow the shofar, mind you, but to hear it! The message: The act of the mitzva is secondary to its reception. The primary prayers of both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur also echo this concept. Among the most powerful and oft-repeated of the prayers is Shma Koleinu, Hear our voice. We refer constantly to God as a Shomeya Tefila - a Hearer of prayers. And, of course, the most important of all prayers remains the Shema Yisrael. Note that we do not say, See that God is One, but rather Hear that there is only one God. While God cannot be seen, He can be heard. Says the Talmud: Though you cannot ever fully grasp the idea of One God, your inner self can hear it if you concentrate. But you have to make an effort to hear; a conscious, positive effort. Too often, we are not ready to hear the message, and so we miss it. We have to train ourselves to listen, and to hear. It's not easy; it's an acquired trait. One of the finest compliments a person can be paid is to have someone say about him, "He's a good listener!" To be a good listener is to care about others, to hear them without thinking of what you can say. Sometimes, a person doesn't actually want a reply or a comeback; he just wants to know that someone out there is listening. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach loved to remark that children are pure because they can listen to the same story over and over again without losing interest, while adults cut you off immediately and say, "I've heard that before, I don't need to hear it again!" We Jews can be excellent talkers, but we're not always very good listeners. People often complain, "It's so frustrating talking to God in this one-way conversation; I talk to Him, but He never talks to me!" And I counter, isn't it refreshing to be able to talk and not be interrupted, to have God's complete attention, to say what you want to say at your own pace, in your own way, with complete faith that He hears us out? When is the last time you were able to say your piece to another human being without being cut off, contradicted or criticized for your delivery or diction? But God always lets us talk! What a contemporary message all this sends. We live in a world filled with noise. We are surrounded and bombarded by noise - every conceivable kind of noise - from horns honking, to cellular phones ringing, to people chattering and shouting, to ear-splitting screeching that masquerades as music. There is too much noise in synagogue, at funerals, in bank queues and supermarket lines. Have you ever taken Israel's shared cabs from city to city? Trapped in this tiny little space with nine other people, all on cell phones, discussing their impending divorce, their test results from the proctologist, how they're getting ripped off by the government or their landlord or their neighbor, etc. Sometimes I am sure that the windows on the van will just burst! And then I understand what Ethics of the Fathers means when it teaches, "I have found nothing better for the body than silence." Not only for the mind, or the soul, but for the body, for our physical health! Too much sound can assault our senses and make us tense, irritable, angry, depressed, confused. But a little silence can restore the equilibrium and help us maintain our sanity. The ancient legend that we are given a certain number of words at birth to use during our lifetime - and that when we use them up, we die - is worth keeping in mind. We have every conceivable form of communication in today's hi-tech world: The cellphone, SMS, e-mail, instant messenger, Blackberry and fax. But we will never be able to truly reach the person right next to us unless and until we perfect the art of listening. God put that message right on our face when he gave us one mouth and two ears, to tell us that we should listen twice as much as we talk! It's such a blessing to listen, and to hear, not only other people, but the language of the Earth. If you go through life and never hear the wind, the rain, the lightning and the thunder, then you are missing out on God's magnificent world. Take the time to hear a beautiful piece of music, a poem, a story. Just sit and hear yourself think! Think about God, about this country, about your family, about your life. Watch a sunset or a storm in silence. As famous baseball player Yogi Berra once pithily remarked: You can observe a lot by just watching! And when did you last ask your kids to talk to you, to tell you about their life, and you just listened - with your outer ear and your inner ear? When you didn't interrupt, preach, scold, correct, qualify, criticize, categorize, challenge, mock, mimic or muffle them? Oh, and about those one-sided prayers to God: Maybe, just maybe, if - when we are done praying and pouring out our hearts - we stop to listen deeply, we just might hear God whispering His response. Amidst the grand blasts of the shofar, there may emerge a thin, small voice - perhaps inside our head, or inside our heart - that is trying to speak to us. If we learn how to listen, a whole new world - God's world - may very well open up to us. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana.

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