Rabbi Danielle Upbin

The following sermon was delivered during the 2001 Jewish High Holiday season following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It has been included on the Torah From Terror website as a resource and retains the copyright of its author. Please cite the source accordingly.

Rabbi Danielle Upbin
Kehilla Minyan at JTS
First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5752

Introduction to the Shofar Service

“Transforming Silence into Sound”

Rav Nachman of Bratzlov teaches:

“In the material world, sound travels great distances from place to place such that two places that are remote from one another are bound and connected only by sound. In the realm of spirit, sound can also transcend space and rise above it to the Heaven – the place in which all lesser places merge. This is why all of Israel is engaged in producing sound on Rosh Hashanah – we sound the Shofar, we sing, pray and utter confessions – sounds that we hope will travel to the Heavens. . .”

Sounds are everywhere. Close your eyes for a moment and listen to the sounds around you – really listen – what do we hear? the sounds of the city, the countryside, footsteps passing, our own breath.

Judaism is a tradition that values sound over all other senses. Consider the central prayer of our people: the Shema – “Hear, Oh Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One”. In glancing through the Torah, one finds numerous examples of the privileging of hearing over seeing. Deuteronomy 4, for example, teaches us that Revelation penetrated only the ears of the Israelites and not the eyes. Elijah the prophet observes that God is not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire… “But in a still small voice” -- kol demama hee (I Kings 19:12).

We are a people of sound.

Hear our prayers, laments and praises.

Listen to the joyous songs of Israel, past and present; to Biblical chant.

Hear the sound of feet stamping in simcha dancing; the sound of glass shattering at weddings.

Listen to the vidui, Hear the sharp piercing blast of the Shofar.

But there is also a sound in our tradition that is inaudible; a silent sound that is filled with grief, incomprehension, suffering and confusion. This is the silence that binds Abraham and Isaac in the wake of the Akeda. The silence of Aaron when he learns of the death of his sons at the alter of God – “vayidom Aharon.” Just as these fathers were silent in the wake of terror, so were many fathers and mothers and many others in this country silenced in the aftermath of destruction in America. We were silenced by the collapse of the World Trade Center, the gaping hole in the Pentagon, the hijacked airplanes and the thousands of victims who lost their lives in devastation. The silent sound of grief filled our hearts, when no words could voice our confusion and puzzlement.

This soundless noise is the noise that penetrates the heavens. It is the voice of the downtrodden, tormented and afflicted. In our silence, God gives us the strength to find the words to utter, though they may seem inadequate. God gives us the voice after the silence to speak words of comfort to fellow Americans whose family, friends and co-workers perished in the destruction. God gives us a voice to utter thanks or bench gomel for those who were lucky enough to make it out.

Silence might still fill our tears of mourning, but the challenge is to wrestle with the silence, and to create a meaningful sound out of it, to help us push forward, rebuild, and move on.

How do we create a sound of meaning when there are so many distracting sounds around us – how can we discriminate? How do we tune into the sounds of meaning when we are bombarded by sounds everywhere we go in our professional lives, and free time -- cell phones, techno-babbling of beeps and rings and alarms, the chatter from TV and radio, the street, our own thoughts?

On Rosh Hashahnah, we take a break from all these distractions, if we can, as we tune into sounds that guide us, help us, direct us.

On Rosh Hashanah, we rely on music and liturgy to guide us on our journey of Teshuvah. The nusach helps us to turn our hearts inwards. The melodies help us to focus, to break through the static. When we first hear the melodies of Ma’ariv on Rosh Hashanah eve, the music directs our minds and our souls to the moment in this season.

The vidui is another sound of meaning that transforms us. Teshuvah arises out of our ability to admit that we have wronged. We are encouraged to come to the synagogue and pray with our brothers and sisters out loud in confession. Similarly, we are encouraged to seek out those who we have wronged and speak to them, apologize to them.

In a moment we are going to hear the sacred sounds of the shofar. We pray that this sound of meaning will awaken in us a spark to be better, to look within ourselves, and to rejoice in the opportunity to do teshuvah, to return.

Rav Nachman says, as we stand in the place where we have gone astray and lift the words and Shofar sounds toward heaven, God hears our voices and leads us out beyond our present place and up and up onto the realm which transcends place and space to the Place of the World, to God, where everyone is retuned to the perfection of our creation.

Let us make sounds: prayers, songs, cries, words of encouragement, and let our utterances of fear, sadness and loss be transformed into a joyful noise, a noise that beckons a new beginning, a new age of reason and peace in out midst.

Amen – let it be so.

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