[Sermon] Maternal Cries in the Sound of the Shofar

Rabbi Mark Solomon
High Holy Days 2019/5780

Jewish tradition finds many meanings in the sounding of the ram’s horn at the New Year – a wake-up call to repentance, a reminder of the shofar call at Mt Sinai when the Torah was given, or the last trump announcing the Messianic Age; sobs and sighs of remorse for our sins, or a jubilant fanfare acclaiming God as Sovereign. Then, of course, there’s the ram that Abraham sacrificed as a substitute for Isaac, as we read from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah. Among all the interpretations, though, the ones that affect me most deeply hear, in the shofar call, the cries of mothers. Cries of horror, cries of pain, and cries of triumphant joy.

The cries of horror are those of Sarah. Abraham rose early to take Isaac away and sacrifice him. One account says, he left early before Sarah was awake, to avoid awkward questions. In midrash Leviticus Rabbah (20:2) Isaac comes home after his near-death experience and Sarah asks, ‘Where have you been, my son?’ He replies, ‘My father took me and led me up hill and down dale …’ She said, ‘Woe is me! If it were not for the angel, you would already be slaughtered?’ and he answered, ‘Yes.’ At that ‘she screamed six times, corresponding to the six teki’ah notes, and before she could finish, she died.’

A later midrash, Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer (chapter 32), tells it differently. There, it is Satan who comes maliciously to Sarah and says, ‘Do you know what that old husband of yours has done? He has taken young Isaac and sacrificed him as a burnt offering, while the lad wept and wailed but could not be saved.’ ‘Sarah at once began to weep and wail – three cries corresponding to the three teki’ah notes, and three wails corresponding to the three sobbing notes (the teru’ah), then her soul flew off and she died.’

Perhaps the later midrash could not understand why Sarah died, when Isaac was standing alive before her. In the later version, she believes she has actually lost her son – as so many mothers have lost their children to war, disease, hunger and abusive violence. We hear such cries almost every time we watch the news. The older version is more subtle. There, it isn’t Isaac whom she has lost, but Abraham. The very idea that her husband was prepared to do such a thing is enough to undermine any sense of goodness in the world, the very moral foundation of her life. These are not only the cries of bereft mothers that we hear on the news, but the screams of horror pent up inside us, but pouring forth in the sound of the shofar, crying out, ‘what kind of world have we created?!’

Rosh Hashanah is also a festival of birth and rebirth. The rabbis affirmed that both Sarah and Hannah, barren for years, were ‘remembered’ by God on Rosh Hashanah and were blessed with Isaac and Samuel. The midrash, reflecting on the hundred blasts of the shofar, says that 99 are the groans of pain in labour for a child, while the hundredth – the final teki’ah gedolah – is the cry of joy, relief and triumph when the child is born.

When the shofar is blown, we sing Hayom harat olam – ‘today is the birth of the world.’ If the world is reborn to a new year, then God is, metaphorically, the birthing mother. Can we hear, in the calls of the shofar, God – Being itself – crying out in pain at all the travail of the world, but also yelling for joy that, after all, despite everything, here we are for another year? May the difficult birth-pangs of 5780 lead to a year of healing, health and goodness for us all.

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