October 4, 2014

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ

Traditionally in the month of Elul before Rosh HaShanah we blow shofar every day, except on Shabbat, to remind ourselves of the urgent need we all have to do teshuvah, to return and repent our misdeeds in the past year. The sound of the shofar is powerful, primal, stirring, and unique.

However, over the course of the months of Elul and Tishrei I have blown shofar 50 or 60 times at various services, classes, and programs. Embracing my inner Satchmo, my inner Louis Armstrong, I have now blown shofar at every Hebrew and Religious School session for a month, in each Zohar Study Group, at every Taste of Judaism class, at each staff meeting, Temple Board meeting, Adult Education Academy meeting, Ritual Committee and Bilgray Lectureship Committee meeting, before we lit candles at the start of Shabbat services each Friday night, at every Project Elul morning event I led—twice a week for four-plus weeks—at Shofar Choir practice, with ECE preschool children age 2, with older adults age 92.

I have blown shofar for people in care facilities and hospitals, at Villa Hermosa retirement home, at the 9/11 commemoration on our bimah, at Pima Canyon, at Mehl Park, in Reid Park, at the City Council meeting, at the Nogales Kever Avot in Nogales, Arizona, on the Morning Blend TV show on two different occasions, and on The Too Jewish Radio Show. I have blown various kinds of shofars, and taught children to blow them. And of course, the actual blowing of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah itself was the climax to all that shofaring, at the family service and then again here in the main service—and then once more at Tashlich Rosh HaShanah afternoon in Reid Park for good measure.

I suppose that I have blown the shofar this year as much as any congregational rabbi in the world—and shofar so good. Sorry.

I have taught shofar blowing for many years now, and I can say with pleasure that some of my own students have surpassed me this year on the Tekiah Gedolah—Annika Anderson and Athena Focazio-Moran. Who knew that teenagers could have more hot air than a rabbi?

In any case, the final shofar call in each of these shofar sessions is always a Tekiah Gedolah, the great, final call held as long as humanly possible that concludes each session of sounding the shofar. In just a couple of hours you will all be hungering to hear that final most popular blast of all, the Tekiah Gedolah signaling the end of this long Day of Atonement, the conclusion of the fast and the beginning of the Break Fast.

But for all of this shofar experience, and the many ways and times I have thought about the shofar, I learned something new about it just last week.

Ron Spiegel, our member, was born in Israel and is a veteran of the IDF. He told me that whenever he hears the Tekiah Gedolah, the long, long blast of the shofar, lasting 40 seconds and more, he immediately feels in his spine that it's the sound of the siren played everywhere in Israel on Yom HaZikaron, Israel's Memorial Day, the day of remembrance for soldiers who have died in service to their country. If you have never been in Israel during Yom HaZikaron, I can tell you that this siren goes off throughout the entire country at exactly 11 AM that day. It is loud, it lasts for a full two minutes, and the whole nation stops and stands at attention throughout in remembrance. It is incredibly powerful and moving.

Ron said to me, "When I hear Tekiah Gedolah it is like the siren on Yom haZikaron. I get a shiver in my spine. I remember friends in Israel who have died in war ..."

I have never thought of the shofar as that kind of sound. Loud, stirring, and strident, but not particularly mournful. But Ron is right. When you are conditioned to remember comrades-in-arms, and those victims of terror who have died at the hands of enemies, it is easy to understand how the tekiah gedolah would bring them immediately to mind.

A siren of remembrance. I'm not sure I will hear the tekiah gedolah in quite the same way again. It has always been potent, but now it bears an added meaning and poignance. The shofar is sounded throughout this season to awaken us to our responsibilities in the time of Teshuvah. And what could be a greater responsibility than remembering those who died protecting our beloved nation of Israel?

This year, sadly, there are new names to remember, new deaths for whom the shofar sounds. For in addition to all of those who gave their lives in previous wars and conflicts defending the Land of Israel, and in addition to the many victims of terrorists in earlier years, this year the events that led to the Gaza War gave us new martyrs and new victims. The murder of the three yeshivah boys and the deaths of IDF soldiers and Israeli civilians during the war against the Hamas terrorists put new names into our minds and hearts.

These are men, women, and children who died at the hands of murderers, and of soldiers who died seeking to eliminate brutal and unprovoked attacks on citizens, stopping rockets, missiles, and mortars. And they are men and women, mostly young, who died fighting to end the threat of a network of terror tunnels designed to launch virulent assaults to kill Israeli civilians. In our Yizkor we remember all of these men and women who died, and we pray that their memories will bring blessing, and that the holy country they loved and sought to protect, our only Jewish state, will come to a time of peace and security again. This year the shofar sounds for them all.

We remember, too, those Arab civilians killed in Gaza. In every war innocents are killed accidentally by soldiers firing at enemies. It is awful, it is tragic, it is painful and sobering and deeply, deeply sad. In addition to the three yeshiva boys who were murdered, there was an Arab youth who was also murdered at the start of all of this. We mourn his death, as we mourn the death of Palestinian children, women, and civilian men killed in the Gaza war. They did not deserve their fate, and we mourn for them.

This year, the shofar sounds for them as well.

Of course, at Yizkor, we remember those we were closest to, our wives and husbands, fathers and mothers, bubbies and zaidies, brothers and sisters, sons or daughters. We remember our relatives of every generation who gave us love and support. This year, the shofar sounds for them, too.

And we remember our absent friends, those with whom we shared times of joy and sorrow, with whom we worked and played, with whom we were creative and happy. Their loss brings us a different sadness, the sadness that comes when we know we cannot again enjoy the gifts they shared and the close camaraderie of their friendship and community. In the past year I have personally lost two friends who gave our congregation so much musical joy on this bimah and throughout the community, Steve Schulman and Howard Salmon of Avanim, our Temple band. It would be wrong to let their memories rest: their memories should sing, or at least sound out.

This year, for them, certainly, the shofar sounds. But perhaps it is a different kind of call: not just a stirring reminder, not merely a siren song of remembrance, but something higher, more elevating, noble, beautiful.

Because the shofar can awaken not only our sense of loss, but also our deepest feelings of gratitude, nobility, and loyalty. The shofar calls us to holiness.

You see, there is more to Yizkor than simply remembering those who are gone. This is also remembering what they stood for, and why we still care, and still love them, and need to bring them back to us at this hour on this holiest day of the year.

When we remember those people who were most important in our lives, without whom we would simply not be here today at all, we recall the goodness and greatness of their lives, the outstanding qualities they had, their graciousness, menschlichkeit, holiness. We exalt them, we glorify them, we miss them, we ennoble them. In our hearts at this sacred hour we praise them, literally, to the heavens.

I am reminded of a wonderful story.

It is a courtroom tale, appropriate on this day when we appeal the divine verdict in the heavenly court above. But this is, supposedly, a real court story that took place here on earth.

Before summoning the great Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chayim, to the witness stand, the lawyer approached the judge and said, "Your honor, the rabbi who is about to testify has an impeccable reputation among his fellow Jews. They tell a story that one day he came home and saw a thief rummaging through his living room. The frightened thief climbed out a window and ran off with some of the rabbi's possessions, and the rabbi ran after him, shouting, 'I declare all my property ownerless,' so that the thief would not be guilty of having committed a crime."

The judge looked at the lawyer skeptically. "Do you believe that story really happened?"

"I don't know, your honor," the lawyer answered, "but they don't tell stories like that about you and me."

They may not tell stories like that about you and me, but Yizkor is the time for you and me to tell stories like that about those we love. It is a time to celebrate their grace, their holiness, their intelligence, their humor, their integrity, and most of all, their love. We recall the goodness they shared with us, the ways we depend upon their lessons and their examples.

At this hour sacred to memory we bring them back to us, we remember the gifts they gave us, the ways they ennobled our lives. And when we sound the final shofar today, when we hear that last Tekiah Gedolah of this season, may we discover that the shofar sounds deeply for all of those we love, and that this time the shofar calls us to remember them, and so to return, repent, and repair our lives. And then the shofar will sound because we will have completed this journey in memory, in holiness, and in blessing.


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