Rosh Hashana: Lessons we can learn from the sounding of the shofar

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The central ritual of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year celebrated each fall, is the sounding of a ram's horn. Known as a shofar, the ram's horn is layered with symbolic meaning. For a ram's horn to be considered an appropriate shofar, however, it must balance several qualities:

The shofar must be a musical instrument.

The shofar must be natural, but not so raw that it cannot be sounded.

The shofar ought to be beautiful, but not so beautiful that it no longer looks natural.

These three priorities are in tension. No shofar will be perfectly resonant, perfectly natural and perfectly attractive. For that matter, striving for one of these attributes at the expense of the others might make the ram's horn into something other than a shofar.

The shofar is at its best when it balances multiple qualities. Similarly, we are at our best when we balance multiple ideas and multiple values at the same time.

The 20th century philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, wrote extensively about this concept, which he called ideological pluralism. Berlin witnessed the brutality of the Russian Revolution as a child before his family fled from St. Petersburg to Great Britain. He came to believe that ideological pluralism opens up possibilities for conversation, negotiation and ultimately the pursuit of a better world. In 1994, at the age of 85, Berlin received an honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto. He used the opportunity to reflect on his life's work:

"Men have for millennia destroyed each other, but the deeds of Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, even the Armenian massacres, pale into insignificance before the Russian Revolution and its aftermath; the oppression, torture, murder which can be laid at the doors of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot ... They were not natural disasters, but preventable human crimes, and ... they could have been averted. ...

"They were in my view, not caused by the ordinary negative human sentiments ... fear, greed, tribal hatreds, jealousy, love of power, though of course these have played their wicked part. They have been caused, in our time, by ideas; or rather by one particular idea ...

"If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be, violence, will inevitably have to be used — if necessary, terror, slaughter ...

"The search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction, blood — eggs are broken, but the omelette is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking. And in the end the passionate idealists forget the omelette, and just go on breaking eggs."

The drive to break eggs for an elusive ideological omelette is not a problem only of leaders but a universal human tendency. Some of us can be seduced by a nationalist/fascist right, others by a communist left; some of us might be persuaded by a conservative apology for perpetuation of a flawed status quo, while others will be inflamed into a liberal push for revolution. Simplicity and clarity are intoxicating. While intoxicated, any of us can believe, say, even do things we would at other times find unthinkable.

Anyone can fall into this trap. A particularly imaginative fourth century commentary on this theme takes us to the scene of the Binding of Isaac. This story challenges us to confront a frightening situation where the divine call stands in tension with the love of a parent for a child. We can picture the scene in Genesis chapter 22: Abraham — knife in hand, son bound on the altar — hears an angel calling out: "Abraham! Abraham! Don't touch the boy." The writer imagines Abraham's reaction: his shock, his incredulity. "How could you, God, change your mind? You're telling me that I've come all this way yet should not follow through?"

This is terrifying. Abraham is so set on fulfilling God's will that he has bound his own son on an altar and raised a knife against him. And when he doesn't get a chance to sacrifice his future for the sake of purity of ideology, he is disappointed? Frustrated? Apparently, even Abraham can fall into the trap that Isaiah Berlin describes, prepared to break even the most precious of eggs, with no omelette in sight.

Read in this way, here is the message of this nightmare: Abraham and all of his descendants must learn that even a motivation as powerful as fulfilling God's will does not justify the sacrifice of another human being. There might be times when we need to break eggs, when the alternatives available to us offer no better options. Regardless, when we're about to harm another person in the name of any ideology, we need to think twice.

Genesis does not teach that ideologies are made in the image of God. Or that religion is made in the image of God. Or that political philosophies are made in the image of God. But people? Each and every human being is made in the image of God, and therefore is infinitely, incalculably valuable.

This is an easy message to celebrate. It is part of what fills the pews of many houses of worship. But it is a hard one to live out, especially in today's social and political climate. Whatever the issue: what to do about refugees worldwide, how to respond to a controversial art sale, how to face a shrinking population that is having an impact on public services and education, how to address entrenched international conflicts, what to do about a new gas pipeline, it seems like many attack, blame and accuse before we try to understand. There is an inordinate amount of egg-breaking in this town, in particular. Many powerful insults — racist, elitist, anti-Semite, traitor — get thrown around too lightly. And, here at least, there is not an unlimited number of eggs to break. There are real challenges to explore, stories to uncover and truths to find with respect to each of these issues. Still, there are better ways to express our passion than by throwing stones at each other, even when we are sure that we are right and they are wrong.

Sometimes, we strike a good balance. When we do, it's usually because we have started from a place of shared humanity. When we figure that the other person is trying his or her best, but might be missing the mark, we approach more gently than we do when we judge the other to be cynical, biased, self-centered, conspiratorial or mean-spirited. It is possible to get a point across without being nasty or insulting. It is even possible to speak passionately and make a difference while holding onto our dignity.

Those of us who are prepared to strike that balance need to speak up more often — our social and political fabric depend on it.

This year, let's get back in touch with the complexity that makes us human and celebrate it. So write your letter to the editor about a justice issue, but edit it first. Speak from your heart at open mic time at the city council or at your town meeting, but do so with self-awareness, honesty, respect and a sense of proportion. March and protest and rally for what's right. Make space so more voices, especially the voices we don't hear often enough, are heard. Speak out clearly against hate using all the passion, humor and creativity you can muster. But also seize the opportunity when all that noise opens up opportunities to listen and converse and find a path forward. Remember — and here I quote Isaiah Berlin again: "Some values clash ... We must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals."

When we have an idea, breaking eggs becomes all too easy. The shofar, in all its tensions, compromises and inconsistencies, reminds us of the complexity of the human voice, of the human soul. This year the sounding of the shofar reminds us to be more mindful of our ideologies and humble about them. For no single note, however beautiful or pure or consistent or important, is enough to sustain the symphony of human society.

Rabbi David Weiner is the spiritual leader at Knesset Israel in Pittsfield. He can be reached at rabbiweiner@knessetisrael.org.

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