Monday, September 18, 2017

Cracking the Cold (Derashah for Rosh HaShanah 5778)

Yes, I've neglected this blog, but here is my current draft of a Rosh HaShanah derashah. Please let me know what you think.

Over a period of 16 years, from 1833 to 1849, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote a long poem in memory of his beloved friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. It’s called “In Memoriam A.H.H.[1]”. The best-known line from the poem is probably, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” But I want to focus on a different passage today. In describing his own faith in the face of this bereavement, Tennyson wrote:

Behold, we know not anything; 
         I can but trust that good shall fall 
         At last—far off—at last, to all, 
And every winter change to spring. 

So runs my dream: but what am I? 
         An infant crying in the night: 
         An infant crying for the light: 
And with no language but a cry.[2]

Tennyson describes his cry as that of an infant; he hears the voice of a baby in the emotions of a grown, worldly, sophisticated man grieving for his friend. Keep that image in mind, please, as we look at a very odd element of the mitzvah of shofar.

Shofar is a surprisingly vague mitzvah; the Torah describes the first day of the seventh month as יום תרועה, a day for trumpeting, but it doesn’t define what exactly a teruah is. How do we know what sound to make? The Talmud[3] deduces the nature of the shofar’s teruah based on the crying of a particular woman in Tanach.

More: We blow 100 shofar blasts each day of Rosh HaShanah, even though 60 should cover all of the possible permutations of sounds. Why 100? Tosafot[4] quotes the 10th century sage, Rabbi Natan baal ha’Aruch, explaining that we want to match the cries of that same woman in Tanach. She cried 99 or 100 times, depending on your version of this idea, and we cry as she did.

So there you have it. How do we know that teruah is a crying sound? That crying woman in Tanach. Why do we blow 100 blasts? Same woman in Tanach. And my problem is this: That woman in Tanach ranks as one of the coldest, most heartless human beings in Jewish history. That woman was the mother of a Canaanite general named Sisera.

Go back in time about 3200 years. After the Jews left Egypt and entered Canaan, Yehoshua led them for 28 years. After he died, we were governed by a series of Shoftim/Judges for centuries, during an up-and-down period in which we were often under the thumb of local tribes. About 120 years into this period, the Canaanites come to dominate us; they have iron, horse-drawn chariots, and they force us up into the mountains. Their lead general is a man named Sisera.

To make a long story short, our shofet at the time is a woman named Devorah, and she leads us in rebellion against Canaan. Miraculously, the Canaanite chariots are routed. The soldiers flee east, to go home; their general, Sisera, deserts and heads west, looking for shelter. He is intercepted by a woman named Yael, who kills him. Devorah composes a poem about the victory, and at the end of the poem she describes the scene back at Canaanite headquarters, where Sisera’s mother anxiously awaits her son’s return. To quote:[5]

“At the window, the mother of Sisera gazes out and cries at an ornately decorated window. She cries, ‘Why is his chariot delayed in coming? Why are the hoofbeats of his chariots late?’ The wise noblewomen answer her, and she also gives this statement to herself, ‘Have they not found and distributed spoils, a womb, two wombs to every man, spoils of dyed [fabric] for Sisera, spoils of dyed embroidery, dyed embroidery around the neck of the despoiler?’”

This is the mother of Sisera – a woman who comforts herself with the thought that her son is assaulting women and stealing spoils. And her language – a womb, two wombs to every man – it’s vulgar, obscene! How grotesque! What a mockery of maternity! Sisera’s mother may have cried for her son, but why in the world would I want to model my shofar on Rosh HaShanah on the grief of the most abominably cold-hearted human being imaginable?!

I’m not the only one with this question. Rav Eliyahu Ki-Tov asked this question in Sefer haTodaah, and decided that we are not looking at her villany, but at our own goodness. We are contrasting ourselves with Sisera’s mother. She wept with cruelty; we weep with humanity. There is a logic to this, certainly.

Another answer is to look past her cold villainy, and see her as a bereaved mother. As Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider wrote in a column on the OU website last year,[6][S]o great is the grief of any parent for the loss of a child, that we all are left completely bereft. The universality and commonality of suffering over the loss of a child transcends names and identities.” Rabbi Goldscheider knows what he is talking about; he lost a child. And I accept his point. But I don’t understand – do we really need to demonstrate our compassion for a bereaved parent by invoking this particular bereaved parent? Do we not have enough bereaved parents in our history, on whom shofar could have been modeled?[7]

I would suggest that the answer is not to ignore her villainy, but to embrace it, to understand that her lack of a heart is precisely the point. We invoke her because she is so unsympathetically heartless. This merciless human being, who reassures herself that all is well by imagining her son viciously violating prisoners – even she can crack.  And that unadorned cracking of the cold, yielding sincere emotion below, is what matters in shofar.

Rav Yehudah Amital[8] also emphasized the sincere cry, in an essay regarding Akeidat Yitzchak. He quoted a manuscript of the midrashic Avot d'Rabbi Natan[9] which describes the fateful scene on the mountain. In contrast to the classic image of the stoic father and son, pure in their devotion to Gd, in this version Avraham says to himself, “I am old, and he is young, perhaps Yitzchak could escape!” And Yitzchak says to himself, “Who will save me from my father? I have no aid other than Hashem!” Rav Amital explained, Avraham was no malach, and Yitzchak was no seraph; neither of them wanted to go through with this, and they were looking for something, pleading with Hashem, to prevent Yitzchak’s death. They cracked - and as we say in our Selichot, Hashem answered Avraham. It’s true that Hashem never wanted Yitzchak to die, but even had Hashem wanted Yitzchak to die, He would have halted the akeidah because of Avraham’s plea for Yitzchak’s life – because the most valuable prayer to Hashem is that simple, sincere cry, like that of Avraham, for that which we love the most.

This is what shofar is about – expressing the sincere cry. Returning to the beginning, I think this is what Tennyson described in his own grief for his beloved friend: “An infant crying in the night: An infant crying for the light: And with no language but a cry.” Simple. Sincere. Lacking artifice and style, and all the more beautiful for it. Even Sisera’s mother, at her moment of crisis, releases this pure voice from inside of her.

We may not like to admit it, but we nurture within ourselves the seeds of the cold brutality of Sisera’s mother - and for good reason. A soul open to every emotion, a heart with strings that can be plucked by every circumstance, would drown in a sea of passion. We would suffer depression at every hurricane and shooting and car accident and famine. We would ride a roller coaster of joy with every birth and marriage and success we saw on Facebook or Linkedin. We would spend our last pennies on helping people around the world in need. We would overload in reaction to every news headline and private conversation, and we would be left gasping for air, for emotional space, for survival.

So we develop a necessary shell, but we pay a price in doing it. I become much more at ease snapping my fingers to an upbeat tune than contemplating loss. I become more comfortable reading a book of intellectual essays about Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur than intensely contemplating what I did for the past year, and why I did it. I would rather go home to a delicious lunch than remain here asking, a la Tennyson, whether spring will truly follow winter for me, for my family, for my friends.

But on Rosh HaShanah, with the shofar, we are meant to penetrate to just those fears that inhabit the pit of our stomach. To imagine what it would mean to lose that which we love and treasure more than anything on earth – and to cry like Tennyson’s infant. Toward that end we summon the image of the coldest, crudest human being imaginable, Sisera’s awful mother, cracking, and we know that if she can, then so can we. And our cry, at the moment when our cold is cracked, is gorgeous in its purity, in its simplicity, in its sincerity.

Along the same lines, the Talmud Yerushalmi[10] says we blow an animal horn because our own cry on Rosh HaShanah is that of an animal. The shofar has no words, only an animal, or perhaps infantile, sound that emerges with our breath, from our core. May we crack, and find that cry inside of ourselves this morning, for just a little while. May we call out to Hashem sincerely, for the sake of our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our friends, our children. And may Hashem respond to us, as HaShem responded to Avraham, with a verdict for a חתימה טובה, to be inscribed and sealed for a year of berachah and shalom.

[3] Rosh HaShanah 33b-34a
[4] Ibid.
[5] End of Shoftim 5
[7] I.e. Sarah and Yaakov, when they believe their children dead. Of course, there are other answers, such as noting that R’ Akiva was her descendant, and invoking mystical ideas. Rav Soloveitchik has a particularly moving idea found in Pninei haRav pg. 158 and “Before Hashem you will be purified” pg. 10. See
[9] Cited in Torah Sheleimah Bereishit 22 #92
[10] Yerushalmi Taanit 2:1


  1. Rav Soleveitchik, as quoted by Rav Wohlgelmuth, says that when Sisra's mother heard the "consolations" of her ladies, she realized that her son's life had been misspent, her own ideals were all wrong, and she sincerely repented. Her 100 cries were cries of sorrow and regret for the waste of her son's life. Not pshat, but and interesting take on the disgusting comments of her friends.

  2. Love this! And I will most definitely use this (quoting you, of course!).
    כתיבה וחתימה טובה.