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Haazinu 5784     September 23, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Art Green, a long-time beloved teacher of mine gave a Devar Torah for Rosh Hashana and I want to use some excerpts from his teaching this morning. He teaches:

I heard from the Maggid a parable he offered before the shofar sounding:

A king sent his beloved children to a far-off country. They spent long years there, exiled

from their father’s table. But they were constantly concerned with how to get back, how to come

to dwell again in the restful home of their father’s innermost royal court. How happy they had

been when sharing in their father’s joy! How much better things were then than now!

They began to send affectionate messages to their father, hoping he would take pity on

them and bring them back. But once they got close enough to the royal court, they saw that their father’s countenance was not the same as it had once been. They kept calling out and begging for his mercy, but they were met with silence.

After a long period of receiving no reply, the king’s children began to wonder what they

might yet do to reawaken their father’s former love. “Why is it that we call out and receive no

answer? Surely our father has no lack of mercy! There must be some reason for this.”

They decided that maybe over the course of their years in that distant land they had forgotten the king’s language. “We became so mixed up with other nations that we took on their ways and started speaking their language. We have no way to communicate with the king. That’s

why our words are not heard in his palace!”

So, they decided to stop calling out in words or language. They would just let out a simple

cry to arouse his mercy, since a cry without words can be understood by anyone. (Or ha-Me’ir)

In this story, the children were exiled from their father’s table. They actively seek a way to come back – but they’ve forgotten their native language and cannot speak to the king. There are many levels of exile and alienation that can be uncovered in this parable. I think of

today’s American Jews, now six or seven generations into being Americans. Most of them have

forgotten how to speak in Jewish language. The echoes of tradition have become so faint as to

vanish from their ears. I think also of Israelis considering putting down roots in Berlin,

Portugal, or Miami. How long will it take until their children, too, have forgotten the language?

But the real truth behind this parable is universal, however it is told. What is the heart’s

forgotten language? Is there a language of the soul, once known to us, but now forgotten? Even

we who go to synagogue and read divrey torah have forgotten it. What do we do when we realize we’ve lost the words of our heart’s most native tongue?

This is not a story and teaching about the Hebrew Language. Languages can be taught. Languages can be learned. But there is something more primal going on here. This teaching is not about either Hebrew or even Yiddish, sometimes called “Jewish.” The “Jewish Language,” that is being referred to, is the language of the soul.

It has been many decades, even many centuries, since anyone has talked about the language of the soul. How is it that we can communicate with God? God is not part of the physical world. What possible meaning could our voices, vibrations in the air, have when it comes to God? To whom do we think we are talking? What tone of voice? What inflection? What accents will be needed so that God can understand our words? The answer is none of the above. Not even the feelings in our hearts are enough. Something more is needed.

If we have ever been in a foreign country where nobody speaks a language we know, trying to communicate is very difficult. Sometimes we speak more slowly hoping that the words spoken carefully will make a difference, but the words are not understood. Sometimes we shout louder as if the volume will make our words intelligible to the one listening. Sometimes we quit using words and use hand signs to try and convey meaning. More often than not, we give up in frustration and just give out a shrei….Arrrrrggggggh! This is not meant as an insult to the person we are addressing, but just a sign of our frustration, and that sound, that sound is clearly understood by everyone in every language.

What is our cry of frustration when we want to “speak” to God? The parable implies that the sound of frustration is the sound of the Shofar. It is the most basic cry to at least get God to pay attention. Tekiah – Here we are! Shevarim – We are feeling broken! Teruah – It is catastrophic that we can’t communicate any better with You. Our soul has lost its connection to the root of all souls, and we don’t know how to connect it anymore. It is more than just frustration. It is like not being able to speak to someone on Zoom or online because no matter what we do with our computer, it will not transmit a sound that our beloved can hear. Or, as we remember from the movie, “Cool Hand Luke” “What we have here is a failure to communicate…”

Our parsha, Haazinu, reminds us that the stakes could not be higher. This Poem of Moses takes us from the end of the Torah back to the beginning, “Heaven and Earth,” God, and the first primal human being. But now there is not a Garden of Eden. Here, at the end of Deuteronomy, we humans are in a more precarious situation. Bex Stern-Rosenblatt, from the Conservative Yeshiva, describes what is going on in the poetry of Haazinu, She writes:

At first, each character is described with glory and pride, but very quickly we descend into what is known as a riv, a trial, in which each actor is assigned a role and justice is administered. The heavens and the earth become both judge and victim while Israel and the nations stand trial against an avenging God. Humanity’s punishment, both ours and that of the other nations, is terrible. Our crimes against the land are atoned for through God’s spilling of human blood. In a series of horrific images that recall both the Flood and the destruction of the Egyptians in the Song of the Sea, God becomes a vengeful warrior and killing humans is the only way to restore the earth, the land, to its rightful state. God wipes out the blood humans have spilled with more human blood. 

It is not just our own lives that hang in the balance, it is also the fate of the world. Heaven and earth judge our actions as the victims of human injustice. This is even more than an environmental statement. This is about our very existence. We have no place to live if we destroy our own habitat. The stakes could not be higher. Our negligence, our indifference, our deafness to the pain of others, makes us responsible for the spilled blood of the innocent. Now God will demand justice and our own blood is on the line.

We try to state our case, to admit our guilt, to promise restitution, to beg forgiveness, but the words are not getting through. The “King” is not indifferent; it is just that we no longer can express ourselves in a way that God can hear us. We have been disconnected for so long that we don’t know how to connect anymore. There is no sound, there is no communication, there are no words. There is only our cry of pain and frustration, the sound of the shofar, which can transmit our feelings across the breech. That is the sound that can be heard by God. That is the sound that can reconnect our soul. If we can reconnect to the source of our life, as we were once connected in Eden or at Sinai, we will not need words or sounds; we will be tuned in to the very heart of the universe, our own divine spark will be in tune with the source of all divinity, and in that instant, everything will be known and resolved.

This is not just a connection to the Ruler of the universe. We say, “Avinu Malkeynu” “Our Father, Our King,” for we are of royal blood. We are the children of the King. We have been separated for so long that we have forgotten our royal roots, we have forgotten who our parents are, we have forgotten the very language we need to communicate with God. The sounds of the Shofar begin to bridge that gap, our divine parent realizes who we are and is moved to compassion. Now it is both sides of the communication gap that are trying to reach out to each other. We yearn for a connection to God and God yearns to be reconnected to us. Our banishment from Eden has ended. The reason for the exile of our people is over. It is time to come home.

Yom Kippur is tomorrow. Sunday morning, we will visit the graves of our ancestors and ask them to help us be heard at the trial that will begin on Sunday night. We ask them to speak up at our trial and use their connection to help us connect. On Sunday night and all-day Monday, we will confess our sins, not so God can hear them, believe me, God already knows our sins, but we recite them so we can hear them. So, we can understand what we have done wrong and begin to address the problems in our lives. What small things can we do to save our environment? What small things can we do to bring people together rather than to drive us apart? What small things can we do to help those in need, those who are in danger of their lives?

Now, on this Shabbat, Shabbat Shuva, we can turn. We can turn our attention to what is critically important to our lives and the lives of all humanity. What can we do to bring peace to someone who is troubled? What can we do to bring serenity to those who are disturbed? What can we do to help make someone who is tormented find tranquility? What can we do to help enrich one who is burdened by poverty? What can we do to raise up one who has been brought low? These are not questions that come from Unetane Tokef; these are not questions we look to God to answer. These are questions we must answer to save our own lives and to save our entire world. This poem of Moses puts us all on trial. How will we plead? How will we make our voices heard?

Let us sound the Shofar to move God to see us, to hear us, to feel our needs. If we can connect to the Source of our life, to the Source of all of life, then we can do teshuva, we can turn, and we can make a difference in our world. Then and only then the Great Shofar will be sounded with a resounding “Tekiah Gedolah” the sound of great triumph. And we will emerge from court, not only forgiven, but renewed.

May God hear our cries today and tomorrow and everyday beyond as we say….

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784