My experience of Rosh Hashana this year was defined by a heightened awareness of and deep reflection on the voices of Rosh Hashana. There are two voices of Rosh Hashana. The first is the voice of the shofar — clear, loud, decisive, bold. The second is the still, small voice that is mentioned in a central prayer of Rosh Hashana called “Untaneh Tokef” and that hearkens back to the story of Elijah the prophet. God was revealed to Elijah not in the loud blasts of the shofar, as at Mount Sinai, but rather in a sort of whisper.
Why am I telling you this? I am a mother, a wife, a Jewish educator, a New Yorker, among many other things. And this year, I heard the sounds of Rosh Hashana in a new way.
This was the year I found my voice as a climate activist – a new calling for me that grew out of the convergence of pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, unprecedented climate disasters at home and around the world fused with a calling from my Jewish tradition, my family and my people. And I can’t help but hear, in Rosh Hashana’s celebration of creation, the imperative for us to save our planet and our peoples from the worst ravages of climate change.
Let’s examine the two voices of Rosh Hashana.
The shofar is the thundering voice that wakes us from our slumber and that compels us to do teshuva — to return to ourselves, to recommit to repairing our world, to mend our mistakes from this past year. The shofar on Rosh Hashana also tells the stories of our people. Whether fictional or real, these are our stories: standing at Mount Sinai as a community to receive the 10 Commandments; the shofar joining other instruments in a symphony of celebration, praise and joy; heralding the new moon or messaging the dangers of an impending war; a signaling of redemption and liberation to come. And the 100 blasts themselves on Rosh Hashana are a combination of the broken, wailing sounds of heartbreak and loss and the work yet to be done, mixed with the loud, joyous sounds of hope and longing and possibility.
I find my story here as well. Growing up in a Jewish family committed to repairing the world, I joined the march on Washington in the summer of 1978 to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. On a daily basis as a child, I saw the print by Ben Shahn that hung in our home: a brown hand and a white hand clasping each other, with the words from the Bible in Hebrew and English, “Thou Shalt Not Stand Idly By.” There were protests for Soviet Jewry and Ethiopian Jewry. We would celebrate our ancestors’ exodus from bondage every year at Passover while simultaneously committing to working towards the exodus of all oppressed peoples. And all of this was done in community, moving from the heartbreak of the unredeemed, pain-filled world toward the faith, determination and commitment to partner with the Divine in perfecting our world and then back again. Being grounded in community has allowed me this dance between feeling the despair and suffering and then reaching again for the hope and potential, and to lift myself up and try again.
The other voice of this season, the still, small voice, is described in the biblical book of Kings. The text tells us that there was a great wind, but God was not in the wind. After the wind, came an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, came fire; but God was not in the fire. Only after the fire came the voice of God, this time still and small. In the face of destruction, God comes and whispers to us that God is still there and we are still there, in partnership. We are not alone. As long as there is one small voice of another, anything and everything is possible. Redemption can still come, with our collective sweat and toil.
The story of my journey continues here, with the whispers that have murmured softly into my ears over the years. The whispers that came after giving birth and through child-rearing, that shared and showed me what it means to nurture another person and to hope and believe in and fight for a future where all life can thrive. More recently, the quiet but powerful “Nibi” (water) song of the Anishinaabe women, water protectors leading the resistance to the Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline, stretching from Alberta, Canada, to Wisconsin, and their teaching that we need to sing our ancestors’ songs and remember our stories and the stories of our grandparents in order to plant our feet firmly on the ground. That teaching led me to the whispers of my ancestors who left their home to come to this country out of hardship and circumstance, not much different than the refugees of today, seeking survival and a good life. After enduring an extremely hot day this summer, the new normal, the whispers remind me of the realities of heat inequality in my city, where there can be a 10 degree difference between neighborhoods due to tree cover. A neighbor who lives three blocks away from me described the torrent of rain that flooded the New York City Housing Authority building where he lives as the remnants of Ida tore through our city, the most vulnerable hit the hardest, yet again. The wind and the fire from the Book of Kings a pronounced and irrefutable reality now here at home are followed by whispers pleading to me to not turn away, but to choose to look and then to act. “Thou Shalt Not Stand Idly By.”
Rosh Hashana is the day, according to Jewish tradition, on which the Divine voice created the world, a magnificent and diverse ecosystem with the potential for propagation, continuity, and prosperity that culminated with God blowing breath into the nostrils of God’s final creation, the first human. This year, Rosh Hashana offers us the opportunity to celebrate that breath of life and to seek within and find our individual and authentic voice: the loud, thundering voice — outraged and indignant as well as determined and hopeful — and the still, small voice — of wisdom collected over time and space and of contemplation and reflection that are possible when the storm takes a pause. We take that voice, we plant ourselves firmly in the ground from which we were created and in the communities that we have built and nurtured, and we muster the courage to use that voice, each in our own way, to repair our world.