Noah Lawrence
Knesset and Senate alum, now rabbinic intern

The shofar’s wisdom for an America in crisis

A shofar, the ram’s horn blown like a trumpet on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, next to a mask for protection from Covid-19. (Photo by Noah Lawrence)

This year’s Days of Awe are like none other. American Jews and our families and friends have been duly inaugurating the new year and preparing for atonement and the clean slate that follows. Yet we are doing so amid no ordinary times for celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but rather a whole battalion of national crises — from the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the storm surrounding the future of the Supreme Court to the utterly dark milestone of 200,000 Americans dead from Covid-19.

How can you celebrate a new year in these times? How can you have any sense of a clean slate? It is hard to know where to begin. And yet the Days of Awe have wisdom that can offer crucial guidance for navigating this moment in American history.

That wisdom begins with the call of the shofar.

Hearing the shofar each year is a crucial part of what makes this season both a familiar cultural treasure and a zenith of spiritual intensity. No one who has heard the shofar can forget its uniquely visceral, rousing, haunting call, fusing the soaring blast of a modern trumpet with a raw, primal surge that is wholly apart from human-made instruments.

That hair-standing-on-end force emanates from the shofar’s original use: as ancient Israel’s national alarm system. The shofar mustered uprisings against oppressive rulers — freedom fighters like Ehud and Gideon blow the shofar for this purpose in the Book of Judges. The shofar also declared changes of leadership. Both King David’s usurping son Absalom and later Solomon as his rightful successor have the shofar blown at their coronations in the Biblical narratives.

Later, the shofar came to epitomize the figurative battle of teshuvah, of repentance, literally “return.” Living in 12th century Spain, Morocco, and Egypt, Rambam (full name Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon and also known as Maimonides) described the shofar as calling out: “Wake up, sleepers, from your sleep! And slumberers, awaken from your slumber! And search your actions, and come back in repentance, and remember your Creator” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah • Laws of Repentance 3:4).

For many American Jews over the past decades and generations, that national alarm has seemed remote. The rituals of repentance have at times felt like a mere ancestral pantomime — or at most, something of deep significance personally, yet not on a larger scale.

But this year there’s nothing figurative about sounding a national alarm. This year is no time for pantomimes. The symbolic has become all too real.

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It is all too real not only because we are living in alarming times in general, but because of what, specifically, the shofar signaled in ancient Israel. The shofar did not merely mark a new law here or there. It announced that a fundamental paradigm of national life, a whole status quo that had once seemed fixed in place, was now open, uncertain, and up for grabs.

That is what Solomon knew when he proclaimed that his father King David’s rule had ended and his own rule had begun. That is what Ehud and Gideon knew when they called Israel to switch from the paradigm of daily order to the paradigm of war, so that they could, in turn, replace the status quo of oppression with a new status quo of freedom.

Repentance, though more personal, has a similar meaning. Its most basic tenet is that the status quo of who we are is not set in stone: that we truly can change, for better and for worse. The task therefore falls to us to “search our actions,” to look hard at the current paradigm of what kind of people we’re being, and to change for the better, and “come back in repentance.”

The fact is — all of us, as we focus on getting through the day, run the risk of being “asleep” to what else is going on around us. All of us, just by being used to the way things are, run the risk of taking it for granted, as somehow more eternal than the status quos of the past.

The shofar calls us to see things differently. It calls us to “wake up” to the whole of what’s happening — not just one event and then another, but their pattern, and the phenomenon they form. The shofar calls us to know that even the most foundational layers of life can be transformed. Paradigms long sturdily established can become irretrievable. What are shocks today can become tomorrow’s normalcy.

***

When we look at our moment this way, what we see is something truly changing in America.

It is not a matter of ordinary policy disagreements, of public programs versus market solutions, or comparatively more hawkish or dovish foreign policies. It is, across numerous cases, the replacement of America’s basic paradigms of fair play and acting on the facts at hand with something altogether different.

Consider, first, the case of public health and Covid-19.

The pandemic has now killed over 200,000 Americans. The whole world has faced this pandemic, and yet the American response has disproportionately endangered Americans. America holds about 4% of the world’s population, but 20.7% of the world’s Covid-19 deaths — in America you’re five times more likely to die from Covid-19 than in the rest of the world.

A key reason why is the response to the pandemic that President Donald Trump and his administration have chosen to take.

The Center for Disease Control’s decision to weaken guidelines about who needs to be tested for Covid-19 reportedly came from political Trump Administration pressure — thus manipulating rules and facts to look more positive than they truly are, at the expense of candor about how to save lives.

Trump avoids wearing a mask and mocks mask-wearing, and continues to hold packed rallies. At one recent Ohio rally he said of Covid-19, “It affects virtually nobody. It’s an amazing thing” — the very week that American Covid-19 deaths passed 200,000. Trump thus uses the presidency’s bully pulpit to encourage behavior that spreads the virus, rather than stops it.

Trump has even exerted pressure for a vaccine by Election Day, regardless of how long it truly takes to develop a vaccine that works and does not do harm — thus conscripting the search for a vaccine into the service of his personal political fortunes, and jeopardizing the public’s ability to trust a vaccine.

The idea that instead of rules and responses truly based on facts, America would warp its rules and responses to suit one person’s personal gain and ego points to a wholly different America than that of President Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature.”

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Second: The case of freedom of expression.

During the recent Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, armed federal agents approached people on streets, put them in unmarked vans, and drove away with them. Their doing so went beyond the borders of their legal mandate to defend federal property, for example “detaining people on Portland streets who aren’t near federal property,” as NPR reported, citing Oregon Public Broadcasting.

This tactic puts fundamental American freedom of expression in jeopardy. “Arrests require probable cause,” but “[i]f the agents are grabbing people because they may have been involved in protests, that’s not probable cause,” U.C. Berkeley Law School professor Orin Kerr commented to The Washington Post. Interim ACLU executive director Jann Carson said in a statement, “Usually when we see people in unmarked cars forcibly grab someone off the street we call it kidnapping.”

Trump has called this Portland strategy “a great job.” He has said he plans to expand it to more of America.

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Third: The case of the Supreme Court.

Following Justice Ginsburg’s death, Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have immediately started pressing ahead to fill her Supreme Court seat. This move is not an ordinary move to confirm a conservative justice, to which a Republican president and Senate majority are entitled. It is, instead, a stark case of playing “heads I win, tails you lose.”

Our moment is haunted by the rule that McConnell called for when President Obama tried to fill the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat, nearly nine months before the 2016 election: “this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.” Today it is about a month and a half before the 2020 election.

McConnell’s claimed distinction is that 2016’s Republican Senate majority had been elected “to check and balance” Obama as an “opposite-party president,” whereas today’s Senate majority and Trump are of the same party.

The fatal flaw with this distinction is that it is not relevant to whether leaders, like Obama and the 2016 Senate, can and must do their jobs according to the Constitution — that’s always the case. And one of those jobs is for the president to appoint justices with the “advice and consent” of the Senate. The Constitution allows one branch of government to check and balance how far another can go, but not to stop it from acting at all, as the 2016 Senate did in blocking Obama from making any appointment to the Court.

The only possible legitimate reason to prevent Obama from filling Scalia’s seat would be that no presidents in election years can fill seats. If Trump and the Republican Senate majority indeed confirm a new justice now, then America will have a Supreme Court chosen not through equal rules for all players, but through Republicans playing by different rules.

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Fourth: The case of the integrity of our presidential election.

Given the highly contagious Covid-19, large numbers of Americans will seek to vote by mail. Nonetheless, “Trump said he would not approve $25 billion in emergency funding for the Postal Service, or $3.5 billion in supplemental funding for election resources,” The Washington Post reported.

Trump specifically said that his goal was to stop voting by mail: “Now, they need that money in order to make the Post Office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” but “if we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting, they just can’t have it.”

Postal workers are reporting mail delays of multiple days — to the point that “the U.S. Postal Service recently sent detailed letters to 46 states and D.C. warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted” (though Postmaster General Louis DeJoy later said this would not in fact be the case). Policies that have caused these mail delays have come from the executive level at the Postal Service.

Although the Postal Service has prior troubled finances, that does not explain the fact that the Postal Service actively spent time and manpower taking mailboxes off of streets, and began removing and destroying crucial mail-sorting machines, precisely when large numbers of voters are about to start mailing ballots in. (Later, under intense criticism, the Postal Service halted these actions, but said it could not reverse them all.)

Given Trump’s underplaying Covid-19’s danger, one would deduce that those who seek to vote by mail will disproportionately vote for Biden, and a recent survey showed precisely that. One projection even forecasts that based on the portion of results counted by election night, Trump will appear to win the Electoral College 408-130, but counting all ballots will make clear that Biden has won by 334 to 204. Thus, by obstructing voting by mail, Trump is obstructing voting for his opponent.

Trump’s obstruction also makes more likely a false impression on election night that Trump has won. At the same time, Trump is laying the groundwork for an attempt to set that false impression in stone as true. He has falsely referred to ballots by mail as “the unsolicited millions of ballots that they’re sending, it’s a scam; it’s a hoax” (not only is this false, but Trump himself votes by mail in Florida). Similarly, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany recently said, “What we want” is “a situation where we know who the president of the United States is on election night” — i.e. calling to discount entirely those ballots that require more time to count.

These events within the American election (not even counting Russia’s pro-Trump interference) indicate that unprecedented chaos is approaching. As three-time Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter Barton Gellman wrote recently in The Atlantic, “The worst case … is not that Trump rejects the election outcome,” but “that he uses his power to prevent a decisive outcome against him,” to “prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all,” and to “seize on that uncertainty to hold on to power.”

For one example: “Trump may demand that the Election Night numbers be certified, because he doesn’t trust the mail-ins,” law professor Edward B. Foley of Ohio State told legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker; Trump made just such a demand about the 2018 Florida midterm election.

Trump has even said that he is pushing to appoint a new Supreme Court justice in time for challenges to the election results (“You need that. With the unsolicited millions of ballots that they’re sending, it’s a scam”); as Aaron Rupar of Vox put it, “Trump suggests he’s counting on SCOTUS to have his back when he makes claims of election fraud.”

When asked recently if he would accept a peaceful transition of power, Trump refused, saying instead, “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens.”

***

Fifth: The case of our era’s tribal-style violence by American against American.

While such violence has at times happened amid the far left, Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful 93% of the time, a new report shows. When they have not been, Joe Biden has condemned such violence. And beneath the noise of the moment, it is, per Thomas Paine’s 1776 phrase, “common sense” that the way to restore tranquility would be to move forward meaningfully on ending racial injustice, the root cause of our moment’s unrest.

By contrast, our era has been marked deeply by far-right violence and domestic terrorism against protesters and minorities. Most recently: Kyle Rittenhouse’s crossing state lines with an AR-15-style rifle and killing two amid the Black Lives Matter protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Before it: the anti-Hispanic, anti-immigrant El Paso shooting, the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, California, the Kroger market shooting of African-American shoppers in Kentucky, and the explosives mailed to Trump critics, among other attacks.

Consider these attacks in light of Trump’s language: his referring to the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville as having “very fine people”; his laughing off, and thus giving his blessing to a rallygoer’s shouting about migrants, “Shoot them!”; his defense of Rittenhouse, among other similar cases. This is language of encouraging far-right violence, and thus, language of inciting it.

Recently Trump told a predominantly white crowd in Minnesota, “You have good genes … A lot of it is about the genes, isn’t it, don’t you believe? The racehorse theory,” referring to a theory of some people’s being genetically superior and others inferior. “This is indistinguishable from the Nazi rhetoric,” historian Steve Silberman wrote. “This is America 2020.”

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Seen together, this array of emergencies alerts us with shofar-like clarity: Now, as America chooses its future course, what’s at stake is not just one policy or another, but the fundamental paradigms of fair play and dealing with the facts that make American democracy what it is.

Picture an America in which the approaches that the Trump Administration has been taking in the present continue into the future:

Hundreds of thousands more Americans dead from Covid-19, while the federal government continues to put one person’s gain and ego above responses to the facts.

The federal Portland tactic of going into places where people have been protesting, taking people off the street without probable cause, and driving away with them, now as a common feature of American life.

Major decisions in American society with consequences for millions handed down not by a conservative Supreme Court or a liberal Supreme Court, but a Supreme Court established through adulterated rules.

Continued election delegitimization, to the point where we the people are not in fact choosing our own president, and do not even know whom we actually chose.

More far-right vigilantes killing fellow Americans, with more incitement by the president, in growing violence that increasingly resembles an ad-hoc civil war.

We must know in our bones that this can genuinely happen. We must know just as much that we can make a choice to stop it.

***

Part of the shofar’s uncanny power is that it blares both those two truths at once. By signaling that a once-fixed status quo has become open and uncertain, the shofar simultaneously summons us to act, and reminds us that the status quo will soon close up again.

Hence the concluding service of Yom Kippur, “Ne’ilah,” “Locking,” i.e. the re-closing of the gates of Heaven that per tradition have been opened to receive atonement. The very name of the service won’t let us forget: There comes a time when it is actually too late.

The shofar implores us to act before that time comes. The shofar is the opposite of Trump’s shocking reaction to all the Covid-19 deaths: “It is what it is.”

The poetry of the Days of Awe’s liturgy unforgettably testifies that the new year will witness “who will live and who will die … who by water and who by fire,” but that “repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the decree” — in other words, that we can still act to alter our destinies. When Ne’ilah concludes with one long, final shofar blast, it sears that clarion call into our minds as we embark upon the new year.

This November, uniquely in living American memory, will determine whether our democracy will live or go through fire. We have the opportunity to take all the action that democracy affords. We must hear the call of the shofar and act before it is indeed too late.

About the Author
Noah Lawrence writes on Jewish legal and religious ethics, has served at the Israeli Supreme Court and Knesset as well as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the US Senate, and is now the rabbinic intern at Congregation Kol Ami of Westchester, NY, while pursuing rabbinic ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The opinions herein are his own. Follow him on Twitter @noahlawr.
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