Dare to be Desperate: Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 5777

Slightly expanded version of my sermon.

7:52am. Most days, I walk into school like a whirling dervish, throwing my stuff down in an attempt to get our school tefilla underway by 7:55. As I get things started and begin putting on my tallit and tefilin, any number of thoughts flood my mind. Too often, I left home without the kids fully dressed, the beds and couches made, and the cereal cleaned up. My wife probably isn't especially happy about that. I wonder about the class I'll be teaching later that day. I'm confident it will be a fantastic class, but I really need to find just ten minutes to put the finishing touches on my preparation. I wonder when I'll find those minutes - and while I'm at it, I wonder what my schedule is for the day anyway? Then I worry about the presentation I have scheduled later on the same day. Quite honestly, I've been a bit nervous about it for a few days already, and I'm not really quite sure how it will go. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of the kinds of things running through my head.

Then I open the siddur and try to turn my attention to its words. To be sure, they're written in a familiar language, but it's still not my native tongue. And then I try to turn my attention to praying to a deity I'll never meet or get to know in the same way I can get to know each and every one of you.

Tefilla is tough for me and so many of us. And so the timeless question arises, what can we do this year to move the needle? How can we find just a bit more connection during our tefillot?

I'd like to suggest that an irony regarding the shofar points the way toward an answer. If there's one day of the year when we'd expect to be especially careful concerning the sanctity of prayer, it would be Rosh Hashanah. Yet during the Mussaf service, the chazan interrupts his prayer for the sounding of the shofar. This is highly unusual. We know that one may not interrupt one's prayers to engage in a separate mitzvah performance, no matter how important. Why then do we interrupt the chazan's repetition of Shmoneh Esrei?

What is more, in the Sephardic community and other parts of the Jewish world, it is customary to blow the shofar during the silent amida. Think about it for a moment. The ba'al tokei'a is in the middle of his amida - he is praying with tremendous focus - and he then calls a "time out on the field," interrupting his own prayers by sounding the shofar. What is going on?

Nachmanides offers a remarkable answer. He argues that in fact, the mitzvah of blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is already behind us. We completed our biblical obligation with the blasts blown before Mussaf. Why then do we sound the shofar during Mussaf? It is in fulfillment of another biblical obligation to blow the shofar in an emergency situation. The Torah teaches that when an enemy combatant approaches the Jewish encampment with violent intentions, the community is obligated to sound the trumpets. Ramban explains that this is the source for the requirement of blowing the shofar during Mussaf. Because it is a day of judgment, Rosh Hashanah is an et tzara, a time of crisis. According to Ramban, a time of crisis is the only scenario under which there is a biblical obligation to pray. This prayer takes place by way of combining the traditional liturgy with appropriate musical instruments.

According to Ramban our question is resolved. Blowing the shofar during Mussaf is not an interruption to our tefillot. Quite the opposite. It is an essential tool of our prayers. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to blast the shofar during the Mussaf service.

If we think about it for a moment, Ramban's interpretation of the shofar may be likened to the cry of a baby. Just as a baby issues a primal call for help to its "higher powers," typically a mommy or daddy, so too we desperately call for assistance from the higher power that a more mature individual can recognize - God.

This image of the baby's cry is crucial not only for understanding the purpose of the shofar, but also of prayer and, above all, ourselves. It suggests that we are hard-wired to cry out desperately for help at times of crisis.

Aside from Ramban, I learned this lesson from two sources: my children and archaeology. First my children.

We live about three blocks from the local fire station on Montgomery Avenue. It's not uncommon for us to hear the whirl of sirens. In all honesty, I barely hear them; they're background noise for me. But as soon as my kids hear the alarm, they run over to the window, pull up the shades and peer out to see if they can locate the fire trucks. Then Bezalel, nine, begins leading Moriah, six: "Shir Ha-ma'alot mi-ma'amakim keraticha Hashem." They continue reciting the chapter of Psalms until its conclusion.

As I witness this prayer recitation, I sit there feeling inspired. I can promise you one thing: they don't get it from me. But I do think they get it, at least to some degree, from themselves. My kids make it clear that petitionary prayer comes from a very deep place within.

And now to archaeology. Abbe Breiul was a great 19th century discoverer and scholar of prehistoric art. He is perhaps most famous for having discovered a carving known as "The Sorcerer," which he found deep in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains of France. Painted on a high wall deep inside the cave, the image contains human and animal features, including a horse’s tail, deer-like ears, heavy antlers, and a human torso and feet. The face contains owl-like eyes that stare implacably at the viewer like the Mona Lisa. Breuil concluded - and later researchers generally concurred - that the depiction represents some sort of deity to which the Upper Paleontological hunters would pray some 10,000 years ago for success in the hunt and survival through the harsh winter. The earliest known human instance of prayer, in other words, is one of a desperate cry for help to some sort of mythical power. While we reject the particulars of their pagan worship, the point is clear. The earliest known stages of child and civilization's development demonstrates just how deeply we are wired to turn to a higher power for assistance when life's problems weigh us down.

But this all raises a basic problem. If we are wired for prayer, why don't we instinctively turn to God when we are kept up at night by our fears? To explain why, I'd like to share one more story about my son. A few years ago, he and my wife Tova were engaged in conversation. Tova said, "I don't know how I'm going to figure this out." Bezalel responded, "Imma, that's easy. Just google it up." Although his diction has improved since then, that phrase I think sums up neatly a message with which Western society bombards us daily. Whenever there is something we don't have the answer to, we just click a few times and find it. We just google it up.

If we don't find the answer quickly enough, we invent one. When we are faced with a medical issue, we try to discover the cure. If we need a technological fix, we take care of that too. If the incidence of car accidents is too high, we simply follow the lead of Pittsburgh Uber, which is piloting driverless cars. Removing people eliminates human error from the equation.

And so I believe we are torn. Our hearts tell us that not everything is in our control, and that sometimes we must rely on a higher power. Society messages that we simply need to google up the answers to our problems. And all too often, with the distractibility of modern life, society wins the day and we don't cry out to God for help.

What are we to do? How can we return to our baby's cry? I believe we taught ourselves the answer just two summers ago. Three Israeli boys went missing, and we asked God as a community to bring back our boys. We prayed for the kids, the mothers, the fathers and the Jewish people. And while our prayers were not answered in the way we had hoped, we did teach ourselves an incredibly powerful lesson: when we face a communal crisis, the instinct to band together and sound a desperate cry is alive and well.

In truth, it's not only in our personal lives that we wonder about our fates. The future of Western European Jewry hangs in the balance just seventy years after the Holocaust. Mothers and fathers throughout Israel are still afraid to send their children to school; the spate of Palestinian stabbings has not fully subsided. Anyone following the political circus that is the current presidential election cycle, whatever her political persuasion, cannot help but ask fundamental questions about the future of civil society and Western democracy. There is much that worries us and that is worthy of tefilla be'et tzara, prayer in times of crisis.

And so if someone were to ask me how I might better help myself to pray, I would answer that tefilla is like blowing the shofar during Mussaf. At first glance the shofar is a distraction from prayer, but upon closer examination, is its essence. The same is true of all the distractions that flood our minds during prayer and other times. At first glance they are mere distractions from prayer. And in truth, it is impossible to focus on any one item while we are mentally torn in any number of directions. Still, those stray thoughts are not distractions from prayer; they are the very stuff of prayer. If we can manage to push aside many of those thoughts but hold onto that one concern deeply weighing on us, we can control that fear and redirect it heavenward.

As we are about to hear the shofar and embark upon Mussaf, I'm hoping to try this out, and I invite you to join me. I'll be trying to take just thirty seconds to focus on something really troubling me, and to turn that to God. I hope you'll try it out as well.

I recently read an article entitled “Dare to Be Desperate: A Sign of Spiritual Health and Mature Faith.” This year, let's dare to be a bit more desperate by transforming our worries into prayers that pierce the heavens. By doing so we will hopefully experience a more meaningful and connected tefilla experience. In that merit, may God respond positively to all our requests for the coming year.