By Rabbi Andrew Busch
What approach might best call a group of humans to attention? It is an ancient and ongoing question. Throughout history, all societies have grappled with the question of how to gather their members for self-defense, for the sharing of news or for a celebration. We imagine drums, gongs, town criers and trumpets. At Rosh Hashanah, we naturally think of the shofar, which similarly had many uses for our ancestors.
Recent events remind us that we also have modern techniques for grabbing the attention of a large group. Across the country and ocean, we are witnessing questions about the nature of these warnings. In the face of this summer’s horrendous fire in Lahaina, Hawaii, many of us wondered: How should we warn a population when different dangers require different responses? The alerts that appear on our cell phones can be specifically tailored, but with each alert given a different meaning, they can be confusing, and many turn just them off.
How we gain the attention of a large group of people is indeed a complicated question, with different ramifications depending on the situation. Do we want people to gather, to flee or to hunker down? The needs may not be the same in all places. And, as we are reminded on Rosh Hashanah, this is an ancient dilemma.
The Talmud explores a possibility in Rosh Hashanah 16a. Rabbi Abbahu explains, “Why do we sound a shofar of a ram? The Holy One said: Sound before me a shofar of a ram so that I can remember on your behalf the binding of Isaac, son of Abraham, and I will consider it as if you had bound yourselves before me.”
The Torah presents God as calling out to Abraham quite simply, even if the message is emotionally complex. Our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading calls out for us to understand the value parents put upon their children via the love that Abraham and Sarah felt for Isaac. At the end of Genesis 22, a ram is provided for Abraham to offer in place of his son. Abraham’s passionate loyalty to God is answered with that alternate sacrifice for Isaac. Abraham answered God’s response, and God in the end replied in kind. The people walk away from the encounter safely, with faith in God intact.
The Talmudic passage above seeks to link our Rosh Hashanah practice with that very bond of faith. Rabbi Abbahu even credits God with inviting us to remind God of that ancient act of providing the ram. We are calling out for God’s attention and for our people’s concern. We are calling out a wish of love and devotion. We may never be like those mentioned in the Torah, but we can aspire to relate to them and to be inspired by them.
We don’t stop there, with a simple blast of the ram’s horn. Our tradition develops a complicated mixture of a few calls (tekiah, shevarim, t’ruah) that are repeated seemingly endlessly throughout the holiday.
Every culture in every generation has had to decide how to draw together in danger and in celebration. Judaism manages to do this all at once, with one instrument and those many calls. As New Year arrives, we are encouraged to recognize the dangers of life, but also to celebrate its opportunities. And what greater opportunity than to gather and celebrate our unified hope to connect to all that is holy?
Rabbi Andrew Busch serves Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.