You can listen to Rabbi Josh reading this sermon by clicking here.

Kol ha-olam kulo
Gesher tzar me’od
V’ha-ikar lo lefached klal.

All the world is a very narrow bridge
And the essence is not to fear at all.

It was the early years of the nineteenth century. The Jews of eastern Europe were herded together in cities and villages throughout Poland, Ukraine, Russia—in the area known as the Pale of Settlement. The machines of factories and the ideas of modernization, which had already had such an effect in the West, were beginning to be known in the East.

Think Fiddler on the Roof. People suffered—from poverty, disease, and threats of violence. While the ideas and forces of modernity offered an escape, they also deeply challenged traditional ways of life.

In the midst of all of this, beginning in the late eighteenth century, the movement known as Hasidus, Hasidism, spread like wildfire throughout the Jewish world of Eastern Europe. Its appeal was based on its simplicity: any Jew could experience God’s presence through the joyous performance of mitzvoth. Advanced Talmudic scholarship wasn’t required, wealth wasn’t required. Simple faith, simple piety—this was all a person needed to find fulfillment and happiness in the world.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was the grandson of the founder of Hasidus, the Ba’al Shem Tov. A charismatic leader and creative genius, the teachings of Rebbe Nachman’s short life have inspired seven generations of disciples since his death.

Rebbe Nachman’s teachings are brilliant in the profundity of their simplicity. He taught of the power of song to elevate the spirit. He taught that meditation and silence could be routes to revelation, even more than reciting the traditional liturgy.

But Rebbe Nachman’s most famous teaching comes to us through this song:

Kol ha-olam kulo
Gesher tzar me’od
V’ha-ikar lo lefached klal.

All the world is a very narrow bridge
And the essence is not to fear at all.

I want to reflect with you today on this song, and on the challenge of fear. Because we live in fearful times. Indeed today, more than at any time since September 11, 2001, we sense fear around us.

We fear for Israel—because of the threats it faces from without, and because of the deep ruptures that tear at it from within.

We fear for our planet—because of floods and earthquakes and hurricanes and droughts, and food shortages, unclean water and disease.

We fear for our nation—because of an economy that seems unable to recover, because of a political culture as toxic as ever.

We fear for our state and our cities—because of debts that have driven our governments to bankruptcy, because of underfunded schools and drastic cuts in social services.

And all these fears cause us to fear for ourselves. Will we find a job? Will we keep our job? Will we be able to go to the hospital and pay for medicine? We will be able to afford the mortgage?

I recently heard an astonishing statistic from the president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, Steve Nasitir: In the last year, 42,000 Jews have taken food assistance from a Federation agency. In Chicagoland. 42,000 individuals. That’s a staggering number of hungry Jews.

So we have much to fear. We have good reasons to fear.  It is totally appropriate for us to tremble and wail and moan.

But what then?

That, my friends, is the question: What then? What comes after the fear? What comes after the trembling? What comes after the wailing and the moaning and the crying?

The answer is right before us. The answer is the heart of today. The answer is in the shofar.

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, yom zichron teruah, a day of remembrance through the teruah, a holy convocation.” (Leviticus 23:23-24)

The Torah tells us that the essence of the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah is the teruah, the middle sound that we blow. What is the teruah? According to the Talmud, the teruah is crying. Just what kind of crying is the subject of a disagreement. It could be a kind of weeping or wailing, or it could be a long sigh—the kind of sigh that a person makes when he is worried about some great thing, says Maimonides. So our teruah becomes both of these types: the kind we call a shevarim, the three broken sighs; and the kind we call a teruah, the short staccato panting we experience when we weep.

The heart of our shofar blowing, the heart of Rosh Hashanah itself, is this crying. It is sadness. It is trembling. It is wailing. It is agony. It is war. It is fear.

But: What then?

What comes next? What comes after the teruah? What comes after the crying? What comes after the fear?

The answer, again, is in the shofar. What comes after the fear? What comes after the teruah? The tekiah.

Unlike the teruah, the tekiah is unbroken. It is not the sound of crying, it is not the sound of fear. The tekiah is the sound of coronation, the sound of the king. It is the sound of might, the sound of confidence. The tekiah is the sound of hesed, the sound of generosity and kindness.

What comes after the fear of the teruah is the strength of the tekiah. After the suffering comes the healing. After the brokenness comes the wholeness. After the teruah comes the tekiah.

That is the message of the shofar for us this year. We do not blow a teruah by itself. We do not wallow in despair. No: after we blow the teruah and give voice to our anguish, we blow the tekiah and give voice to our hope. And not only that: we even blow a tekiah before we blow the teruah! We surround the fear of the teruah with the strength of the tekiah. “The teruah is surrounded by mercy, before and after,” says Nachmanides. Rosh Hashanah is a day of din b’rachamim, a day of judgment and fear, surrounded by loving kindness.

The shofar, then, is calling to us to rise above our fears. It is not saying, as Rebbe Nachman did, that we must not fear at all. Fear is real. It has a place. We need a time to be afraid. That is today: u’malachim yechafezun b’chil u’readah yochazun v’yomru hinei yom hadin, “On this day even the angels are alarmed, seized with fear and trembling as they declare, ‘The day of judgment is here!’”

But after we give expression to our fears, we must move beyond them. We must remember our hopes, remember our dreams, remember that we are the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. We are the descendents of people who, b’chol dor vador, in generation after generation, under the most difficult circumstances, demonstrated their faith that goodness and righteousness and redemption were possible, and indeed, ultimately inevitable.

Certainly they were afraid. But they were not paralyzed by their fear. They moved beyond it, they transcended it. They were models of strength and courage, hospitality and generosity. When fear would drive them to close themselves off, to be distrustful, to lose faith—they responded by opening themselves up, trusting in God, showing faith in the covenant.

Today we do nothing less than this. Today we listen to the teruah of the shofar, and we acknowledge our fears. And then we listen to the tekiah of the shofar, and rekindle our hopes.

So as we listen to the shofar, as we dwell on its message, I ask you, What are you afraid of? What are you most nervous about this year? What keeps you awake at night and lies lurking at the door? Think of it, bring it to mind. Really get inside it. Allow the teruah to really speak to you.

And then ask a second question: In spite of all of that, what gives you hope? What, and who, do you have faith in? What will give you strength to overcome your fear? What inspires you and raises up your spirit? What does the tekiah evoke for you? Because, in the end, it is the tekiah that will lift us up. It is the tekiah that we will take with us. It is the tekiah, the triumphal tekiah that surrounds the fearful teruah, that is the essence of today.

I bless us all today with the ability lishmoah kol shofar, to truly hear the voice of the shofar. To hear its agony, and to hear its resolve; to hear its tears, and to hear its joy. I bless us with the power to overcome our fears, to continue to live with open hearts and generous spirits, precisely when it is most challenging to do so.

Ketiva v’chatima tovah – May we all be inscribed for a healthy, sweet, and hopeful new year.

Advertisements