I. The Shofar Through a Baby’s Eyes

For the past month, my children have heard the sound of the shofar every morning. This is part of the ritual of our home and of our people, to begin sounding the shofar on the first day of Elul. The practice has multiple rationales: first and foremost, to help us awaken to the teshuva we need to begin, to remind us that so great is the work of teshuva that we can’t wait until Rosh Hashanah to start, but must prepare and begin ahead of time. Second, for shofar-blowers, it’s training camp: time to get our facial muscles and our lungs in shape so that we can sound all 100 kolot at kickoff.

In our home, shofar blowing during Elul serves both these purposes. But this year, with the presence of a new baby in our family, tekiat shofar during Elul has taken on an additional element. As many of us know, but as we also may need to be reminded, a nine-month old baby like our son Toby is a perfect shofar listener. Every morning as I take out the shofar, Toby, sitting there in our living room, begins to smile and wave his arms and shout in anticipation. He loves the sound of the shofar. He loves it so much that when I’m finished with a tekia-shevarim-terua-tekia, he gives a “Ha!” which clearly signals “Again!” He lights up from the sound of the shofar, and were it not for my own limitations of endurance and time, I would blow the shofar all day, just to see the excitement it arouses in him.

It’s the season of confession, so I’m going to confess. Despite all the shofar blowing, despite the fact that I’m highly conscious of the month of Elul, despite the fact that I have a gorgeous shofar that took me years of shopping to find, I have a hard time getting nearly as excited about the shofar as Toby. I’ve given drashot about what the shofar is supposed to do, what its sounds are supposed to represent, what intention we should have when we hear it. But, honestly, most of those words really don’t work for me. To me, the teruah or the shevarim doesn’t sound like a cry; the tekiah doesn’t sound like the blast of the trumpets at a coronation. When I hear the shofar, I’m not moved to cry, I’m not moved to feel God’s majesty. Perhaps, and I shudder to say it, I’m not moved.

II. What Does Music Mean?

Many of you know that I was a musician growing up. I played the tuba. I majored in music in college, and I conducted an orchestra there too. Playing a brass instrument is good physical training for shofar blowing, of course. But I’ve also come to realize that musical thinking is good training for shofar listening too.

One of the biggest issues in music history is the relationship between sound and meaning. Does wordless music convey a meaning? Take the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, notes we all know: G-G-G-Eb. What do those notes say? Some might say they convey a sense of foreboding, opening an entire movement of heavy-sounding C minor. Or maybe they’re about power, as the orchestra plays those notes loudly and in unison. Or perhaps they’re saying something about inevitability, as the whole movement that comes after those four notes simply and ingeniously builds on and modifies the four-note motif in a way that seems almost predetermined, as though the piece couldn’t have unfolded any other way.

The question of what those notes mean is a classic question. But what if the question of meaning is the wrong question to ask? What if G-G-G-Eb doesn’t mean anything? My philosopher rebbe, Vladimir Jankelevitch, wrote about this. “We declare that music shall be, like all other languages, the bearer of meaning and an instrument of communication,” Jankelevitch observes. When we decide that music means something, we suggest that “it explains certain ideas, or suggests certain sentiments, or describes landscapes or things, or narrates events.”

“Under these circumstances,” Jankelevitch says, “one is led to ask whether our ears, far from being organs of hearing, are not rather more the cause of our deafness.” What does Jankelevitch mean? He means that, in being so invested in the idea that these sounds communicate meaning like some kind of prose essay, we are, ironically, becoming deaf to what’s really going on. This is music. It’s a collection of sounds. It isn’t prose, and we shouldn’t think of it that way.

If we’re going to look for a kind of language to compare music to, poetry might be best. Poetry, like art, and like music, isn’t about communicating a meaning through symbol as much as it’s about allowing ourselves to enter a different kind of way of being in the world. The point of all the piyutim we recite during the Yamim Noraim isn’t to make us bored, and it’s not to earn a reward for reciting every word. The point is, as Jankelevitch says about the Psalms, to arouse in us “religious obsession.” The point is to put us in a state of mind and heart and body in which we can be, in which we can be in the presence of God.

A couple of weeks ago, our kehilla had the pleasure of learning with Samuel Klein, a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. During a limmud Shabbat afternoon, Sam asked us to think about and then share with each other a prayer from the machzor that is particularly evocative for us. And I was amazed, and yet wholly unsurprised, to find that the vast majority of people named a prayer not on account of the meaning of its words, but because of the power of its melody. The tunes for Avinu Malkenu or Ki Anu Amecha, the melodies of Unetaneh Tokef and Mareh Kohein—these are the things we remember. They are what make the High Holidays for us. They’re so powerful that, if we don’t hear them, we might even feel like the Yamim Noraim didn’t happen.

Now that isn’t to say that the words aren’t important. They are. Mi yichyeh umi yamut, uteshuva utefilla utzedakah maavirin at roah hagezerah, aseh imanu chesed v’hoshienu—these are powerful words, and they have powerful effects. Yet the music seems to resonate even more for us. The music taps something deeper inside our brains, farther inside our hearts. The music, which has no meaning. The music, which we don’t think about, but simply experience.

III. The Limits of Language

You may be familiar with the Talmudic story of Moshe ascending on high to find God sitting and affixing crowns to the letters of the Torah. Moshe asks God, Ribbono shel olam, Master of the Universe, why are you doing this? God ultimately shows Moshe the image of Rabbi Akiva, who, 1,000 years after Moshe’s death, interprets even the crowns of the letters into Torah. This leads Moshe to ask, “Ribbono shel  olam, you have such a man, and yet you give the Torah through me. Why?” God answers in a seemingly thunderous tone: shtok, kach alah b’machashava l’fanai; Be silent! This is how the idea came to me!

In many readings of this story, God’s answer is understood as a rebuke to Moshe for asking too many questions. I read it less as a rebuke than as a statement to Moshe that there are things that God simply can’t explain. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav offers a wonderful variation on this theme: Shtok, be silent, kach aleh b’machshava l’fanai, And through silence, ascend to the level of my thought. For Rebbe Nachman, the point of the story is that Moshe and God can only go so far with language. At a certain point, God can’t communicate through words, and Moshe has to get past words if he wants to understand God. They—we—have to find another way of communing beyond, or perhaps before, communication.

Rebbe Nachman, of course, was one of the Jewish people’s greatest creators and teachers of and about niggun. He wouldn’t have been surprised by our conversation at the limmud a few weeks ago. Of course, he would say, the melodies have a greater effect on you than the words do! The melodies are vastly more powerful than the words. Wordless sounds—the notes of a niggun, the blast of a shofar, the cry of a baby—take us where words cannot, into the realms before and beyond language, the higher and deeper places.

Vayehi kol hashofar holech v’hazek me’od; Moshe yidaber v’haelohim ya’aneinu b’kol: And the voice of the shofar grew louder and louder; Moses spoke and God answered him in a voice. The moment when not only Moshe, but every Jew, heard the voice of God was a moment not of speech, but of sound. Sound that was intense. Sound that was intimate. Sound that went beyond what words could express, and tapped a deeper part of our souls. The Torah was given, not in words, but in black and white fire, in lightning that was audible, in thunder we could see. God spoke to us in an ineffable, inexpressible way.

To ask what the meaning of that moment was, what the sounds meant, is to ask the wrong question. It’s not about meaning. It’s not about symbol. It’s both before and beyond those things. Ultimately, I would suggest, the experience of the shofar is simply about listening and opening ourselves to hear. “Just pay attention,” writes Mary Oliver about prayer.

this isn’t

a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.

And so I return to the image of my 9-month old son, who is quite literally pre-verbal. Toby isn’t applying labels to the world. He isn’t yet giving names to things, sorting them, dividing them. Those will all come by next Rosh Hashanah. But right now, at this delicious and wonderful moment, he is old enough—and young enough—to be genuinely moved by the experience of hearing the shofar. I can’t tell you what’s going on in his mind or his soul. All I can tell you is that something powerful happens when I blow the shofar for him in the morning.

And I can tell you that every morning, as I gaze into the pure joy on his face, the radiance of his tzelem elokim, I grow more attuned to the presence of God. My infant son is teaching me, as I hope he can teach us all, to let go of what I’m supposed to hear in the shofar, and instead simply experience its voice.

Ketiva v’chatima tova, May we all be inscribed and sealed for a year of listening and hearing, of looking and discovering, of beholding God’s presence and God’s image in the world.

I delivered this dvar Torah this past Shabbat at Kol Sasson congregation in Skokie, IL.


I. Stumbling On Big Questions

In 2005, four weeks after I received semikha, two weeks after our second son was born, my wife Natalie and I moved to Evanston. As the new rabbi at Northwestern Hillel, there were many things to do, many people to meet. But the biggest thing to do, programmatically anyway, was prepare for the High Holidays.

Like many campuses, Northwestern has an area where theater groups, political groups, fraternities and sororities hang big painted sheets to announce their upcoming events: “Party at Sig Ep Saturday night!” or “Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, Thursday to Sunday in Shanley.” So to publicize the High Holidays, I figured we could hang a painted sheet, something like, “Yom Kippur, Wednesday. Repent!”

But a funny thing happened on the way to Yom Kippur. We realized two things: First, we could afford to make something slightly nicer than a painted sheet. So we printed an 8-foot by 3-foot banner at Kinkos. Second, instead of making a statement, we could ask a question.

Statements and announcements, it seemed to me, could linger in the air and easily be ignored. A question, by contrast, enters into the mind. You can’t walk by a question, a good question, and ignore it with the same ease that you ignore a statement. The old TV ad is a perfect case in point. “It’s 10 pm: do you know where your children are?” is far more evocative than “It’s 10 pm. Make sure your kids are safe.”

So we made a banner that asked what we thought was the basic question of the High Holidays: What will you do better this year? Underneath we wrote, Experience the High Holidays, and we listed the website for Hillel.

It turned out that this banner, created in my first weeks as a rabbi on campus, would be the seed of a much larger project, one that has influenced my professional career and my approach to education, leadership, community, and spiritual life. A little over a year ago, I left Northwestern Hillel to lead the national development of Ask Big Questions, which this year will be active on over 20 campuses, training over 100 students in the skills of text-centered reflective community conversation, and reaching tens of thousands of people from various walks of life in-person, online, and in print.

As we journey through this Elul, I want to go back to that Elul seven years ago. Here we are again in Elul. Here we are again, preparing for the High Holidays. Here we are again, a full shemitta cycle later, with the chance to discover, or rediscover, some Big Questions.


To listen to an audio recording of this sermon (made after the holiday), please click here.

You probably remember the story about the elderly Jewish woman listening to a lecture by a famous astronomer. The lecture was about the sun.

At one point the astronomer said, “In around six to seven billion years the Sun will exhaust all its hydrogen fuel and begin the process of stellar death. When that happens, the Sun will grow so large it will engulf planet Earth.”

Distressed, the woman interrupted the lecture, yelling out, “Wait, when will this happen?”

The astronomer replied: “Six to seven billion years from now.”

To which the woman replied, “Whew! I thought you said million.”

The central mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is not dipping apples and honey. It isn’t eating honey cake. It isn’t getting together with your crazy relatives. Those things are all lovely and important. But they’re not what Rosh Hashanah is fundamentally about. No, at its heart, Rosh Hashanah is about listening–about remembering what it means to listen, and about listening closely to the sound of the shofar. (more…)

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. (more…)

For an audio recording, click here.

How many of you are familiar with the children’s stories of Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel? Frog and Toad are favorites of my kids. I have a hunch that Lobel drew some of his inspiration for them from the stories of the city of Chelm in Jewish folklore. They are humorous and usually reveal a moral lesson by way of something a little bit absurd.

One of my favorite Frog and Toad stories is called ‘Tomorrow.’ It goes like this:

Toad woke up. “Drat,” he said. “This house is a mess. I have so much work to do.”

Frog looked through the window. “Toad, you are right,” said Frog. “It is a mess.”

Toad pulled the covers over his head. “I will do it tomorrow,” said Toad. “Today I will take life easy.”

Frog came into the house. “Toad,” said Frog, “your pants and jacket are lying on the floor.”

“Tomorrow,” said Toad from under the covers.

“Your kitchen sink is filled with dirty dishes,” said Frog.

“Tomorrow,” said Toad.

“There is dust on your chairs.”

“Tomorrow,” said Toad.

“Your windows need scrubbing,” said Frog. “Your plants need watering.”

“Tomorrow!” cried Toad. “I will do it all tomorrow!”

Toad sat on the edge of his bed.

“Blah,” said Toad. “I feel down in the dumps.”

“Why?” asked Frog.

“I am thinking about tomorrow,” said Toad. (more…)

With Rosh Hashanah only a few days away, the Torah annually brings us the poetic words of Parshat Nitzavim on the Shabbat prior to the New Year. Central to this Torah portion is the idea of teshuva, return, which is also at the heart of the High Holiday season. “You will return your hearts to God,” says Moses. “You will return to the Lord your God and you will listen to His voice… you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul. Then the Lord will restore your fortunes and take you back in love.” (Deut. 30:1-3)

What, though, does this return really entail? What does it mean to return to God?

Returning implies that we have been here before. One cannot return to someplace one has never been. So when we say we are returning to God, we really imply that we have been with God before, and that we are restoring a relationship that once existed. This is an important Jewish idea, one which I learned from my teacher Rabbi Avi Weiss: While on Rosh Hashanah we commemorate the creation of the world, it is not a day of newness, it is not a day of firsts. Instead Rosh Hashanah is a day of seconds, a day of repeating, a day of returning.

In the story of Noah, the Torah relates (Gen. 8:13) that Noah left the ark on the first of the month. But it doesn’t specify which month. The commentators on the Talmud interpreted the Torah to mean that Noah left the ark on the first of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah. Why? Because Noah was engaging in the re-creation, the second creation, of the world. And the major difference between Noah’s experience and that of Adam and Eve is that Noah carried with him a memory of what had come before. Unlike Adam and Eve, who were placed on the earth, Noah and his family returned to the earth after a period of separation.

In our society, and especially in the university environment, we give honor and prestige to innovators, people who think of that which has never been thought, who “boldly go where no man has gone before.” And while this is important, it is precisely the opposite of the ethos of Rosh Hashanah and the value of teshuva. Returning means going back over our memories, reviewing our actions and our relationships, and reliving them so that we may repair them. It is not about leaving the past behind, but instead about repairing the past. That is the miraculous power and possibility of teshuva–that the past is not frozen, but is always in dialogue with the present and the future.

So when we say that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are returning to God, what we mean is that we are opening ourselves up to another dimension. It is a dimension beyond time and space, in which past and future are an open book. In this divine dimension we can set right that which has gone wrong, and can re-experience the sense of wholeness and unconditional embrace that lies deep in our souls. As Moses says, “For it is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.” (Deut. 30:14) May we all find that place to return to this year.

This piece appeared in the Rosh Hashanah 2007 issue of the Jerusalem Report Magazine


While Rosh Hashanah is known by several names—among them the Day of Judgment, the Birthday of the World—its official title, as proclaimed by the ancient Rabbis, is Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. On its most basic level, Rosh Hashanah as Day of Remembrance proclaims God’s omniscience: “You remember all that happens in the world,” begins the Zichronot, or Remembrance section of the Musaf, the additional prayer. What is God remembering, and how does God remember? And what role do humans play in the process?

Memory is different than history. “Memory” implies personal experience, with a twist of internality different than the colder connotations of “history.” Where the three Pilgrimage festivals—Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot—emphasize the historical event of the Exodus from Egypt, Rosh Hashanah (and Yom Kippur) focuses on the personal, lived experience of the individual Jew. As Franz Rosenzweig writes in The Star of Redemption, “The Days of Awe place the eternity of redemption into time… Eternity is stripped of every trace of the beyond…; it is actually there, within the grasp of every individual and holding every individual close in its strong grasp.” While on Passover we strive to see ourselves as if we personally had left Egypt, as the Haggadah reminds us, on Rosh Hashanah there is no as if: The moment is real, it is here. The memory we relive is our own, and not the history of our ancient ancestors.

Rosh Hashanah is thus the holiday that most emphasizes our humanity. The narrative of Jewish national identity which forms the basis of the Pilgrimage festivals, and even of Yom Kippur (which appeals to the relationship between God and Israel as the basis for forgiveness) is virtually absent from the holiday. Pointedly, Rosh Hashanah is the only Jewish holiday that draws its traditional Torah readings from Genesis—that is, from the book of the Torah whose narratives take place before the emergence of the people of Israel. It is, after all, the birthday of the world, and not only the Jews. 

And thus Rosh Hashanah, in a very singular way, is the day on which are invited to be authentically ourselves. There is no part to act out, no role to play. There is no Haggadah, no script; there is no matzah or maror, no sukkah or lulav, there are no props. Instead, Rosh Hashanah is our Day of Remembrance, our day to remember our own lives, to invite and enable God to remember our lives with us. Indeed, in order for God to “remember all that happens in the world,” we humans must remember all that has happened in our lives. In the process, just as the sound of the shofar travels and reverberates within our bodies, we invite the Divine consciousness to enter our own. On Rosh Hashanah, as on no other day, God needs us.

A Rabbinic legend (Midrash Tehillim 81:6) powerfully illustrates the point. If the Rabbinic court proclaimed Rosh Hashanah a day later than was anticipated, says the midrash, God tells the Heavenly court to go home and come back tomorrow. “When it is not a decree for Israel,” the midrash states, “It is not an ordinance for God.” That is, if the Rabbinic court says that today is not Rosh Hashanah, then God is bound by the decision.

The message of this and other Talmudic passages is that the human role in the Covenantal relationship is particularly pronounced on Rosh Hashanah. In fact, it is so pronounced that God bows to human utterances. Yet this reality exists in a lovers’ quarrel with the ultimate power wielded by God: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written… who will live and who will die.” Still, the question must be asked: Where ends God’s agency in bringing about our future, and where does our own begin? (Likewise: When does the silence end, and the sound of the shofar begin?) On Rosh Hashanah we are reminded of how intertwined the life of the Divine is with our own lives.

To return to memory: The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 32b) asks, Why on the High Holidays do we not recite Hallel, the celebratory collection of Psalms sung on the Pilgrimage festivals? The Talmud answers that God Himself says that it would be inappropriate to sing Hallel on a day when the books of life and death are open before Him. In other words, it would be inappropriate to sing Hallel, says God, because today is not a day of history, it is not a day for scripted singing. It is rather a day for a song emanates from the individuals who are standing in judgment, remembering themselves. And so the song of Rosh Hashanah is not a song of words, but a primal song open to manifold interpretation, the song of the shofar, that says “Wake up, wake up, and remember who you are!”