Commentary for Rosh Hashanah

4 Sep

No item has become more associated with the High Holidays than the shofar. Every ad in every newspaper for every High Holiday service has one on it somewhere. The reason for this is that the shofar speaks to us. It is quite amazing, really, when you consider that, at its core, the shofar is just a loud noise. Prayers and sermons have an entire language’s worth of words (or even two or three) to choose from to find the exact meaning they want to convey in order to speak to us, but they often do not truly move us in the way that the seemingly uninterpretable sound of the shofar can.

Although the minimum required number of shofar blasts is only thirty, there in a old custom in many places to blow the shofar one hundred times. The reason for this comes from a midrashic interpretation of Judges 5:28-30 that Sisera’s mother cried one hundred and one times when her son was late to return to from battle. Sisera was the commander of the army of the Canaanite kingdom of Hazor, and had been oppressing the Jewish people for twenty years at this point, and the bible seems to go out of its way to point out Sisera’s particular desire for raping and pillaging. Indeed it is the thoughts of Sisera out raping and pillaging that she uses to comfort herself when she thinks there is a possibility that he might have perished. Sisera and his mother were cruel people, and we blow the shofar one hundred times to evoke Divine mercy and hope that God will not judge our sins so harshly as to need to send such terrible punishment against us.

But what about that final one hundred and first sob?

While Sisera was a terrible person and his mother’s ability to find comfort in his cruelty to others is deplorable, they were still people. We blow the shofar only one hundred times so that we can remember that final sob. Sisera’s mother loved her son, and his death greatly saddened her. Although the Egyptians are the villains of the Passover story, we still take the time at the Seder to remember their suffering during the Ten Plagues. When the angels start to sing and dance upon the completion of the liberation of the Israelites when God drowns the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, God chastises them, and he similarly chastises Jonah for his resistance to helping the people of Nineveh, because, as God illustrates to Jonah with the parable of the ricinous plant (Jonah, chapter 4), God cares deeply about all of His creations, be they Jewish or not, human or not, or even if they are terrible people.

The High Holidays are a time of personal examination and retrospective reflection. We do not blow a hundred and first blast of the shofar to remind us that we must reexamine all of our decisions, no matter how clear-cut black and white they seem. No matter how pure our actions or intentions, someone might have been hurt, and no matter if the injured party is a good friend, a total stranger, or even someone we have a legitimate reason to quarrel with, we must attempt to emulate God and care about the feelings of all people.

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