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The Harp and the Shofar: Rabbi Daniel's Rosh Hashanah Sermon

They say that if you were walking down the stone laden streets of Jerusalem in the year 950 BCE in the hours after sunset - you might have gotten a glimpse of King David in his older years.

Every single night King David would walk down the streets of Jerusalem taking stock of the beautiful city at the center of the world. He would continue up through the majestic gates in front of the courtyard of his castle, down the royal halls of the highest wing of his tower, slowly making his way up the stairs to his room.

He would enter into his innermost chambers, take off his crown, placing it on the table beside his bed, and slowly shed his nobel regalia, folding it nearly to ensure its perfect condition for the next morning.

And as he was about to retire for the night he took his most prized possession - a possession passed down from generations untold crossing deserts and generations - a golden polished harp and carefully placed it in its holder suspended right atop his bed.

David’s harp according to rabbinic legend was made from the very tendons of the ram that Abraham offered up instead of Isaac in the Akeda. This harp was what made David - at the time a young shepard - famous as a musician traveling the land of Israel and amassing crowds as he would sit in the market gently strumming his harp. They say that the markets around Israel were never as packed as the days when sounds of his melodic playing echoed throughout the walled cities.

A harp that by its very notes had the ability to heal sadness and melancholy from all who came to hear.

With David’s harp hanging about the royal bed - King David would fall into a deep sleep - a bit of a break from the demands of the first king of the entirety of Israel.

And then at midnight, the Talmud tells us, a light wind would enter the room, creeping in from a window atop the Eastern side of the bed. This wind - one who anyone who’s been to Jerusalem on a summer night would recognize - would cause the suspended harp to slowly oscillate unearthing a melody. A beautiful melody - one that the Kabbalists say contained all the beauty of the universe - would slowly emulate from the harp waking David up with fresh inspiration to write his elegant poetry we find today in the book of Psalms.

If we look throughout our tradition we see that two instruments dominate the auditory scene. One of these instruments is the harp.

The Harp as a musical instrument is neat and composed. When played correctly, all of the strings vibrate perfectly together to create an incredible sound that’s majestic in nature. The harp is truly harmonious.

The harp is a true exemplar and paragon of Plato’s saying that “Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the Universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good and just and beautiful.”

The symbolism of the harp is the potential for perfection in our world. When everyone in the world realizes that when we work together in rhythm the sounds that we can create together is far superior than anything we can come up with in isolation.

But as we all know too well this isn't the whole story. Harps may represent the order of the universe but things are far from perfect. There are times that we need to put away the fairy tales and confront a world not of neat order but of utter chaos.

So we look across the spectrum to the second biblical instrument: the shofar.

The Shofar can’t be more disparate from the harp. Shofars are loud, they're clumsy and - as we will see in a moment - even the most skilled of Shofar blowers fail to achieve complete control over its notes. Moreover unlike harps which are designed by crafted specifications - they have to be perfect - the shofar by its very nature is asymmetric with each one different from its neighbor.

Take out a shofar and there is no predicting the sound that will emanate.

The rabbis debate about the origins of the shofar blasts we hear today on Rosh Hashanah - but each of the opinions center around the idea that thing’s aren't right and we need to be alerted to action.

One Rabbis suggests: The Shofar is nothing more than an ancient alarm system to alert the people when an enemy was approaching. Something terrible is afoot! The enemy is at the gate - evil and destruction will come to overtake us if we don’t act quickly! Blow the Shofar! Can’t you see that everything in society, all that we love and value is being threatened! Blow the Shofar and ready the troops for action.

The second posits that the Shofar is a call for internal cleansing: If we remember our history it was at Sinai after all- this Rabbi argues - where the first Shofar blast was heard. That incredible trepidation day where heaven and Earth met and kissed: inspiring, no - demanding - that the Jewish people live up to a moral standard never before seen on earth while subsequently inspiring others to do the same.

Yet a third Rabbi comes into the conversation and he wants to focus more on the sounds of the Shofar. “You know” - he asks- “where the last two blasts, the Shevarim and Truah come from?” Well let me tell you he says:

There was once a great war - recounted in the book of Judges where the wicked general Sisara, a man who spent years terrorizing the inhabitants of Israel - was late to return from battle. His mother sat there by the window nervously counting down the minutes until her son’s return. “Oh don’t worry, he’s probably just busy collecting the war spoils”, her advisors suggested - “he’ll be back any minute - you have nothing to worry about”. But time ticked on and on and Sisara was nowhere to be found. She waited and waited until finally the sun dipped just below the horizon signifying that her son was lost whereas she let out a series of whimpers and wails. Some say her whimpers were 3 at a time and others say 9.

Unlike the harp which represents the neat order the shofar represents something in need of fixing.

The Shofar is fundamentally a call to action necessitated by imperfection.

We acknowledge today that our world is chaotic and dangerous. We acknowledge our personal moral shortcomings and failings. We acknowledge that there are times where it is ok to cry. We acknowledge that each of our cries are going to both sound unique and be emanating from a place that is unique.

And - perhaps most importantly - we acknowledge that sometimes it is impossible to describe our pain, our worries, and our fears with mere words alone. Jewish tradition certainly values words but we also recognize their finite limit when approaching the infinite depth of the human experience.

Rosh Hashanah is an invitation to connect with the sounds of our lives. By acknowledging the difficulties - by giving voice to the chaos we open the door to rectification, to Teshuvah.

But moreover, we affirm time and time again throughout our tradition that we are not powerless in the face of chaos. That each of us has the potential and the power to take us from the primordial chaos of the Shofar - the Tohu Vavohu that existed before creation - all the way to a Tikkun Olam perfect world that of a harp.

One night towards the end of summer as the eastern wind came creeping in through the Window King David sat up in bed this time a little more tired than usual. Because this night was different. And unlike his normal happy spirit things were troubling David on this night. He looked around at Israelite society and he realized that things were broken. There were fierce political arguments tearing apart the nation. People were suffering from challenges both external and internal - being pained by pathologies both physical and mental.

And listening to the harp David didn’t hear the pure melodic sound that he was so used to hearing - the sound was muddied as David couldn't help but also notice the chaotic sounds coming in from the outside.

David sat up and torn between the polarities of what potentially could be versus what is, David began to write and composed one of the most famous of the Psalms that we have in our liturgy, Psalm 150 traditionally recited every single morning by Jewish communities across the globe .

הַֽ֭לְלוּהוּ בְּתֵ֣קַע שׁוֹפָ֑ר הַֽ֝לְל֗וּהוּ בְּנֵ֣בֶל וְכִנּֽוֹר׃

Praise God with blasts of the shofar; praise God with the sounds of the a harp

We begin with the Shofar - an acknowledgement of chaos around us. Of a broken world in need of fixing. And in our inability to even express in words all that is wrong.

But more importantly we look towards the future armed with the idea that our actions can ultimately result in a more perfect world as we move from the sounds and symbolism of the shofar to that of the harp.

Hundreds and hundreds of years after David’s rule rose and fell we encounter another King in a far off kingdom.

This King had an only son. And as the child was growing up he The King realized that his son was living a sheltered life and wanted his son to learn and to experience various cultures. Let him experience the world - the King thought.

So he sent him to a far-off country, supplied with a generous quantity of silver and gold so he would have all of the resources that he needed. But far away from home, the son squandered all the money until he was left completely destitute.

In his distress he resolved to return to his father's house and after many months of traveling he managed to arrive at his hometown. Running through the stone laden streets of his city - he was so excited to be home - he arrived at the gate of the courtyard to his father's palace.

I’m finally home - he thought.

But in his distress he had forgotten the language of his native town! He was unable to identify himself to the guards and they wouldn’t let him in.

He was at the gate and he heard the beautiful sounds of a family once familiar inside the castle. The perfect sounds of a family and community united. The sounds of perfection. But he was on the outside and they wouldn’t let him in.

He begged and begged but nothing worked. In utter despair he turned away from the gates and couldn’t help but break down and cry out in a loud voice. The King up in his castle recognized the troubled voice of his son, went out to him, and brought him into the house, kissing him and hugging him.

Today on Rosh Hashanah we are all this lost child evoking a forgotten language. Our blowing of the Shofar gives voice to all that we fail to represent with our own voices. All the things we know are broken and upsetting but those which we know are impossible to name.

However, through the chaos through the blowing we begin to take control.

We start our year off with the Shofar understanding that each of us individually and all of us collectively has the power to organize the chaotic sounds of our world - into harmonious rhythm.

Shana Tova!

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