Petition (a prayer for selichot)
This week's portion: milk

Beyond words

In my Wednesday morning study group with the local cantor and rabbis, we've started studying some Sfat Emet (a.k.a. R' Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger) -- one of my favorite Hasidic masters. Yesterday morning one of my colleagues brought translations of some of the Sfat Emet's writings on Rosh Hashanah, which, as it happens, we just translated in my class on the Hasidic sacred year. One of these texts is about the transcendent power of the shofar. Reading it again with my colleagues, I was struck by something which I find both powerful and a little bit bittersweet. Here's the text, interspersed with explanatory commentary; my realization comes at the end of the post.

"Rosh Hashanah" can be interpreted to mean, before divine life-force differentiates.

This is wordplay: "Rosh Hashanah" is usually translated as "Head of the Year," but he's reading shanah as related to nishtaneh, which would make shanah mean something like change or variegation. In that sense, Rosh Hashanah is not only the head of the year (e.g. the New Year) but also the source from which all changes flow, the unity which precedes variegation.

When the Holy Blessed One sends divine vitality into this world, it enters the domain of time and the natural world.

He's talking about the primordial moment of creation, which in a sense is ongoing. Divine vitality streams directly forth from God in a unified stream, but when it enters creation, it differentiates: time enters the picture, as do the natural laws of the universe as we understand them.

Rosh Hashanah is the source and the beginning, prior to this division. And in its source, it's without material form.

Rosh Hashanah, being the anniversary of creation, represents a point of access for us: on this day we can connect with the source of all things, prior to any differentiation. God is without form, but when God's vitality flows into the world, that vitality fragments from unity into multiplicity. Most of the time we live in multiplicity, but Rosh Hashanah is our chance to touch unity.

The Midrash quotes the verse, "Forever, God, your speech will stand in the heavens." (Psalm 119: 98) And it is said in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, "the sayings of God live and endure." In truth, we find that the root of every thing, what sustains every thing and gives it being, is the source which forever flows through/from the sayings of the Holy One. Each thing is an outgrowth of this source and flows from it.

God's speech is eternal. More than that: God's speech is what continues to create and sustain everything that exists. Everything in creation has a "root," a holy point which perennially draws vitality from God's unending word.

Now, the sounds of the shofar: they are voice sounding without speech. Speech is a division; it is what pure voice divides into, in order to cause movement and differentiation, so that sounds become separate and distinguished from each other. But voice by itself is singular and unique. It cleaves to its source.

The sound of the shofar is primal, an outcry without words. Speech necessarily divides: consonants from vowels, this word from that word, this idea from that idea, speaker from listener. But the cry of the shofar "cleaves to its source" -- it's not separated from its origin, it's not alienated or alienating the way that language always inevitably is. A wordless cry represents unity of purpose, thought transmuting directly into sound.

On Rosh Hashanah, the divine flow of life-force is intimately connected to its root, as it was before any differentiation. Our task is to attach ourselves to this innermost source of divine energy. (SE 5:138)

What struck me, reading this again today, is what this glorification of the shofar might be said to imply about our liturgy. The Days of Awe are marked with an awful lot of prayer: the basic liturgy for weekday is expanded into the liturgy for festivals, which in turn is expanded into the liturgy for the High Holidays. Our liturgical tradition grows by accretion. In every generation there are new prayers, poems, meditations which become so beloved that we can't imagine not adding them to the prayerbook. As a result, our observance of these days can feel encumbered, encrusted with the weighty spiritual jewels of centuries of accumulated wisdom.

But the sound of the shofar cuts through all of that. For all the importance we give to the words, the sound of the shofar obviates words altogether. It goes beyond words. It's like an air raid siren, like a baby's piercing cry, like the wordless shout of lovers. And precisely because it goes beyond words, it takes us back to a place which is beyond words -- that place of complete unity which is the rosh (source) which existed before any shinui (change or differentiation.) That, the Sfat Emet says, is what we're meant to be doing on the day of the New Year: attaching ourselves to "this innermost source of divine energy," cleaving to the undifferentiated life-force of creation.

What's bittersweet about that, of course, is that most of us in my line of work love words. (As a rabbinic student and a writer, I'm doubly guilty of this!) The words we use represent so many centuries of hearts and minds, so much creativity, so many different ways of thinking about and speaking to and reaching out toward God. But if we're realistic, we know that many (most?) of the people who show up in shul during the Days of Awe don't have much attachment to the verbiage. Indeed: the verbiage may be exactly what keeps people from connecting with the deep themes of the holiday. In the end, what speaks most to people is that primeval sound of the ram's horn, that wordless cry that takes us beyond all the words that we can utter.