I recently asked a group of interfaith clergy, “Do you ever find yourself responding to needs that people have not exactly articulated, but that you notice?” I was surprised by how affirmatively they answered, and it got me thinking about how hard it really is to articulate our spiritual needs. Just learning to recognize them is deep work. Figuring out how to name them, how to give them voice through language, is difficult – even impossible sometimes.
For me, the shofar cry is a reminder of this. Like the niggun, or wordless melody, which is another Jewish form that expresses deep longing without words, the shofar is a reminder of how limited human language is, and how necessary that we have other forms of expression to communicate our truest needs, our deepest truths. I experienced this working with elders with dementia this summer. I learned that music, touch, movement, color, and laughter, like the shofar blast, communicate in profound ways that language doesn’t reach.
This idea is also on my mind after being away last year, learning Torah, traveling, witnessing, and connecting all over Israel and Palestine. It is a place where, alongside extraordinary beauty, there is tremendous communal spiritual distress, and yet I found so few people who could really articulate the spiritual losses and needs that enable and fuel violence and bloodshed. I wondered, if every person could hear not the words, but the shofar cry and the niggun of the person or group who make them the most angry, the most alienated, the most scared, what, then, would change?
For our tradition recognizes that both expressing that unarticulated cry and listening to it are holy acts; the Torah commands us to blow the shofar, but the later tradition recognizes the essential mitzvah to be hearing the shofar.
When I hear the shofar, or sing a niggun, I remember that I must listen more deeply; must listen for the music behind the words. This is learning we all must work on. As a relatively intimate community at Hebrew College, we have the opportunity to learn how to listen to one another in this way. Whatever our role here, we have the opportunity to notice one another’s spiritual needs and respond to them.
Artie and Diedra both did that for me in subtle and profound ways last week.
Whether our role here is to teach, keep our physical space beautiful and functional, organize the flows of money, information, and people that allow each of us to be here, or to be a student, our sacred work is this learning to listen.
To the Holy One who is beyond language, we pray for the strength, courage, and patience to listen to one another deeply this year, to listen to words, and to listen for what is beyond the words. May the piercing shofar blast remind of this, and may the gentle niggun remind us of this. As we listen, may it deepen our presence here, and enable the deeper presence of those we listen to, and may our listening bring a small healing into the world.
Leora Abelson is a fourth year student at Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School.