Yom Kippur Address Oxford 5777/2016 by Jeremy Montagu
There are two things in Judaism that came to us directly from God. Everything else in the Tanach was passed on to us by Moses and then by the later prophets, but the priestly blessing, with which we bless our children every week, and the shofar, which Benjy blows for us so well, came to us direct. God said to Moses ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons and tell them This is the way in which you shall bless the Children of Israel – so that they shall put My name upon them and I will bless them’. So when we hear the Cohanim, or when we hear the reader during the repetition of the Amidah, it is not they who are blessing us; they are merely the channel through which God Himself will bless us. It is not I who blesses my children on Friday nights or when they go off on their travels, nor is it my children who bless my grandchildren – we are just opening the way for Him to bless them.
When the shofar was first heard at Sinai, that shofar was sounding from heaven. ‘The voice of the horn waxed louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice’, giving us those Ten Words that we see above the Ark here.
In legend, that shofar, ringing out from heaven, was the left horn of the ram that Abraham had sacrificed instead of Isaac, and the right horn, the larger of the two, is still in storage up there, waiting until it will be heard ‘in time to come’. It is because it was the horn of that ram that on these Days of Awe we read so many references to the Akedah, and indeed why we read that story itself as a Haftara.
But it is not the shofar that is so important during these Days of Awe – what is important is its sound, its calls. In the biblical period we never read of Rosh haShanah – instead we read of Yom T’ru‘ah, a day of blowing an alarm. It is an alarm to tell us that it is time to remember our sins and to seek repentance for doing so many things we should not have done, and for not doing so many things that we should have done.
We have heard these calls for thousands of years. Two of them, t’ki‘ah, a blast, and t’ru‘ah, an alarm, are biblical; their combination with the triple sh’varim is Talmudic, and it was laid down in the Talmud that we should blow those three calls in the triple series that we all hear today, t’ki‘ah, sh’varim-t’ru‘ah, t’ki‘ah; t’ki‘ah, sh’varim, t’ki‘ah; and t’ki‘ah, t’ru‘ah, t’ki‘ah. Here all Israel is united in blowing the same calls in that first main group between the Torah service and Musaf. What we do after that first group of calls differs in different communities. So do the actual sounds that we blow, and the type of animal whose horn on which we blow them. So does when we blow them, and how often we do it; what we do during the month of Ellul also differs, and so does whether we blow or not on Hoshanah Rabbah, when the Gates of Repentance are slowly swinging shut, reminding us that this our final chance to return to God in repentance. But the calls themselves, there with that first group, unites the whole house of Israel.
We are united because it is there that all Israel stands together before God, preparing to address our sins and transgressions, preparing us once again to return ourselves to God on this day of Yom Kippur. It is today that we make our resolutions not to do it again, and to do what we should have been doing. And when Benjy blows that final blast in a few hours time, we hope that this time God may accept that we have meant it, even though we know, and He knows, that we are not likely to succeed. That is why next year we shall need to hear those calls again on next Yom T’ruah.
The calls are powerful – they affect us all, all of us in different ways. They are a summons, a summons to Judgement, and few of us can resist that summons, however temporarily, for it is on this day that we stand before God in Judgment with the book of life and the book of death open before Him. That Judgement swings between the terror of the Un’taneh toqef and the Thirteen Attributes of divine mercy. This is why as we blow those calls, and this is why, as we hear those calls, we feel again that those calls are coming to us once again from Sinai. As blowers, we feel that yet again we are just a channel and that the calls that we blow are coming, through us, directly from the Heavens.
This is why, just as when the priestly blessing comes to us directly from God, that we bow our heads, so as not to see God hovering over the Cohanim while they are reciting those words, and why we men cover our children with our tallit, and why women hold their children close to them. So, similarly in many communities, when the shofar sounds on Rosh haShanah, again we bow our heads so as not to see the shofar blower, and in some communities why we cover our children with our tallit, because year after year, once again, we are hearing those sounds that come directly from the Heavens.
May we all have a good year. Jeremy Montagu