In helfman, sermons

By Rabbi Jordan Helfman.

“The order of the blasts consists of three sets of three.  The length of a Tekiah is equal to three Truahs and the length of a Truah to three Yevavot.”

So reads the Mishnah[1] on the blast of the Shofar, which we will hear in its glory tomorrow and Tuesday.

תקיעה Tekiah – A Blast.

תרועה Truah – one nineth of a blast.

יבבות Yavavot–  is..  Wait, what are Yevavot?

Tomorrow, we’ll call for Tekiah, Shevarim and Truah.  That second blast we call for is a request to hear שברים Shevarim  – Brokeness.

We call – on Rosh Hashanah – for Tekiah – A Cry, Shevarim – Brokeness.  And then we call to hear that brokenness shattered into pieces with nine staccato punctuations of Truah – Alarm.  Shots fired, each one, into our bodies and souls, as our world vibrates with the shrapnel of the scattering broken-ness.

What is Yavavot?  Why does the Mishnah – the sacred oral text which first started unpacking the core of our Jewish existence in the year 200 of the Common Era – use this word, instead of the standard Shevarim?

In the book of Judges, we read: בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן נִשְׁקְפָה וַתְּיַבֵּב אֵם סִיסְרָא:   – Along-side the window, alongside the lattice, waited and wailed the mother of Sisera.[2]

Yavavot, in Aramaic, is the sound of her wailing, waiting, and knowing, deep in her heart, that Sisera, her son, is never returning home again.

The rabbis of the Talmud[3] say that the weeping of this non-Jewish mother – heart ripped asunder over the death of her son – this is the wailing that we must hear on Rosh Hashanah.   This is the sound we force ourselves to endure when we hear the sound of the Shofar.  Brokenness.

I cannot pardon Sisera – who went to war against our people nearly three thousand years ago – nor in honest to mourn his death the way that his mother did.  But the way he died – retreated to a house he thought he could trust, not to be taken into custody, but to be summarily killed in cowboy – or in this case, in the hands of Yael – cowgirl justice.  A version of this scenario has played out too often south of our border, as those that are – or should be trusted – have acted to shoot to kill rather than de-escalate, talk, take into custody; To do anything to keep mothers from facing the brokenness of losing their children.

Staccato blasts piercing the sound of quiet in the daytime. Little explosions of air, hitting us, and this year reminding us of the wailing and sobbing of others.

South of our border, in the midst of Presidential Politics, shofarot will blare tomorrow, sounding in the same land as candidates debating who is less racist, sounding in the same land as police trying to rebuilt trust after an era of confrontation, escalation, incarceration or elimination.

And we sit here, watching, patting our backs, and offering friends places to stay here with us in Canada.

But today, today is the day that we hear sound explode out of the barrel of a shofar.  A Tekiah, a shout, followed by Yevavah, Shevarim – brokenness, wailing.  And then that wailing shatters again and again and again, calling in alarm.  And like the shot of the starting gun, we look into our hearts, trying to give them a jumpstart. After the blast, we look in, and see what has moved, what has stirred.  We pray that we don’t sit here complacent, comforted by our own country, but that deep inside, one of the blasts hit home, something stirs, and we seek to change, to make a difference in this New Year, to bring the wailing and crying of others to an end.

The father of the Jewish musar movement, Israel Salanter is quoted as having said: “When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I tried, but the world did not change. Then I tried to change my town, but the town did not change. Then I tried to change my family, but my family did not change. Then I understood: First, I must change myself.”

Can we change our world?

Last year, at this time, we started the discussion of bringing Syrian  – Muslim –  can you believe it – Religious Muslim – families, who could imagine Jews helping religious Muslims?!  They might be the bad skittles in the skittles bowl..  –   We started a discussion about bringing Syrian families to Canada.  And, this month, the first of the four families we are sponsoring became Resident in Canada.    Thanks to this congregation who supported, the core-team who continues to work, headed by Jacqui Freedland, and all who have had a part in bringing this family and others to safety.  There is still much strife in the world, but we found our way of helping, teaching others that Jews can reach out a hand of support, and of playing some part in making Canada a light of justice and compassion to the world.

Can we change our town?

I would like to acknowledge the land our synagogue is built upon is Missassaguas of the New Credit land, negotiated with the Crown in the dish with one spoon wampum belt covenant between this tribe and the Iroquois and Ojibwa.

Our community have been involved in First Nations learning for the past four years at least, has given gifts of sage and tobacco to elders, smudging  has taken place in our board room and in our congregational hall – and I know that we all still have much to learn.

In the past years, there have been programs at our synagogue focusing on homelessness, our responsibility to learn the truth and to reconcile with our Indigenous population, learning about Syrian refugee issues, and this year our 20s and 30s group will be looking at an element which underlies all of these – which underlies the incredible incarceration rate and homeless rate of our indigenous population: Racism and discrimination.

For first we must start with ourselves.

So I want to bring us to talk about something which we used to be proud of:  Passing.

There is the joke about the Jew who works so hard to pass – changing his accent, studying at the right universities Oxford – Cambridge, changing his name.  And at the interview at the country club, they say, “Very impressive sir, very impressive, and one last question sir – please tell us, sir, what is your religion?”  He says, “Oh, friends, I know why you’re asking.  Don’t worry, I’m a Goy.”

Passing is when you walk into a job interview at a traditionally Christian law firm, and get hired because you are one-of-them.  Passing, too, is when you walk into a shop, and get better treatment because you look like one of their people.  It’s when others give you better treatment for the way you look, prioritising or trusting you over others.

Some say that passing is passé.  Rabbi – no one cares if we are Jewish any more – passing was for another generation.  And in some cases, passing is passé.  It is more about looking white and middle-class. For you white Jews listening tonight who have passed as ‘just white’ –  not all Jews are.  Or Passing is passé because we are colour-blind.  We are Canadian – we are beyond treating people differently because of race or gender or creed or or or…

But I have another unpleasant thought for us, which we know at the bottom of our hearts:

Yesterday’s passing is today’s privilege.

Privilege is comfort, Privilege is what we strive for.  But this type of privilege is not based on merit, but rather on the accident of birth and appearance.  The socially acceptable yet totally unconscious privilege men have to interrupt or talk over women.  The often unrecognized privilege to be able to make eye-contact with someone in the store to be seen to first, in front of the others who appear like the might take more time or cause an issue.  The often unconscious benefits that we have because of the way we dress, the way we talk, the way we show up with confidence, gifted to us by our upbringings.

“When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I tried, but the world did not change. Then I tried to change my town, but the town did not change. Then I tried to change my family, but my family did not change. Then I understood: First, I must change myself.”

This is Canada, where thank God nearly all Canadians have freedom to live with very little fear of being shot no matter our skin colour.   Yet privilege, for all of us in this community, exists.  In some ways, it sustains us and comforts us – the privilege to have a network of friends we can call on, of other Jews to visit half-way around the world should we be traveling.  The privilege to be Jews, immersed in a tradition passed to us and that we are honoured to pass down to our children.   We work hard and donate until it hurts to make sure that our children and grandchildren will have the privilege of existing in this building – bequeathed to us by our parents and grandparents, and in some cases great-grandparents – a privilege we have a duty to maintain for generations yet to come.

Yet some privilege – this day reminds us-  leads to our neighbors weeping.  Leads to the loss of life – in a streetcar, and on the reservation.

We must uncover the hidden in ourselves, discovering the benefits we take which keep other human beings from advancing.

Kindergarten teachers of all races who had their eye movements monitored while watching videos of kids playing, were asked to find instances of misconduct.  There were boys and girls of all different skin tones and families of origin.  The teacher’s eyes, however, for a disproportional amount of time followed the black boys around.

And if we unconsciously are looking for misbehaviour from some, we will only find it where we are looking.

First, I must change myself.  One step is acknowledging our privilege, owning it, and being aware of it.  That the passing of yesterday is the privilege of today.  Second is to try to catch ourselves, to talk about it, not to be afraid to make it part of the conversation.    This is what the wail of the shofar demands of us.  Work to change the inner self, and thus to change the world.

Tekiah   Shevarim  Truah.  Crying turned to wailing of parents over their lost children – lost because of the brokenness of our world –– lost because of unconscious justice which we think we have a right to exact – lost because of difference without dialogue.

And then….

Every cycle of blasts ends with a deep breath.  A bringing into the self as the diaphragm pulls down and air rushes in.  Before the final note is sounded, comes the intake of life-giving oxygen, turning my blood, your blood as red as anyone else’s blood.  As red as the reddest, whitest, yellowist, blackest, shortest tallest, as any of us created B’tzelem Elohim – in God’s sacred image.  That life-giving breath, then forced through embouchure and given vibration, is the sound of a new year arrived – the sound to awaken us.

And with slowly and methodically vibrating vision, dreamlike in our ears and in our minds at this moment of Rosh Hashanah – we hear an echo of wholeness.

Of a time when our world torn asunder, reduced to wailing, by the unconscious eye-movements of kindergarden teachers and us all, by gunshots of police, and by bombs on Aleppo, finds           wholeness.

Tekiah Gedolah. 

An image of the world echoing with wholeness and peace.

When we hear the shofar blast tomorrow – may we hear in it the cry of mothers for their children – awakening within us the bravery to talk about our own privileges and comfort.  And thus work for a world which is closer to Tekiah Gedolah. To wholeness.

Shanah Tovah.


May the new year be a year of blessing for us, of kindness and compassion.  May it be a year of עז oz[4] both of strong comfort and the strength to change.   And together we say: Amen.

[1] Rosh Hashanah 4:9

[2] Judges 5:28  The Yevavot here may mean ‘waiting,’ but the Babylonian rabbis read it in Aramaic as wailing.

[3] bRH 33b

[4] עז- the year is 5777, or in Hebrew: תשע״ז

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